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Objects and meaning

Objects and meaning

WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.


Those two Sisters called Djang'kawu, they came from a place called Burralku in their canoe called guluwurru. They came paddling and in their canoe, they carried with them bags, digging sticks, headbands and ceremonial armbands. They came all dressed up, heavily decorated with beautiful sacred objects.

Dhuwarrwarr Marika
A colour photograph of four Indigenous Australians. They are all kneeling on the floor. Each wears a traditional loin cloth and has white pigment on their body and face. Three of them wear bright headbands. One of them has a woven basket in his mouth. The basket has a long orange woven strap that hangs to the floor. Behind them stand other people. Some are Indigenous Australians, also wearing loin cloths and white body pigment. They are not entirely visible; their heads and shoulders are beyond the upper border of the photograph.
Biting the ceremonial basket during a Djang'kawu performance at Government House Darwin 2009. Photo: Fiona Morrison.

The iconic items the Djang'kawu brought to Yalangbara are also significant. The feathered ornaments, conical mat, basket and digging stick were no ordinary items. They transformed into features in the land or are associated with other aspects of the Djang'kawu's creativity at Yalangbara. These seemingly ordinary items are just like clan paintings in the way they symbolise clan identity, the land and its ancestral events.

The conical mat

The conical mat resembles a large wide-mouthed basket that made an ideal shelter for children or for women's seclusion during menstruation. Customarily the conical mat would be folded flat into a triangular shape and suspended in front of a woman's body for modesty. It was also worn like this during pregnancy. This connection to ordinary women's reproductive cycles reflects the mat's deeper religious significance as a metaphoric 'container of life' that is reflected by the Yolngu-matha term nganmarra, which also translates as 'womb'.

A mat made by an Indigenous Australian artist. The mat is round and is made from natural fibre. It is dyed in natural colours ie browns and ochres. Many loose strands hang from the edge of the mat.
Judy Baypungala. Conical Mat 2005. Pandanus fibre, natural dyes,
260 x 160 x 5cm. Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.

This deeper meaning is reflected in the way the Djang'kawu used their conical mats to hide their mardayin, sacred objects and the spirits of the children and other creatures that they distributed during their overland journey. In this context the metaphoric act of 'opening the mat' symbolises birth. This is enacted during Ngarra rituals when women emerge from under the mats to represent the birth of the Dhuwa moiety children. The use of the mat in ritual as well as in everyday life further emphasises its association with the fertility of both the Djang'kawu and ordinary Yolngu women.

A basket made by an Indigenous Australian. The basket is cylindrical and made from natural fibres. It has a long string handle attached to one side of its opening. Four thick string tassels hang from the basket. Each is decorated with orange and white bird feathers. The basket has a broad band of orange feather decoration around it.
Minirikki Marika. Feathered Ceremonial Bag 1974. Natural fibres, wax rainbow lorikeet and seagull feathers.
48 x 24 x 11.4cm. Berndt Museum of Anthropology, Perth.

The feathered basket

The Sisters also brought their ceremonial baskets to Yalangbara and today these are one of the men's most prized possessions, worn during rituals as well as for important public and civic occasions.

The women make the baskets but the string made from the orange breast feathers of the rainbow lorikeet is only made by the men. The baskets are regarded as containers of sacred law because they originally carried the Sisters' sacred objects.

When people dance or [the ceremonial basket] is brought out for other reasons, we only see the outside of the dilly bag, but it carries an 'inside' story, it is just the same. Our law that it carries and the stories. The sacred dilly carries them just like the Bible.

Wuyuwa Munungurr

Later on in their travels across north-east Arnhem Land the men stole the Sisters' baskets and women effectively lost control over sacred law. As the present day custodians of ceremonial law, the men often describe the basket as the embodiment of their authority and land ownership.

All the Dhuwa clans decorate their baskets with the lorikeet's distinctive orange feathers to emphasise their common ancestral and ceremonial links. Although each clan's baskets are quite distinctive. For example there are two Rirratjingu baskets that symbolise the family interests in the western and eastern sides of Yalangbara respectively. Both baskets have four tassels however those on the western side basket are divided halfway along by a small length of beeswax-coated string representing the rocks at Gumararranga. The tassels on the eastern side basket are continuous feathered cords that symbolise the sacred high sand dunes at Yalangbara. The interspersed green feathers represent the casuarina trees on the beach there.

Mawalan 2 Marika and Yalmay Yunupingu standing next to each other. He wears a red loincloth and has traditional white pigment markings on his body and face. She wears a red skirt and top. She also has traditional white pigment markings on her body and face. She holds a long spear, with one end resting on the ground. The spear has been decorated with long strings made from what may be feathers. Behind them is some lush tropical foliage.
Mawalan 2 Marika with Yalmay Yunupingu holding the sacred mawalan.
Photo: Fiona Morrison.

The digging stick

Another powerful item that the Djang'kawu brought to Yalangbara was the ceremonial digging stick mawalan (also wapitja and djota), used to create freshwater holes on their travels.

The term mawalan can refer to either a digging stick or a paddle, because the oars were used by the Djang'kawu during their sea voyage to Yalangbara to create freshwater pools at various places in the sea.

Once on land, the Sisters continued to create freshwater wells by plunging their mawalan into the previously barren earth. They did this in each of the Dhuwa clan countries they visited, leaving their mawalan as a symbol of their creativity and authority. The water that it created is likened to 'the fluid or source of Yolngu knowledge'.

To emphasise its embodiment of ritual knowledge and land ownership, the senior Rirratjingu men presented a ceremonial mawalan to the Australian government during the Gove land rights case. They believed that the digging stick piercing the ground to create Djang'kawu law and knowledge was like the parliamentary rod opening the doors of parliament. Both staffs in this context symbolise the gaining of entry to culturally different, though equivalent, systems of power.

The exhibited digging stick normally displayed in Parliament House next to the famous Yirrkala Bark Petition has been generously loaned for the Yalangbara: Art of the Djang'kawu exhibition.

A colour photograph of a sandy spit emerging from a section of coastline. The spit runs more or less across the middle of the photograph. It begins at the right and narrows to the left. There is ocean on either side of it. Some sparse vegetation grows on the base of the spit. On the horizon appears to be some more coastline. The ocean is a rich blue, while the sky overhead is a pale blue.
Wapitja, a sandy spit central west coast of Yalangbara created with the digging stick, also represented by a single casuarina tree.