18 August 2023

In Search of the Mukuy

One of my favourite parts of working at Godinymayin is greeting all the inter-state visitors who stop in during the dry season. Our team are always ready to share the art and artists of our region, and lately we’ve been showing off our current exhibitions — The Might Daly River from Merrepen Arts and Pandanus from Djilpin Arts. 

One of the most fascinating discoveries in our gallery at the moment is an entire wall populated by curious woven Mukuy — slender figures representing a spirit also known as Devil-devil in Kriol. Unlike the carved wooden Mukuy of Northeast Arnhem land used for centuries in funeral ceremony, these come to us from just down the road in Beswick/Wugularr. They have evolved into something new thanks to the ongoing Pandanus Project at Djilpin Arts. 

Just over ten years ago, the artists there began a revival of fibre art and weaving, boldly adding contemporary and experimental ideas to ancient Indigenous practices. Djilpin artists began collaborating in unique ways, adapting modern textile techniques, while integrating traditional knowledge into their new fibre works. In many ways, they are still reinventing things — producing extraordinary art like the pandanus Mukuy figures by Djilpin artist Noreena Ashley now on view at Godinymayin.   

Mukuy are spirit creatures, but unlike the more playful Mimi spirits, they live in burial grounds and can deliver dangerous consequences for those who get too close. At night they play yidaki (didjeridu) and gather at the sacred earth of Balambala, spreading sound in all directions. 

Noreena Ashley’s twenty mukuy figures on the K Space Gallery wall are serious but less macabre. She has given each a distinct look and personality that emerges from carefully assembled pandanus weaving and natural dyes. They are more of the light than the dark. 

The tall slender forms, the anthropologists will tell us, link back to the time of the Macassan fishermen and trading with Yolngu clans — and the painted grave-post figures known as Wuramu. For hundreds of years across Northern Arnhem, these bound-bark objects were used as markers — both representing a person’s earthly identity and signifying the transition to another world. 

The practice spread, and influenced the representation of Mukuy spirits across Central Arnhem over the following centuries. For our visitors this dry season, they remain a fascinating part of the spirit world and another discovery from the living cultures around us. In our times — thanks to the artists of the Pandanus Project — the form, figure, and manifestation of Mukuy continues to evolve.     

Be sure to visit Godinymayin before the end of August to see them, and don’t miss the other amazing fibre works from Djilpin Arts—including carefully-made string bags, colourful woven mats, and exquisite dilly bags. And as your interest grows, why not plan a day trip to Beswick/Wugularr to support the extraordinary work of Djilpin Arts? 

Visit their Ghunmarn Culture Centre and museum, see the Blanasi Collection of culturally important art, learn more stories about Mukuy, Mimi, Banumbirr (the morning star), and Namorrodor (terrifying extra-terrestrials). Arrange a guided tour of their sacred sites on country or a workshop with their skilled artists. Fascinating discoveries are sure to follow.   

— Eric Holowacz
Chief Executive Officer

In other news

Here are a few more news articles from Godinymayin that may interest you.