Yirawala is widely acknowledged as the master of Western Arnhem Land bark painting. He grew up surrounded by the rich culture of his traditional Kuninjku lands in the Liverpool River region of Western Arnhem Land, learning the sacred designs, songs and stories from his father Nowaritj, a senior Kuninjku leader. By the 1950s Yirawala was also acknowledged as a senior cultural leader.
Yirawala painted publicly in the last two decades of his life. He painted the major ceremonial themes of Mardayin, Lorrkon and Wubarr, and elements of the traditional body designs related to these themes are evident in his work. His style is similar to the rock art found throughout his country.
Kundaagi—Red Plains kangaroo features a spirit beside the kangaroo. In Kuninjku cosmology, the first Lorrkon or hollow-log burial ceremony was performed for Kundaagi. The figures are painted in profile with the intricate geometric sacred clan designs of the Kuninjku to indicate the religious nature of the subject. The pure white background hints at the spiritual world, where Kundaagi and the mimih travelled after death. White is the colour of mourning.
Recognising Yirawala’s significance as a major Australian artist, in 1976 the National Gallery of Australia acquired 139 of his bark paintings that had been collected by Sandra Le Brun Holmes. The collection has been augmented in recent years and to date, it is the largest collection by an individual Aboriginal artist held in a public institution.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014