Hollow Log Coffin Memorial

by J-Touchette

Ramingining Artists: The Aboriginal Memorial 1987-88, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased with the assistance of funds from National Gallery admission charges and commissioned in 1987

A memorial of 200 hollow log coffins has been installed in the entrance of the National Gallery of Australia’s new building which opened in 2010. These hollow log coffins were created in 1988 by 43 artists to commemorate the Indigenous Australians who died during the European settlement of Australia which began in 1788. These artists created a hollowed coffin for each of the 200 years which were unveiled at Australia’s Bicentenary celebrations in 1988.

The hollow log coffins were acquired by the National Gallery of Australia and were installed to follow the shape of the Glyde River, which flows through the Arnhem Land Region in the Northern Territory of Australia, out to the sea. The hollow log coffins are placed where the artists’ clans live along the river.

The funeral ceremonies used by the Indigenous Australians were not completed until many years after a person passed away. At death, the body was placed in a large log which was then buried until the remains decomposed. After a few years the bones were retrieved, and all of them except for the skull were broken up and placed in a tall, hollow log. These hollow coffins were traditionally made out of logs naturally hollowed by termites. The logs were then painted in designs and images that linked the people to their land, language, and social affiliations. A reburial ceremony then took place that could stretch over two weeks. At dawn on the final morning of the ceremony, the men would make their way to the main camp carrying the hollow log or bone pole coffin where the women had dug a hole in readiness. The logs were erected at each clan’s main camp where they were left standing until they fell apart.

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