The Aboriginal Memorial commemorates Aboriginal Australians who have lost their lives defending their land since the beginning of European settlement. The 200 hollow-log funeral poles or dupun—one for each year from European settlement in 1788 to 1988—represent a forest of souls, a war memorial and the final rites for all Aboriginal people who have been denied a proper burial. It is also a celebration of the survival of Aboriginal culture after two centuries of colonisation.
The memorial was inspired by the hollow-log or second mortuary ceremony of Central Arnhem Land, which marks the safe arrival of the spirit of the deceased in the land of the dead. A tree trunk, hollowed out by termites, is cleaned and painted with the clan’s totemic designs. At the end of the mourning period, the bones of the deceased are collected, painted with red ochre and placed inside the log, which is then left to the elements standing upright in the ground. At no time did the dupun in the memorial contain bones, nor were they used in a mortuary ceremony; they were made as works of art for public display, to be preserved for future generations.
Forty-three male and female artists from nine different, but neighbouring, groups worked on the memorial and, while clan designs depicted on the logs follow strict conventions ruling the artists’ custodianship of subject matter, each individual hand is apparent. The dupun in the installation are placed in relation to the artists’ traditional lands on the Glyde River in Central Arnhem Land—which is replicated winding through the installation. The memorial is unified by common themes within Aboriginal culture: celebration of life, respect for the dead, mortuary traditions and people’s connection with ancestral beings—themes of transition and regeneration.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014