Aboriginal people throughout Australia undertook rituals, which were designed to result in the increase of various natural species. The Remgarrnga people of Central Arnhem Land tell of the spirit being Wurum who had a human form and carried fish in dilly bags. He is sometimes depicted with fins called konno on his legs and arms suggesting a transformational human-fish nature.
In order to create an abundance of certain fish species, Rembarrnga people would draw an image of Wurum on the side of a tree. They would then call out the following invocation: Deny ngarra-jalman ngarrmangara, “˜We want to get fish“’. Following this they would sleep for a night and then it is said that there would be an increase in fish.
Wurum is associated with a site called Kukaddjerre in Balngarra clan estate south of Maningrida. The Wurum also has a further function.
Burruwal described the paperbark Wurum he constructed as the “˜true“’ or original form. This suggests that the more solid wooden carving may have been a later innovation. The artist told that “˜on the early days“’ these paperbark figures would be placed, standing upright, around a mortuary location, so they could find or stay clear of it.
The ability of a contemporary artist like Burruwal to make these highly traditional paperbark figures-a relic of a bygone era-underscores the intimate spiritual links Burruwal has to his personal ancestry.
Text by Adam Saulwick and Murray Garde