Top End Art

Image details at the end of text Image details at the end of text

As in any Aboriginal Art the main themes in Top End Art are stories from the creation time (which is called Wanarrn in Eastern Arnhem Land). The main pattern from here have their origins in sacred clan designs (miny´tji). They derive from patterns and designs of the land and the sea as well as of plants and animals that inhabit these estates. They were passed down from the ancestors, and the Yolŋu (Indigenous people of Arnhem Land) do hold the songs and designs for them. Until today they are painted on body during ceremonies and only by adding figurative elements or designs from everyday life they do loose their sacred character, the resolutive condition that the artworks may be sold.

The range of media is vast up here. Artists paint with natural ochres, using a fine hairbrush, on bark, on larrakitj (hollow trunks) and on carved figures (mainly representations of spirits called Mokuy). The predominant stilistic element are crosshatches which derive from sacred clan designs and that are called rarrk in Western Arnhem Land and marvat in the eastern part.

Art from Yirrkala belongs to the first Indigenous art forms of Australia, that have already been perceived as equal to Western art forms in early museums´ exhibitions in the 1950´s. Art from Yirrkala also belongs to the first Indigenous art forms that were actively used for political reasons, especially in the fight for land- and searights.


Burial ceremonies do play an important role in Aboriginal Australia. Sickness and death are not necessarily seen as a natural process but as a consequence of the encounter with evil spirits or black magic. To allow the soul to settle the name of decedents is not allowed to be spoken. In the creation time, the ancestors did bury bones for the first time.

The relatives of the Dhuwa moiety do first place the body of a decendent into a tree´s crotch (first burial ceremony). Up to a year later, the relations come back singing and dancing to collect the bones that get painted with red ochre. They then wrap them in paperbark for a second burial ceremony. The relatives are painted with white ochre and mourn by wailing and flailing. In this second burial ceremony, the relatives put the bones of the descendent into a Larrakitj (hollow log), that is painted with traditional clan designs and then left on its own for wheathering. The spiritual souls (Mokuy) are called by the Mokuy of former descendents to the sacred ground of Balambala, before they live together with the ancestors on Buralku, the island of the dead.

The Larrakitj presented here are all new and were not produced for sacred ceremonies, but as artworks for sale. Even though the production of these sculptures does keep culture and the energy of the ancestors strong, it´s the craftmenship and the individual style of the artists, that make these works so special.


Aboriginal peoples believe that the soul has two parts: When a person dies, the ancestors do help the „real“ soul back to its original clan estate, where it travels around waiting for incarnation.
The „spiritual“ soul (Mokuy) will finally live together with the ancestestors on Buralku, the island of the dead.
But before they reach their final destination the Mokuy are called by the sound of the yidaki to the sacred ground called Balambala, where preparatory ceremonies take place.
The Yirritja Mokuy come in on birds, djilawurr (scub fowl) and bugutj-bugutj (banded fruit dove). The Dhuwa mokuy come in from rangi side (saltwater).
The tradition of carving wooden figures goes back tot he early contact with Macassans. There are sacred objects of the same appearance within the closed world of Yolŋu (Ŋärra), but one assumes that they were of a different size than the ones that the artist Nawurapu Wunuŋmurra produces for sale.

Photos (from left to right): Napuwarri Marawili: Yathikpa, 2009 (Detail) © Buku-Larrŋgay MulkaNapuwarri Marawili: Yathikpa, 2009; Nawurapu Wunuŋmurra: Mokuy, 2016; Wukun Wanambi: Wawurrtjpal, 2016 (f.l.t.r.) © ARTKELCH | Buku-Larrŋgay MulkaWukun Wanambi: Wawurritjpal, 2016 (Detail) © Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka