Birrkuda ringgitj (wild honey design)

Gawirrin Gumana2002

Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT)

Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT)

The design illustrates the clan estates connected to the honey ancestor at Gawarratja. There is now only one surviving member of this group, the Manatja clan, saltwater Dhalwangu clan group, because most were decimated, allegedly by a massacre in the early 1900s. (Andrew McMillan in An intruder’s guide to east Arnhem Land, Duffy & Snellgrove, 2001, alleges that the residents of Gangan were massacred in 1910 by police from Ngukurr. It is also discussed in the notes for Yothu Yindi's Birrkuda CD). Because there are few custodians left, this design is not often reproduced. In this instance Gawirrin, one of the most senior lawmen in north-east Arnhem Land, has depicted his sacred lore, assisted by Yinimala Gutjipin. The main lozenge design represents the Yirritja moiety honey ancestor site of Gawarratja, which belonged to the Manatja clan. Gawirrin has painted this design because he is djungaya(manager) of this place. However, when describing his work, Gawirrin did not mention the massacre or past history of this design, stressing instead the reconciliatory nature of his artwork, which he said is for both Yolngu and white people – bringing them together. This is part of his philosophy as both a senior Dhalwangu leader and ordained minister of the Uniting Church. The top part of the pole depicts the clan country of the Manatja at a site called Dhulanmirriwuy. Here, the lozenge design symbolises the sweet honeycomb of Yirritja native bees. The dots are the bees inside the hive, which were first discovered by the creator beings using a sacred staff called ganiny. The bottom panel depicts Gulutji – the waterhole from which the creator being Barama emerged at Gangan. He established lore among the fist Dhalwangu people there (called Banaitja) and brought with him hardwood rangga (sacred objects). On his body were watermarks from the waterhole. These became the sacred design, miny'tji, of the Dhalwangu. Waterweeds hung from his arms, manifested as sacred feather-tasselled armbands. As the originator of Dhalwangu lore, Barama is considered to be the most powerful of the Yirritja creator beings. According to Gawirrin, 'Barama was a giant who could make the ground shake when he danced by himself'. With Galparimun and Lany'tjung and other old mythical men, Barama organised for Galparimun to travel south to Rose River and Numbulwar, and for Lany'tjung to travel north towards Yirrkala then west to Milingimbi, to distribute Barama's sacred objects and paintings to all the Yirritja groups. Before they departed they performed a sacred Ngarra ceremony on the Yalandu ground at Gangan. This ceremony focuses on clan identity, in this case that of the Dhalwangu. The Yalandu was marked out. One of the objects associated with Yalandu is the ganiny/djirrpara/wapitja or sacred digging stick used by ancestral beings for prising open trees and getting the native honey. The staff is also a sacred item, so holding the staff represents the carrying and defending of sacred knowledge. In the bottom panel Lany'tjung is presented with a digging stick to take the lore to other Yirritja groups. The sacred didjeridu, dhadalal, which 'speaks' the lore when played during ritual, may also represent the hollow tree of the honey found at this place. When played it releases the life force of bees and honey. These two objects – the digging stick and the didjeridu – are used during the performance of the Birrkuda, the sugarbag dance. They are both decorated with feathered string that contains many symbolic references and is extremely powerful.—Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre (text adapted) © Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory


  • Title: Birrkuda ringgitj (wild honey design)
  • Creator: Gawirrin Gumana
  • Creator Lifespan: 1935
  • Creator Nationality: Australian
  • Date: 2002
  • Type: Three-Dimensional Work
  • Rights: Purchased 2002, Telstra Collection, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory © licensed by Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre
  • Medium: natural pigments on wood
  • Geographical Region of Artist: Gangan (near Yirrkala), North-east Arnhem Land
  • Exhibition: 19th Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award 2002
  • Ethnic Language Group: Dhay'yi
  • Dimensions: 324.5 x 24 cm
  • Collection: Contemporary Australian Indigenous Art
  • Award: Winner Telstra First Prize
  • Artist Ethnicity: Aboriginal

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