Galiwinku (Elcho Island), Northern Territory
Tallest 180cm (71inches)
These banumbirr (morning star poles) celebrate the importance of the morning star and are used in ceremonies in north-eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. It is often told that banumbirr rose in the east, lighting the way for the creator ancestors on their journey to the mainland from Burralku, the island where the souls of the deceased reside. Every day at sunset, the spirits on Burralku hold a morning star ceremony. As the dancing intensifies, disturbing the dust, it creates the twilight which gradually merges into darkness. During the day and into night, the star is hidden by an old woman who holds it in a special bag. Each day, just before dawn, the old woman releases the star on a long string. First, it ascends to the top of a tall pandanus tree to survey the places it has to visit, then it flies over Arnhem Land heralding the dawn. As the sun appears, the old woman reels banumbirr in by its feathered string to be hidden again until the next evening; the elusive star disappears as the morning light intensifies.
The banumbirr (morning star poles) in this grouping were made by artists from Galiwin’ku (Elcho Island), a small island off the northern shore of Arnhem Land. Both men and women are responsible for making different parts of the poles, while clan leaders oversee their development and take responsibility for passing on banumbirr knowledge and rituals. The strings attached to the poles represent the fine roots on yam plants, while the beautiful tufts of feathers (pul-pul) on the tips of some poles represent the bright morning star.
At shared ceremonies and social occasions, songs and dances are performed to formally unite separate groups. Banumbirr poles are made in a secret location and are then celebrated when they are revealed as part of the final stage of a morning star ceremony. These performances are also used to remember the dead — the actions of spirit ancestors are performed in rituals.
These Ceremonial Morning Star Poles rarely come on the market, especially an old used ceremonial ones such as this, with its sprout of traditional feathers, hair, bush string and natural red ochre paint, a truly magical authentic artifact and used in one of the most sacred of Aboriginal rituals.
'In the Dreaming, it is said that the spirits keep Barnumbirr the Morning Star in a dilly bag throughout the day. Accompanied by songs, dancers kick up clouds of dust which gradually blocks out the sun and brings on the night. When the moon has set and just before the dawn, the Morning Star flies up and as the sun rises the old woman pulls on the string and brings Barnumbirr back to the dilly bag. When a person dies, Barnumbirr sends down a feathered string to catch the person's spirit taking it back to his or her spiritual home.'
On a metaphysical level, it is believed that this Aboriginal artifact creates a spiritual doorway from Earth to Venus.
On the 27th of February, 2002, an exhibition of Morning Star Poles was opened at the National Maritime Museum in Sydney, Australia. The Galiwinku Ratjpa Dancers performed with traditional songs, dances and yirdaki playing to ceremonially cleanse and open the exhibition space. Stephen and Brenda Westley, then managers of the art centre at Elcho Island, travelled with the group, with Stephen and Peter Datjing (George Burarrwanga's brother) speaking on camera about the exhibition and the process involved in putting it together. For the Galpu clan, he is now responsible for the sacred feathered ceremonial Morning Star poles (Banumbirr). Gurruwiwi’s traditional beliefs tell of the Banumbirr Star (Venus) as a resting place for the spirits of Yolgnu (Aboriginal people from north-east Arnhem Land) who have passed away. The poles are made from wood and painted with the four colours of ochre which represent different clans. Feathers at the top of the pole represent the Morning Star, and feathered bunches tied by hand-spun bush string and native beeswax represent each of the clans and their link to the Banumbirr. In creating these traditional Morning Star poles as a contemporary art practice, Gurruwiwi shares their personal and spiritual significance so that people ‘may learn about us and be respectful of our culture’. Yolngu people call the planet Venus "Banumbirr", and tell how she came across the sea from the east in the Dreaming, naming and creating animals and lands as she crossed the shoreline, and continued travelling westwards across the country, leaving as her legacy one of the ''songlines'' which are important in Aboriginal cultures.
In an important and beautiful "Morning Star Ceremony", earthly Yolngu people communicate with their ancestors living on Baralku, the island of the dead, with the help of Banumbirr together with a "Morning Star Pole". The ceremony starts at dusk and continues through the night, reaching a climax when Banumbirr rises a few hours before dawn. She is said to trail a faint rope behind her along which messages are sent, and which prevents her from ever moving away from the Sun. This faint line in the sky is probably zodiacal light, which is caused by extraterrestrial dust in the plane of the solar system. Although difficult to see for most of us in our polluted skies, it is easily visible in the clear dark skies and low latitude of Arnhem Land.
The Morning Star ceremony tells us two important things. One is that Yolngu people had already observed that Venus never strays far from the Sun, which they explain in terms of the rope binding the two bodies together - a bond that Isaac Newton called "gravity". The other is that the Morning-Star ceremony has to be planned well in advance, since Venus rises a few hours before dawn only at certain times of the year, which vary from year to year. So the Yolngu people also track the complex motion of Venus well enough to predict when to hold the Morning Star Ceremony.