A strong sculptural tradition exists in North-Eastern and Central Arnhem Land stimulated by contact with balanda (outsiders). The first carved and painted wooden figures were collected from Milingimbi Mission in 1927–28 by anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner, who made the ethnographic study of the Yolngu people. Anthropologist Donald Thomson and mission superintendent Wilbur Chaseling collected sculptures from Yirrkala during the 1930s, and anthropologists Ronald M. Berndt and Charles P. Mountford made collections of carved figures during the 1940s.
Representational mortuary figures of Mokuy (Sinister or Shadow Spirits) made in North-Eastern Arnhem Land are derived from bound bark figures or from square sectioned and painted grave-post figures named Wuramu. The latter were in turn influenced by the grave posts of the Macassans, who visited the shores of Arnhem Land for some four centuries before their visits were prohibited by the Australian Government in 1907. In Yolngu languages a Mokuy is a ghost or the sinister spirit of a deceased person. Mokuy inhabit the vicinity of the burial ground and are liable to harm those who venture too near.
These painted wooden sculptures, three of the largest and most elaborate examples extant, were made at Milingimbi Mission during the early 1960s when sculptural production was at its height. Thereafter they were distributed by Alan Fidock at Milingimbi Mission to Aboriginal and Pacific Art Gallery, which Jim Davidson opened in Melbourne in 1961, and eventually sold to Gabrielle Pizzi during the 1980s. The works were displayed at the NGV during the late 1980s and exhibited in Aratjara: Art of the First Australians (Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf, Germany, 1993), a measure of their exceptional power and finesse.
The slender figure by an unknown Yolngu artist, embellished with lorikeet feather armbands and linear facial markings, is decorated on the back and front with Ganalbingu chevron designs of the Yirritja moiety. These markings signify lunggurrma (the north-east wind), which blows from October to December and brings monsoons to Arnhem Land. The painted rib and flesh design is subdivided vertically and extends from the figure’s neck to its knees; signifying that the figure serves as a receptacle for the dead man’s spirit.
Lipundja’s commanding figure articulated with diamond markings represents Murayana, a Wild Honey Spirit that bears Gupapuyngu clan designs belonging to the artist. These designs signify niwuda, wild honey of the Yirritja moiety, bequeathed to the Gupapuyngu people by Lanydjung, a major ancestral being. The diamonds denote a honeycomb filled with honey, the dots indicate bees and the whole configuration represents the structure of a beehive. When painted on an initiate’s body or a ceremonial object, this design invokes the power of the honey spirit who created the sacred songs, dances and designs for this honey type in the Wangarr (Ancestral period).
The third figure, attributed to Lipundja, bears ceremonial markings across its forehead and torso belonging to the Dhuwa moiety, designs from the artist’s mother clan. It is further distinguished by its raised ears and pointed chin, suggestive of Macassan beards or goatees, hallmarks of Lipundja’s sculptural style. The dark vertical rectangle painted on the figure’s chest possibly represents a clan waterhole and symbolises the connection between the deceased and the land from which the spirit of the dead emanates and returns at death.
Judith Ryan, Senior Curator, Indigenous Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2013).