Napuwarri: Harvest

In this blog I join Napuwarri Marawili on a journey to select a hollow log so that the artist can create a new larrakitj or memorial pole. The hollow log we select, bark removed, will be sanded and prepared and then painted using the traditional and sacred designs of Napuwarri’s clan.

"Soon we are back at the tree that Napuwarri had selected so carefully the previous day"

In the late afternoon we drive along the bush tracks surrounding Baniyala, the sunlight filtering through the forest, casting its flickering and light filled patterns on the land. This is a painstaking task, selecting just the right dead tree.

The size and shape must be exactly what Napuwarri is looking for. The trunk must also be hollow.  It takes an hour or so of searching until we come across just the right tree on the track to the crabbers camp. The hollow tree stands in a place were a bush fire had burnt a few days earlier. In a few weeks time, and when the wet season rains come, there will be a profusion of growth as the land springs to life. 

As it is beginning to get dark, night descends very quickly in the tropics, we decide to return the following morning to harvest the log.

The following morning and the day is already hot, the wet season is approaching and each day is noticeably more humid. The early morning mists of the Arnhem Land winter and early spring, now evaporated by a hotter sun. So we head out of Baniyala and back into the forest once more.

Soon we are back at the tree that Napuwarri had selected so carefully on the previous day. The task is to chop down the long dead tree and to try to do this as carefully as possible so that the straight trunk is not damaged by our work. The white ants have long done their work in hollowing out the log. The only visible signs of life are two small spiders whose home we are just about to disturb.

Having been bitten by Australian spiders on many occasions (and sometimes they hurt) I take a cautious approach. I also check for snakes as this is definitely not the place to get bitten as we are several hours, and on dirt tracks, from the closest hospital.

The bush is beautiful, an array of Australian tropical species, eucalypts, cycads and ferns, grevilleas and the most delicate and tiny of flowering plants.

The hollow larrakitj were used as a ceremonial vessel to contain the bones of the dead during mortuary ceremonies reflecting Yolngu kinship systems, ancestral traditions and rights to land. The larrakitj remains significant and entwined in cultural practice and is now highly regarded as a contemporary art object. A most culturally significant collection was commissioned at the time of Australia’s Bicentenary (1988) from 43 artists from the Ramingining region not too far to the northwest of where Napuwarri and I were collecting his log. The 200 larrakitj or dupun were commissioned in 1987 and first shown at the 1988 Biennale of Sydney (commissioned by National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, where the collection is now housed).

ANKAAA describes these works:

“This stands as a monument to the Aboriginal people who died, and were denied a proper burial, in the first 200 years of Australia’s occupation. Created at the time of Australia’s Bicentenary, the Memorial represents the deep political chasm between white and black Australia at that time, and stands as a testament to the enduring resilience of Indigenous Australians”.

Larrakitj continue to play an important intercultural role today with new poles being created to build on the powerful messages of the Bicentenary commission.

Back to the forest once more.

Our selected tree is felled with an axe and once it is safely on the ground Napuwarri selects the lower half of the tree and separates this. We then carefully load our hollow log into the back of the troupie (4WD) and head for Napuwarri’s house at Baniyala on the shores of Blue Mud Bay.

Napuwarri is a meticulous artist and the preparation of the log and painting of the larrakitj will take him several weeks. As he does his work he will be able to look out at the ever changing sea and sky of Blue Mud Bay.

SUBJECT: Napuwarri / Larrakitj / Baniyala / Blue Mud Bay / Yolngu / Arnhem Land / Aboriginal art