Research into Australian Aboriginal Totems.
Whilst the previous post explored totems made in honour of a person who has passed away here I am looking at personal totems, those that are personal to either an individual or a clan. I’ve read a huge amount during the last few days and realise that this subject is much more complex than I had realised. Some of the Aboriginal cultural websites have very good information and explain a lot about the beliefs of these indigenous people.
Under Aboriginal Totemism on a site entitled Australia: The Land Where Time Began (A biography of the Australian continent) it details in some depth totemism categories including individual, sex (male & female), moiety (which seems very complex), section and sub-section, clan, local (local to a specific site or small area), conception, birth, dream and multiple totemism. So individuals, and even clans, can relate to several totems, each depicting different animals, flora or patterning.
I must say that I’m surprised at how connected to all this I feel. I can’t possibly understand the enduring beliefs of these people but I can start to appreciate that they have a long-held association and reverence for certain things, and these things seem to sit deep within them and are part of their daily life – just as various religions are the part of many other people around the world.
These owl totems, made by Patrick Freddy Puruntatameri from Melville Island, show quite minimal carving and the detail is picked out in the painting. His artist statement for the large pole above reads: ‘I can already picture it before I start doing it … I see it standing up and then, I’ve got the picture … I like putting the owl on the top … another bird down the bottom and then just make the pole shape and people ask me, “Why do you like making owls?” and I say, “Well, that’s my totem!”‘ Part of his statement regarding these individual owls says: ‘[The owl is] my totem and my dance.’
Moving from the Tiwi Islands to Arnham Land, still in the Northern Territory, I came across a superb sculpted totem by Djambawa Marawili (from Yilpara). His artist statement says: This self portrait represents the artist as Baru. Baru is the name for both the saltwater crocodile and the ancestral Madarrpa man who was changed into a crocodile by fire.
Entitled Baru, 2007, and standing life-size it shows skill at sculpting, painting and story-telling. I like this piece a lot.
Having said that, the highlight of my day at the Australian museum was the next piece.
Entitled Ganytjurr ga Lipalipa, 2007, and carved by Napuwarri Marawili – clearly a relative of the previous artist – from Arnhem Land, it is a large sculpture of a white-faced Heron.
The next picture, from a different angle, reveals the canoe below with a tiny set of oars.
These last two pieces from my brilliant day at the museum have really inspired me. They are clearly recognisable but with hidden meanings and stories only the makers and their tribe will know. However, by the sheer fact that they are so detailed and can be identified by all, they have crossed the boundary from something personal to a small group of people to something that can be enjoyed by all and interpreted depending on your own culture.
I’m very keen to try to show some kind of a story within my interpretation of totems later in the project. I’m currently working on some drawings of animal possibilities to include.
All these images are from my own photographs taken at the Australian Museum in Sydney last week – with permission – and all the works are from the northern end of Australia.
Australian Museum Indigenous Gallery, College Street, Sydney.