The Aboriginal Memorial

Introduction | History | Artists & Clans | Arnhem land

The Aboriginal Memorial is an installation of 200 hollow log coffins from Central Arnhem Land. It commemorates all the indigenous people who, since 1788, have lost their lives defending their land. The artists who created this installation intended that it be located in a public place where it could be preserved for future generations.

The path through the Memorial imitates the course of the Glyde River estuary which flows throughthe 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.

The different painting styles apparent in groupings are related to the artists' social groups (sometimes described as clans) which link people by or to a common ancestor, land, language and strict social affiliations.

The people of Central and Eastern Arnhem Land refer to themselves collectively as Yolngu, meaning human beings. All clans belong to a moiety i.e. one of two complementary halves of society: Dhuwa and Yirritja. All such affiliations play a part in Aboriginal artists' inherited right to paint an established set of designs belonging to their social group; this inheritance is, in fact, the artist's copyright over imagery.

Sydney Long 'Flamingoes' c.1906 oil on canvas Purchased with the assistance of the Masterpeices for the Nation Fund 2006 Reproduced with the kind permission of the Ophthalmic Research Institute of AustraliaThe Glyde River, Central Arnhem Land

In Arnhem Land, the right to paint is usually inherited patrilineally. although many artists paint their mother's story too. The designs on the hollow logs in the Memorial are the same themes that these artists paint on bark and on people's bodies in ceremony.

Hollow logs made for a burial ceremony are large. Smaller hollow logs may be made to keep the bones of the deceased at the home of the family for a period of time. The hollow logs can also represent the deceased person — the designs on the log are the same as the designs painted on the body during the burial rites. Many of the hollow logs have a small aperture either carved or painted towards the top. Yolngu believe that this provides the soul of the deceased with a viewing hole to look through and survey the land.

Yolngu believe that to achieve a shimmering brilliance in painting through cross-hatching and line work — giving a 'singing' quality to the imagery — is to evoke ancestral power. Artists from nine groups worked on the Memorial, and, whilst clan designs follow strict conventions ruling subject matter, each individual artist's hand is apparent.

As you move through the Memorial, you will witness the imagery from changing environments, from the lands of the saltwater people further inland to the country of the freshwater people. The natural

Artist Bobby Bunnunngurr's son in ceremonial dress and with his body painted at his initiation ceremony

environment and its phenomena are vital to the Yolngu's clan identity. 'We Yolngu belong to different barpurru [clan groups] and each barpurru paints things differently; it depends if you come from the gulunbuy [mangroves] or diltjipuy [forests] or rangipuy [beach] ... It's important to know the difference and we need to teach the young people to paint in this way because they don't know. I teach them by painting a picture so they learn to see the difference,' says George Malibirr.

The work is unified by an array of common themes: the celebration of life, respect for the dead and mortuary traditions and people's connection with ancestral beings. Themes of transition and regeneration within Aboriginal culture pervade the Memorial. On a wider scale, the Memorial also marks a watershed in the history of Australian society. Whilst it is intended as a war memorial, it is also a historical statement, a testimony to the resilience of indigenous people and culture in the face of great odds, and a legacy for future generations of Australians.

The hollow log or bone coffin mortuary ceremony

Sydney Long 'Flamingoes' c.1906 oil on canvas Purchased with the assistance of the Masterpeices for the Nation Fund 2006 Reproduced with the kind permission of the Ophthalmic Research Institute of AustraliaArtist Jimmy Wululu working on a hollow log coffin

The Aboriginal Memorial installation is inspired by the hollow log or bone coffin mortuary ceremony of Central Arnhem Land. Most commonly known as the Dupun ceremony, it is also known, according to language, as Lorrkon, Djalumbu, Badurru, Mudukundja, Mululu and Larajeje. Though similar to the burial practices of Aborigines in other parts of Australia, the hollow log ceremony is unique to Arnhem Land. The purpose of the ceremony is to ensure the safe arrival of the spirit of the deceased on its perilous journey from the earth to the land of the dead.

Burial practices of indigenous Australians in other parts of Australia include the Pukumani ritual of the Tiwi people and ceremonies using burial platforms and carved trees.

Traditionally, when a person in Arnhem Land dies the body is ritually painted with relevant totemic designs, sung over and mourned. It is then taken to the deceased's clan land, and is either buried or placed on a platform in a tree and left to decompose. The bones are recovered later (this can be months or even years later) and a hollow log ceremony is performed.

A tree trunk, naturally hollowed out by termites, is cut down, cleaned and, in a ceremonial camp, is painted with the clan's totemic designs. The bones of the deceased are painted with red ochre and, during special dances, placed inside the log. The larger bones and skull are broken before being inserted. The coffin is danced into the main camp, placed upright and the final songs and dances performed. It is then left to the elements, and the burial cycle is complete.

At no time did the log coffins in the Memorial contain bones, nor were they used in a mortuary ceremony. Like other sculptures by indigenous Australians, shown in galleries, they were made as works of art for public display.

Artist Dr. David Daymirringu 's family collecting a hollow log for the Memorial project, 1987


The authors and the National Gallery of Australia gratefully acknowledge the following for assistance in producing this web site: Bula'bula Arts, Ramingining and Maningrida Arts and Culture, Dr Ian Keen and Dr Luke Taylor for information on the stories of clans. Warwick Smith for the data on species. Peter McKenzie, Djon Mundine, Belinda Scott, Susan Jenkins, Nigel Lendon, Jon Lewis and Jon Altman for permission to reproduce their photographs.