Yolgnu Christmas
Christmas Birrimbirr

“We made a Christmas ceremony that projects our spirit into other places. We made it so that you might feel and you might know. Come and share sorrow and joy with us. Come and renew your own birrimbirr [spirit]”.

_Fiona Yangathu

Christmas Birrimbirr Exhibition Opening at Chan Contemporary Art Space, Darwin. 2011

In Australia’s Arnhem Land, Christmas is celebrated as a time to remember the dead, a time to evoke ancestral spirits (birrimbirr) and a time to renew and revitalize relationships amongst the living. Under the guidance of Yolŋu director, Paul Gurrumuruwuy, Christmas Birrimbirr experiments with re-producing Yolŋu Christmas rites in the gallery setting. Drawing on Yolŋu aesthetics and social values, the work uses new media technologies to strengthen contemporary Yolŋu society while “sharing feelings” across cultures.

Christmas Birrimbirr’s central focus is a three-channel video work that opens with images of the seasonal wolma clouds (brooding formations that signal the coming of both Christmas and the wet season).  Symbolically structured around the graves of three Dhalwangu clan leaders, the unfolding sounds and images enact a poetics of loss and renewal, mourning and joy.

Additional background

Every year, the rainy season and the heavily rising waters of the rivers bring new life to the land and the people of Arnhem Land in the northeastern Australia. In the middle of October, the thunderclouds begin to roll in. They are the first signs of the life-giving rain that in the following weeks and months will emerge from the ‘pregnant’ female wolma clouds. It makes sense to the Yolŋu people that the birth of Jesus – a story they first heard told by missionaries in the middle of the 20th century – coincides with the season for dramatic change and revival of Nature. It also makes sense that the newly introduced holiday is a very important time of the year for remembering and reconnecting with your deceased loved ones.

Yolŋu families begin their preparations for the Christmas ritual in the middle of October, when the Wolma clouds begin to rumble. They decorate their homes and the graves with coloured light bulbs and brightly coloured decorations, thereby creating a small oasis of light. The desired effect is – according to Paul Gurrumuruwuy’s – to ‘attract everyone’. At the same time, it purposefully enhances the emotional effect. Family members hold pictures of their deceased relatives and recall memories of their loved ones – even painful memories. Carefully selected songs are played repeatedly while silent tears fall.

Yolŋu call feeling into grief and loss warwuyun. It is a valued dynamic in the Yolŋu life. The lights and the emotional expressions bring the new and the old generations closer together and reunite the families on Christmas in a place of absence and presence.

Miyarrka Media Curators:

Paul Gurrumuruwuy
Fiona Yangathu
Jennifer Deger
David Mackenzie


2019Kings Artist-Run gallery, Melbourne
2014 – presentMoesgaard Museum, Aarhus Denmark
2011Chan Contemporary Art Space, Darwin

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