Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art
Early Bark Paintings and Sculpture - pre 1980 gallery See nearby items (accurate to +/- 12 hrs)


Rirratjingu people

Yirrkala, North East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory born 1939

Yam totem [Bark painting: Yam totem] 1962 Place made: Yirrkala, North East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, bark paintings, natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark

Dimensions: 160.5 h x 61.5 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1984
Accession No: NGA 84.749.1
Image rights: © the artist courtesy Buku-Larrnggay Mulka
  • Bayngul Marika was the daughter of Mawalan Marika, the renowned Rirratjingu clan leader. She grew up on the Methodist mission at Yirrkala and, along with all of her siblings, she was encouraged to attend the mission school and learn to speak and write English.

    According to traditional Yolngu cultural practice, only men could paint the clan designs on young initiates, ceremonial woven bags and on bark. However Mawalan was the first Yolngu leader to teach his daughters to paint important clan designs and ancestral Dreaming stories on sheets of bark. Bayngul was the first Yolngu woman to produce bark paintings in Arnhem Land, and Mawalan also taught his younger daughters, Dhuwarrwarr (born c 1946) and Banduk (born 1954).

    In Yam totem 1962 Bayngul has depicted a second burial ceremony. The upper half shows the ceremony in progress, with ritual dancers and musicians around a decorated hollow log or larrakitj that contains the bones of the deceased. The secondary funeral or burial of the bones is a tradition unique to Arnhem Land. It signifies the end of the mourning period, when the soul of the departed safely reaches the land of the dead. It marks a new beginning as all the prohibitions that were in place since the death are lifted.

    The lower section shows people collecting yams, symbolised by the large tuber and its vine, seen upside down in this orientation. The yam plant is analogous to the Morning Star, itself a symbol of a new beginning.

    Franchesca Cubillo

    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