At the British Museum, Australian artist Wukun Wanambi (born 1962) has created a calm reflective installation of Aboriginal memorial poles, called larrakij, through which he reflects on ancestral power, the significance of historic territories and the search for meaning in the modern world, while at the Serpentine Galleries, Cameroon-born, Belgium-based artist Pascale Marthine Tayou (born 1967) uses an astonishing variety of materials in a riot of colourful exuberance to raise issues of national identity, pollution and global consumption. While very different in style, both artists are reflecting on issues relating to the world and also to their own countries and peoples.
Larrakitj are hollow coffins created from tree trunks to hold the bones of the dead and are decorated with clan symbols and placed in groups on important sites where they then slowly weather and decay. Contemporary artist Wukun Wanambi belongs to the Yolngu people of northern Arnhem Land and brings a new interpretation of this traditional art form.
His work is more naturalistic than the traditional larrakatj. Wukun uses the tree’s natural and irregular shape and his paintwork flows around the tree’s blemishes. The installation shows three natural unfinished poles alongside three painted poles so that the visitor can see the artistic progression of the designs.
Wukum says that the display relates to the British Museum’s Reading Room which appears to him to be planted in the middle of the Great Court like a memorial with visitors swirling around it as if they are searching for meaning:
“This installation is called ‘Wetjwitj’, which means both a group of clanspeople from Wukun’s clan and fish that manifest their spirits. The swirling fish he paints also represent the turbulence and flow of water, the flow of currents and key points of ancestral power beneath the water of Trial Bay in his clan’s territory. As Wukun describes, “The fish are swimming from creek to creek, river to river, searching for their destiny. Just like all these people from all over the world coming to the British Museum here. Everybody is searching for their own story.””
The exhibition includes reference to the National Aboriginal Memorial created in 1988 by a group of Yolngu artists who made 200 larrakitj to mark Australia’s Bicentenary, to remember the Aboriginal people who died through those 200 years, and to assert the continuing vibrancy of their knowledge and practice.
At the Serpentine Galleries, the brick walls of the former Magazine Building are awash with a riot of colour, clouds, plastic bags, neon lights and upside-down houses with an exhibition by Pascale Marthine Tayou called “Boomerang”. A variety of sculptures and installations use found objects, including consumer waste, to create clever and playful artworks that nevertheless raise deep questions about consumerism, pollution and sustainability of our society and about Africa’s colonial past. The sculpture Africonda which greets you as you enter - a coloured coiled cloth snake – is described by Tayou as “deceitfully joyful”, because it symbolises mankind continually chasing its own tail. Several works have been specially made for the exhibition as the artist raises questions about the future of our society and the wasteful use and destruction of materials.