MELBOURNE- 19 October 2016


The decade of the 1960s was a golden period in the history of art from central Arnhem Land. The Methodist Christian mission on the island of Milingimbi off the northern coast that had been established in 1923, served Yolngu speaking communities on the adjacent mainland along the Blyth and Glyde Rivers. Unlike several missions elsewhere in Australia, the Milingimbi mission tolerated traditional practices and ceremony and channelled bark paintings and sculptures of extraordinary quality to markets in southern Australia. It became a regular port of call for noted collectors such as Karel Kupka, J.A. Davidson and Dorothy Bennett. Indeed, the mission became a hub of great creativity where artists would often work together in a shared space, and senior artists would instruct younger ones in the ways of bark painting and sculpture.

The figure sculptures produced during the 1960s constitute a body of work that, while not unique in the art of Arnhem Land, is distinctive in style and aesthetic appeal. Chief among the sculptors were Burranday (c.1914–1970s), Dawidi (c.1921–1970), David Malangi (1927–1999) and Bininyuwuy, all belonging to the Dhuwa moiety, and Lipundja of the Yirritja. Although Bininyuwuy was the youngest, his deep ritual knowledge and high degree of skill made him one of the most influential artists in the group.

The figure sculptures are usually less than a metre high with clan designs painted on the torsos and backs, the heads are decorated, the arms pendent by their sides and in many cases, the knees protrude. These figures are generically referred to by the term ‘mokuy’ and are associated with burial ceremonies. A mokuy is the trickster or sinister part of the spirit of the deceased that inhabits a space close by the burial ground and may haunt the living. The benevolent aspect of the deceased’s soul, Birrimibirr, makes the metaphorical journey to the ancestral realm.

The Dhuwa moiety clan patterns found on the figures featured here are loosely naturalistic and feature designs referring to the yams and butterflies that are associated with ceremonies relating to Banumbirr, the Morning Star. The Yirritja designs consist of diamond or chevron patterns: the former relate to wild honey, as in Lipundja’s figures of Murayana the Honey Ancestor (lots 74 and 75), while the latter, as in Bininyuwuy’s figure (lot 70), usually refer to the southeast wind that signals the end of the monsoon season. Although this is a Yirritja design, Bininyuwuy’s high ritual status permitted him access to a wide range of subjects belonging to both moieties.

For a study of Yolngu figure sculpture from the 1960s see Hoff, J., ‘Aboriginal carved and painted human figures in north-east Arnhem Land,’ in Ucko, P.J. (ed.), Form in Indigenous art: Schematisation in the art of Aboriginal Australia and prehistoric Europe, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1977, pp. 156–164.