Australia 1946 – 2010
Wurdeja, Central Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, bark paintings, natural earth pigments with PVC fixative on stringybark
Wangarra are the ancestral beings who created the Yolngu world, which has the sacred clan waterhole at its spiritual centre. The term ‘wangarr’ also refers to the supernatural forces that the ancestors left in the earth which Yolngu draw upon for spiritual sustenance. The Wangarra placed the souls of the unborn in clan waterholes to where, after death, the sacred part of their soul will return. The waterholes are also the place where the clan’s sacred ritual objects or rangga are stored. Thus, the clan waterhole is the focus of a person’s identity as an individual, as a member of a group or clan, and of their spiritual place in the universe.
The centrality of the clan waterhole in people’s lives is reflected in the elegant composition of Bulang’s painting. The waterhole is depicted as a circle, symbolic of eternity and the cycles of life, at the centre of two sections. The red circle is surrounded by figures performing a lorrkon or bone burial ceremony that marks the safe arrival of the soul of a deceased person at the clan waterhole. The black circle above stands alone, inviting the viewer to contemplate its all-encompassing symbolism as it floats in a sea of rarrk or clan designs. Rarrk is the fine crosshatched pattern that is painted onto sacred objects and onto the chests of ritual participants. The vast fields of rarrk in this large work create an optical shift that mirrors the ancestral forces present in the earth—the land shimmering with the spiritual power of the Wangarra.
 In accordance with tradition the names of the recently deceased are not uttered, and the artist is currently referred to by this alternative name. For the sake of clarity the artist is Johnny Bulunbulun.
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