Australia 1905 /1909 – 1978
Fire story at Caledon Bay
[Bark painting: Yirritja animals and two men burning grass Yirritja animals and two men burning grass] c.1963
Yirrkala, North East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, bark paintings, natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark
Fire was brought to Biranybirany in Caledon Bay by Baru, the ancestral Crocodile. Djirrikitj (quails) moved the fire on by taking burning sticks through the grasslands. A Ngarra (clan identity) ceremony was being held in a clearing, and the fire burnt through it immolating the participants. The ancestral Kangaroo fled and the Bandicoot was saved by hiding in a hollow log. When the flames had passed, a low mist hung over the ground and the Spider wove its web in the bare branches. The background diamond pattern of Munggurrawuy’s clan represents the fire that burnt through the landscape, the leaping flames, sparks and smoke, and white ash. The fire engraved the pattern on the clap sticks used in the ceremony and the marked skin of Baru himself.
Munggurrawuy was one artist who developed the episodic style of painting in which a series of events are represented in the same painting to carry the story across the landscape. The images are rich in symbolism and the vibrancy of the design connects them to ceremonial performance. The Bandicoot hiding in the hollow log is linked to the hollow log coffin (larrakitj) where the bones of the dead are placed, the crocodile dance concentrates the minds of dancers, and the cry of ‘djirrikitj, djirrikitj’ pierces the air when fire is used in purification ceremonies. The Spider itself is a symbol of closure: the web covers the ground like mist or smoke at the end of the day and, singing and dancing, the Spider brings an end to a day’s ceremonial performance.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (eds) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010