Larrakitj were once created by the Yolŋu people to house the bones of their dead. In the final stages of the mortuary ritual, when the flesh has decayed and the skin has disappeared, the bones are collected and placed inside a hollow log. The log itself is stripped of its skin, and painted with the sacred clan designs of the deceased. At this point, the spirit of the dead person is said to have returned to its home, becoming part of the ancestral Waŋarr (Dreaming). The bones are said to have ceased belonging to the deceased, and are now called “the bones of the clan.” The memorial pole is said to be an embodiment of the loved person, to be hugged and talked to. Over decades, the deceased’s last physical presence returns to the land.
For these traditional burial poles, Yolŋu would search for a perfectly symmetrical eucalyptus tree that had been naturally hollowed out by termites. Many hours would be spent searching for an appropriate tree, tapping on the trunks to find one that had been suitably hollowed. Once stripped of bark, the arboreal surface would be decorated with detailed paintings intended to guide the deceased to his or her spiritual home. These designs would be painted using natural pigments, ground from locally sourced ochres, pipe clay, and charcoals. Traditionally, these would have been mixed with a natural binder such as tree resin, orchid gum, egg yolk, blood, or saliva. Today, artists generally use the commercial binder polyvinyl acetate (wood glue). Larrakitj still play an important role in Yolŋu mortuary rites and memorial practices, but they no longer function as ossuaries. In the 1980s artists began making Larrakitj for the art market, departing from the strict conventions of ceremonial design. They became less concerned with symmetry, and in the 2000s began exploring the surface features of the trunk, utilizing its imperfections as integral parts of its expressive form.
From the 2019 exhibition A World of Relations, guest curated by Henry Skerritt, Mellon Curator of Indigenous Arts of Australia at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia
ANTH 15, Political Anthropology, Elena Turevon, Fall 2019
A World of Relations, Evelyn A. Jaffe Hall Gallery, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, January 26-December 8, 2019.
Alcaston Gallery, Fitzroy, Victoria, Australia; sold to Will Owen (1952-2015) and Harvey Wagner (1931-2017), Chapel Hill, North Carolina, March 23, 2012; given to present collection, 2016.
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