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Spirited: Works from the Gallery’s Indigenous Australian Collection

Firestick figures

Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre artists, Cardwell area QLD | Bagu and Jiman (Firestick figures and firesticks) (detail) 2009 | Purchased 2010 with funds from Xstrata Community Partnership Program Queensland through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

Spirited: Works from the Gallery’s Indigenous Australian Collection

28 May – 8 August 2010 | Galleries 3.5 & 3.6 | Gallery of Modern Art

Intangible presences that are central to Aboriginal societies connect the divine realm with the mundane world. Age-old narratives tell of spirit beings guiding, tricking, plotting, inspiring and protecting Aboriginal people, and sacred songs and ceremonies provide pathways to the spirit world. Some spirits have human form and traits whereas others inhabit the natural environment, residing in plants, birds and animals. The Aboriginal universe is alive with spirits and the works displayed here explore this reality.

Artists from Elcho Island (Galiwin'ku) off the coast of the Northern Territory have made this unique group of banumbirr (morning star poles) for public display; this group is considered the most important collection in the world. The softwood poles, bound with string, painted with clan designs and decorated with feathers, are a visual feast of texture and colour, reflecting the artists’ personal artistic styles. The poles are similar to those used in annual Maradjirri ceremonies in central and eastern Arnhem Land, when the activities of the creative spirit Mukarr are recalled in special songs and dances. Mukarr travelled by bark canoe to the mainland from a sacred waterhole on Galiwin'ku and made the first morning star pole.

Paintings from a variety of artists and regions include images of water sites, rainmakers, moon and lightning men and warrior spirits; the woven and carved sculptures are three-dimensional versions of imagined spirit forms, largely inspired by cautionary stories of ancestor spirits, both benign and malevolent, originally told to the artists as children.

The most recent works shown here depict spirits connected with fire, a vital part of daily life in Girringun rainforest society in far north Queensland. Wooden bagu (firestick figures) and jiman (firesticks) were carried from site to site as people moved camp seasonally. In these contemporary expressions, Girringun Aboriginal artists have used clay fired with ochre colours, timber and string to evoke the spirit and form of early fire-making equipment and revive the associated narratives.

Foundation Appeal 2010

The Queensland Art Gallery Foundation has launched an appeal inviting support for the acquisition of a group of banumbirr (morning star poles) and an associated group of feathered objects currently on display in 'Spirited'. For more information or to make a donation, please visit Foundation Appeal 2010.