The Aboriginal Memorial

Introduction | History | Artists & Clans | Arnhem land


The Memorial Poles

Liyagawumirr. Manyarrngu people and Balmbi people

artists | clan stories


The Liyagawumirr and the Manyarrngu people inhabit marshy coastal country. At the entrance of the Memorial, their striking banded poles correspond to this group's location at the junction of the Hutchinson Strait and the Glyde River estuary. Liya means head, and gawumirr muddy water. The group live at the head of the river where the tidal flats become muddy.

Artists Tony Dhanyula and Mick Daypurryun pay homage to the cycles of nature. The bands on the poles represent tidal marks on tree trunks, recording the rise and fall of successive tides. The ancestral Djan'kawu Sisters, who created the original people as they travelled through the country, are represented by the 'Union Jack' motif on some of the hollow logs.

Manyarrngu means people of the manyarr (mangrove) trees. Dr. David Daymirringu records his country of mudflats, salt pans, water goannas and shell fish. Daymirringu also paints the Balmbi Dreamings of his mother's group, centred around Yathalamarra waterhole and Murayana the Honey Spirit who performed the first Yirritja hollow log ceremony. Yolngu clan waterholes thrive with many forms of life, such as eel-tailed catfish, diver ducks, long-necked tortoises, water pythons, waterlily leaves and bulbs. Places such as Yathalamarra are believed to be where the souls of the unborn dwell and the place to which part of the souls of the deceased return after death. Gunmirringu, the great ancestral hunter, Darrpa, the King Brown Snake, Wak (crows) and other figures relate to the theme of death and mortuary rites.

The path through the Memorial imitates the course of the Glyde River estuary which flows through the Arafura Swamp to the sea. The hollow log coffins are situated broadly according to where the artists' clans live along the river and its tributaries. This map indicates Liyagawumirr, Manyarrngu people and Balmbi people land and position in the memorial poles.




Clan stories




North of Ramingining are two kidney-shaped waterholes, joined at one end. These belong to the Balmbi people. Long ago, two spirit women came to this place and hunted in the area with their husband, the Yirritja Sugarbag man. At Yathalamarra they went into the water carrying special digging sticks for extracting yams from the ground and waterlily bulbs. The women collected the waterlilies in special dilly bags, called miwana, made from sedge grass.

The women then metamorphosed into rocks in the shape of their breasts. The Evening Star is said to be a waterlily flower, standing on its stem in the evening sky. The name Yathalamarra means the place of the Evening Star / waterlily.

The hollow log bone coffin Djalumbu is said to have burrowed into the ground at Yathalamarra, making the waterholes. The Diver Duck (cormorant) spirit and Eel-tail Catfish are associated with this event, and the women's husband, Murayana, conducted this ceremony for the first time.

All of these stories are painted by Dr. David Daymirringu and other artists connected to Yathalamarra through their family line. One of Malangi's wives, weaver Margaret Gindjimirri, is one of the land-owning Balmbi women: her name literally means 'waterlily bulb'.

Sedge grass dilly bags are still made by Aboriginal women today; they are called ngatha-puy (used for vegetables) or guya-puy (for fish). The grass is used without processing or dying.







The great hunter Gunmirringu moved across the land, shaping it, teaching people songs and dances, and collecting the fruit of the white berry bush as he went. The fruit fell out of his bag as he travelled and thus these bushes now grow across the country. At Ngurrunguwa at the mouth of the Glyde River, a site in artist Dr. David Daymirringu's country, Gunmirringu cooked kangaroo under a white berry bush. A King Brown snake bit the hunter and he died.

Gunmirringu's death is recalled in Manyarrngu funeral songs which describe the killing of a kangaroo to symbolise the death of a person, while the butchering of the carcass symbolises the preparation of the human bones in readiness for the second burial or hollow log ceremony. According to the Manyarrngu people, a pelican guides the soul to the land of the dead. The crow dance mimics crows scavenging the carcass.







