Aboriginal memorial poles by Wukun Wanambi

12 March – 25 May 2015

The Asahi Shimbun Displays
Objects in focus

Supported by

This contemporary art installation by Aboriginal Australian artist Wukun Wanambi addresses a series of important ideas about ancestral power, the significance of land and the search for meaning.

Aboriginal Australian memorial poles – known as larrakitj – are hollow coffins created to hold the bones of the dead in secondary burial. Placed in groups on significant sites and painted with clan symbols, they are left to deteriorate with wind and weather. Contemporary artist Wukun Wanambi (b. 1962) belongs to the Yolngu people of northern Arnhem Land and has worked innovatively with this longstanding art form for over a decade. Art is used by the Yolngu people in ceremonial performances, but also as legal documents and as a way to map the landscape and the relationships between people.

Wukun’s work is an exploration into traditional forms with deep connections to clan, territory and ancestral stories. However, he rejects the polished Yolngu model of a perfectly cylindrical, blemish-free memorial pole, instead allowing the tree’s natural form and flaws to remain visible, with painted fish swimming around and over the surface variations.

The display in Room 3 is a large sculptural work featuring three finished poles alongside three poles revealing the tree beneath. Starting from a raw, unpainted log, this visual progression unveils the sculptural elements beneath the painted clan designs, and references complex religious and philosophical ideas at the core of Wukun’s work.

The work relates to the Museum’s Reading Room, which Wukun viewed as a memorial pole planted in the centre of the Great Court, with people surging around it like swimming fish. It is one part of the research project related to the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation which saw a group of Indigenous artists invited to London in order to make artworks in response to objects in the Museum’s collection.


Wukun Wanambi (b. 1962), Wetjwitj (detail). Earth pigment on hollow tree trunk, 2013. © the artist, courtesy Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre.

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