Elcho Island Arts: Morning Star Rising - Art Collector

Issue 53, July - September 2010

Maurice O’Riordan surveys the history of Elcho Island Arts, located off the coast of north east Arnhem Land, and finds an art centre known for producing masterful banumbirr or morning star poles and weavings.

A short-lived Methodist mission was established on Elcho Island as early as 1922, relocating to Millingimbi from where missionaries Harold Shepherdson and his wife, Ella, eventually left in 1942 for Elcho Island’s second, more enduring mission project at Galiwin’ku. Home to two main land-owning groups – the Yolngu Dhuwa clans Liyagawumirr and Gunbirrtji – and many more clans, Elcho Island became the site of a seminal movement in the late 1950s, when key leaders installed a collection of sacred and ritual objects in public, alongside the Methodist church, as a show of cultural resilience and religious equality. Known as The Elcho Island Memorial, the legacy of this controversial stand may be seen in the proliferation of Yolngu ceremonial art in today’s contemporary art market, such as the 101 larrakitj (hollow log coffins) from the Kerry Stokes Collection displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Art as part of the 17th Biennale of Sydney.
These larrakitj were made by Yolngu artists from mainland Yirrkala and surrounding outstations, represented by Buku-Larrnggay Mulka art centre which has always garnered more attention than the art centre at Galiwin’ku. Yet the art from these two art centres has, not surprisingly, many similarities and speaks of the classical refinement and complex, dynamic force of north east Arnhem Land culture.

Elcho Island’s artists are more renowned for their banumbirr (morning star) poles which, like larrakitj, have memorial and mourning ceremony applications, and which generally celebrate the planet Venus, the morning star. Anyone who saw last year’s Floating Life, Contemporary Aboriginal Fibre Art exhibition at Queensland Art Gallery could not have missed the sheer and transcendental beauty of its centrepiece installation of banumbirr poles by leading Elcho Island artists such as Gali Yalkarriwuy Gurruwiwi, Richard Gandhuwuy Garrawurra, Richard Galnardiwuy and David Lakarriny Gurruwiwi. 2008 Kate Challis RAKA Award winner Gali Gurruwiwi’s poles will feature in a solo exhibition at Chiaroscuro Gallery, Sante Fe this month, and recent examples have been reserved by the National Gallery of Australia, along with a number of other mainly sculptural works from Elcho Island (including younger artist Jeremiah Bonson’s highly sought figures) when they were shown as part of a group exhibition, Dharri Wundangarryi: Standing Proud & Strong, at Canberra’s Chapman Gallery earlier this year.

The banded ochre patterning on the slender banumbirr poles finds echoes in the celebrated paintings of the late Elcho Island/Millingimbi artist Micky Dorrng which are based on body painting designs, and which he variously translated (under the curatorship of Djon Mundine) as mural-scale installations in a number of contemporary art spaces, somewhat like an Aboriginal answer to Jasper Johns.

The richly feather-tasselled and woven string forms adorning the banumbirr poles also find echoes in an abundance of wide-ranging fibre art forms from Elcho Island, from headbands, armbands and ceremonial belts to yam sticks and string bags. Elsie Milindirri’s innovative coiled weavings from the late 1990s earned the moniker “Madonna basket” on Elcho Island because of their resemblance to the pointed brassieres the famous singer wore around this time.

Today, Elcho Island Arts supports around 30 fibre artists under the leadership of master weaver Mavis Warrngilna Ganambarr.
Unlike other Arnhem Land centres, bark painting on Elcho Island is yet to live up to its former generation of practitioners such as Micky Daypurryun, Charlie Matjuwi Burarrwanga, John Mandjuwi and George Liwukan Bukulatjpi. Some bark paintings by senior artist Wilson Manytdjarr will feature in a group show this month at London’s Rebecca Hossack Gallery.

Numerous group and solo shows overseas and Australia-wide are testament to Elcho Island Arts manager Dion Teasdale’s remarkable revitalisation of the centre since he arrived there 18 months ago, after it had languished for various reasons since 2003. Part of his and the community’s many recent initiatives include the Dhulang Project which will pair senior and apprentice painters from each clan group to reclaim the bark painting tradition. Initial results from the project are expected towards the end of this year with the National Gallery of Victoria already signalling firm interest.

Work by artists from Elcho Island Arts will be exhibited at Chiaroscuro Gallery in Sante Fe from 9 July to 31 August 2010 and Rebecca Hossack Gallery in London in July 2010.

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