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In 2015 the museum purchased new works titled Mokuy by Yolŋu artist Nawurapu Wunuŋmurra.

The acquisition comprised 36 carved wooden figures produced at the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala north-east Arnhem Land. These contemporary carvings are the artist’s interpretation of the spirit figures known as mokuy. They speak of cycles, comings and goings, life and death and the strong tradition and culture held within Yolŋu customs.

Yolŋu are Aboriginal people from northeast Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. Yolŋu worldview sees every species of plant, animal, fish or bird or any place or person as belonging to one of the two balancing halves of the world, the clans making up the two moieties that define all Yolŋu relationships to people and country – Yirritja and Dhuwa. The sacred art of this region, known as Miwatj, details the spiritual forces behind the ongoing Creation and the continuing identity of the fresh and saltwater country of the area.

Mokuy is a ghost or the sinister spirit of a deceased person.

Mokuy is a ghost or the sinister spirit of a deceased person. It lives near the burial ground and is believed to harm those who venture too near. These mortuary figures of mokuy made in eastern Arnhem Land are derived from square-sectioned and painted grave-post figures called wuramu. These in turn were influenced by the grave posts of the Makassans, traders from Sulawesi in present-day Indonesia, who visited the shores of Arnhem Land for some 400 years up to the beginning of the 20th century.

The artist, Nawurapu Wunuŋmurra, is the eldest son of senior Yirritja moiety elder the late Yaŋgarriny Wunuŋmurra c 1932–2003 who was the first Aboriginal artist to bring a case of copyright infringement – Yanggarrny Wunungmurra v Peter Stripes (1983) to the Federal Court of Australia, unreported, which he won.

One of the 36 carved wooden Mokuy (Spirits) by Nawurapu Wunungmurra, 2015. ANMM Collection 00054657.


In 1997 Yaŋgarriny Wunuŋmurra was the Overall First Prize winner of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA). Nawurapu was trained in the school of his father from an early age, first assisting him and then, as his own spiritual authority increased, in his own right.

Nawurapu Wunungmurra. Image: Courtesy Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre.

Displayed side-by-side in the current Gapu-Monuk Saltwater exhibition are two bark paintings by both father and son demonstrating the hereditary ownership of areas of land and sea as documented in their paintings.

After his father’s passing, Nawurapu stepped into this senior role with his brothers. His ceremonial responsibilities have required him to move between the homeland centres of the Miwatj region, north-east Arnhem Land and central Arnhem Land. He has lived in Yirrkala, Gurrumurru, Gängan, Gapuwiak and Wandawuy in recent years.

In 2010 following in his father’s footsteps, Nawurapu entered his mixed media work Mokuy in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. Nawurapu took out first prize in two categories: New Media and People’s Choice. For the judges, the installation was a stand-out piece in an exhibition of works by 96 finalists. The Mokuy spirits appeared to float theatrically in dancing poses just above the floor onto which archival footage of traditional ceremonial dances was projected, as if they were incarnations of dancing spirits illuminated by the spirits of dancers past. As they turned with the air in the room, they gave a sense of watching the viewer’s every move, as if they were trying to communicate.

Mokuy by Nawurapu Wunungmurra . Winner of the Telstra New Media Award in 2010.
Image courtesy Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.

The artist says of this work:

“These are happy spirits. They are going home. The mokuy [spirits] come in together, Dhuwa and Yirritja to the sacred ground called Balambala, past Gängan, the other side for all the mokuy to get together. The spirits go there and that’s where they make the yidaki [didgeridoo] sound … different sounds for Yirritja and Dhuwa. The Yirritja and Dhuwa play yidaki to call in the mokuy to the same ground Balambala. The Yirritja mokuy come in on the birds, djilawurr [scrub fowl] and bugutj-bugutj [banded fruit dove]. The Dhuwa mokuy they come in from rangi side [saltwater].