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Gurruwiwi, Gali - 2009.1

Malu Gurruwiwi

Banumbirr – Morning Star Poles 2007–08
natural earth pigment on wood with bush string and feathers
dimensions variable 
Purchased 2009

The Yolngu people in northern Australia name the morning star Banumbirr. The star is an intense source of light that sets in the west, just before dawn. Banumbirr features across many bodies of work by Yolngu artists from the Dhuwa moiety. Malu Gurruwiwi is responsible for expressing the connections embedded in the Galpu clan’s sculptural iteration  the Banumbirr pole. He learnt about the content carried by the Banumbirr pole through the scholarly succession plan of his father  Gakupa. The education led to Malu becoming the custodian of Ngaypinya homeland designs in north-east Arnhem Land.

The Galpu Banumbirr pole is entwined with natural materials. This generates a range of techniques that combine aesthetic beauty and intricate messages to communicate with the land. Merging physical properties and conceptual content, Malu attaches a crown of cockatoo feathers in a vertical position at the wooden pole’s head to depict Banumbirr. He emphasises contrasting qualities of native bird plumage to render a morning star’s qualities at dawn. Arrangements transition between dark and light: eye-catching lorikeet plume feathers with their bright colours are placed between dark tail feathers and long, white cockatoo flight feathers, with their burst of yellow. Covering the smooth and slender Hibiscus tiliaceus, or malwan tree, are ground-up earth pigments. Painted rings of ochre colours climb the length of the curved pole. The gradient of changing morning light features bands of black, rising tones of orange and chalky rings of sunlight. Bold stripes are offset by panels of the Galpu clan’s miny’ti design. Delicate cross-hatching patterns distinctive to Yolngu art are made by a marwat brush comprising only a few strands of human hair. Alongside the matrix of intersecting lines, which encode the clan signature on all works, one can find figurative illustrations of the yam totem. A hand-spun bush string called raki hangs from the pole to represent the vines of the yam. Coloured feathered tassels bonded to the strings with beeswax point towards the ground. These cascading feather arrangements of local birds, with shifting contours and hues, articulate the country of neighbouring clan groups and the changing seasons governing the land’s cyclical metamorphism.

The journey captured by exhibited wooden sculptures of feathers and ochre is not the only way Malu conveys the arc of Banumbirr. During a ceremony, Galpu designs merge with songlines as clan members perform the morning star. Objects exhibited as works in their own right merge with the dancers’ painted skin and feathered armbands. In full flight, the morning star poles become dancing sticks. Designed to move and constructed according to the ceremonial score, the pole is now a sculpture, a prop and a messenger. In Malu’s hands, the pole transforms from one level of display to another, as he moves between gallery spaces and ceremonial grounds. As a Yolngu Mala leader and senior artist, Malu explains, ‘I need to show the world how to get together, to sit on one foundation’.

Robert Lazarus Lane teaches at the University of Melbourne's Grimwade Centre for Cultural Material Conservation and is a researcher in the school of Anthropology and Archaeology with Australian National University, Canberra.

© Malu Gurruwiwi, courtesy of Elcho Island Arts and Crafts and Vivien Anderson Gallery, Melbourne

From the series
Gurruwiwi, Gali - 2011.25
Malu Gurruwiwi

Banumbirr – Morning Star Pole 2010
earth pigment on wood with bush string and feathers
210 cm (height)
Purchased 2011