The Djan'kawu are among the major creator ancestors of the Dhuwa clans of the coastal saltwater regions of Eastern and Central Arnhem Land. They are commonly described as two Sisters and their Brother who came over the sea from the east, from the place of the sun, carrying with them sacred dilly bags and sacred emblems wrapped in conical mats. The Morning Star guided the Djan'kawu. As they approached the land, the sun rose and lit all the places they would visit.

Landing at Yalangbara (Port Bradshaw) on the north east coast of Arnhem Land, the Djan'kawu drove their digging sticks into the ground and created waterholes. As they camped at Yalangbara they created many features of the landscape — freshwater wells, rock formations, trees and many kinds of plant foods. They made a special ceremonial ground and established their sacred law. Here the Sisters gave birth to their first children, the Rirratjingu.

When they had completed their work in Yalangbara, the Djan'kawu moved across Eastern Arnhem Land, creating natural features, giving birth to the different Dhuwa clan groups of today, and establishing the sacred law as they went. From Galiwin'ku (Elcho Island) they stopped near Howard Island and created a number of waterholes at Gariyak, the land of the Liyagawumirr people. At the mouth of the Glyde River the Sisters gave birth to the Manyarrngu people before following the sun into the west.

The Djan'kawu's epic journey, which ended in the Maningrida area, is continually remembered in the songs, dances and designs of Dhuwa sacred ceremonies still practiced across Arnhem Land.

The most common Djan'kawu design is a circle with radiating lines, a symbol of the sun and its rays. It also represents the waterholes made by the Djan'kawu and the paths of their journeys across the land.



Kuninjku — Mardayin Story

Mardayin means sacred law and refers to all things within the realm of the sacred, including objects and emblems, events, totemic species and places. It is also the name of a ceremony in which men dance at a secret place and the older men reveal their clan's sacred objects to the younger men. In the public part of the ceremony men and women dance together and girls learn the women's dances. This ceremony can also be performed to farewell an old person who is close to death, or to commemorate an important person who has died.

Mardayin is rarely performed in Western Arnhem Land now in favour of ceremonies which emphasise wider regional groups. The two hollow logs made by John Mawurndjul for The Aboriginal Memorial, however, relate to the Mardayin.

Kuninjku artists draw upon traditions of body painting in their work, filling the whole surface with abstract, mainly geometric, fields of cross-hatching (rarrk) or portraying a single animal or ancestral figure in the centre of a plain ground, and filling its body with rarrk.

Some elements of Mawurndjul's designs in the hollow logs shown here map the country, showing water, waterholes and sites. More specific meanings, however, are restricted to initiated clan members who learn the significance of the design and its specific relationship to an ancestral site or event through ceremonies.

One hollow log depicts two birds kaldurrk, the blue-winged kookaburra (Dacelo leachii), and ngukbak, the spangled drongo (Dicrurus bracteatus). Both birds, especially the kookaburra, are associated with the Mardayin ceremony.



Djalumbu — Hollow Log


In a ceremony close to the beginning of time, a spirit man called Murayana made the first Yirritja hollow log, known as Djalumbu. He also made the Diver Duck (cormorant) totemic sculpture known as Burala, and a Marradjiri Pole. When the ceremony finished, the people painted their bodies with a catfish design, then threw the log in to the sacred waterhole where it sank into the deepest part.

During the late wet season (March/April) in Arnhem Land, many fish travel inland with the huge incoming tides. When the tides meet the wet season run off from the high inland, the coastal plains are flooded. It is possible to wade across the flooded plains and spear fish.

Many fish, such as the ginginy (eel-tail catfish), spawn during this time. Conditions are good for the young fish, with abundant insect life and much debris in the run off water. The ginginy are translucent when young and their herringbone pattern is clearly visible. These fish, which are thought of as the souls of deceased and unborn people, inhabit fallen logs in watercourses and are caught and carried away by cormorants diving for food. It is thought that just as the birds carry away the fish, death removes the souls of dying persons.

Also during the wet season, long-necked tortoises hibernating in the ground pop up from the mud. They move from watercourse to watercourse, symbolising the journey from birth to death.