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The Dupun Ceremony

In the beginning of time magpie geese lived at a place called Gungimilawuy in central Arnhem Land. They left there to visit several other places, taking with them feathered string (marawurr) representing waterlily roots (kaliwurr) which was to be used in ceremonies. When they came to the Arafura Swamp near Ramingining they cut off a piece of the feathered string and left it there. It stretched from north to south and became a land bridge across the vast swamp, in which grow waterlilies with beautiful pink, purple and white flowers, and huge leaves on which water birds with long, delicate legs (commonly called Jesus birds) walk across the water. Gumang the Magpie Goose, Yalman the waterlily, Karritjarr the swamp python and Djarrka, the Ancestor Goanna, are the most important dreamings (sacred stories and totems) which the artist has inherited from his famous father.

Karritjarr the swamp pythons herald the beginning of the Wet Season by standing up on their tails and breathing heavily. The vapour from their mouths make stormclouds form and their tongues cause forked lightning to shoot across the sky. The stormclouds burst when spittle is blown into them and heavy rain descends upon the earth.

When a man dies he is buried in a shallow grave until the flesh has decomposed, then the bones are dug up, painted with red ochre and placed in a roll of soft paperbark, which grieving relatives then carry around in ditty bags for twelve months or more. At a given time the final rites for the repose of the dead man begin. Mourners sit down on the dance ground and weave lengths of feathered string which they then form into the shape of waterlily flowers and lay them on the ground to represent the Evening Star, with which waterlilies are synonomous. A hollow log (dupun) which has been painted with the totems of the dead man is then carried into the centre of the ground and laid down horizontally so that two ditty bags, a wooden one containing the bones of the deceased and the other one, woven from pandanus, containing carved replicas of Yalman the waterlily (alternative name biyarri) can be placed in the log. This is then stood upright and dug a few feet into the ceremonial ground. Now follow short song and dance cycles telling of the life and deeds of the deceased and his ancestors by performers dancing around the hollow log. The ceremony may last from a few days to many weeks, depending on the status of the deceased.

The artist has depicted the hollow log in the centre of the painting. On either side of this burial pole are Djarrka the goanna, Karritjar the python and Yalman the waterlily.

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