Artefact of the Month

Didgeridoo and Painting from the Numbulwar Aboriginal Community

February, 2016


In 2014, with the aid of the Public Collections Council of the Hungarian National Cultural Fund, the Museum of Ethnography's Oceania Collection (a sub-unit of the Regional Collection) acquired an important new ensemble of artefacts. The addition was of particular significance in that the pace of acquisition of material from outside Europe at the museum has been slow since systematic efforts were effectively abandoned in the 1920s. In the decades following World War II, new material from the region of northern Australia was limited to just two donations: a pair of valuable bark paintings received from Sydney-born anthropologist László Vilmáti in 1968, and a set of 40 artefacts donated in the late 1970s consisting primarily of stone tools (blades, spear points, knives, etc.) unearthed by Australian gold digger László Pintér.

This latest purchase is an important one for the museum as the seller, Balázs Derzsi, has been living in the aboriginal community of Numbulwar in Australia's Northern Territory since 1998, and the pieces in question were therefore collected by an "insider". Founded in the mid-20th century by Anglican missionaries as a place for bush-dwelling Aborigines to settle, Numbulwar is home to the government school where Derzsi has worked for the past 15 years, an institution established in 1976 when the management of aboriginal settlements - with particular reference to local educational programmes - first came under government control. The majority of the 67 artefacts that make up the ensemble were collected as a result of Derzsi's election to the Numamurdirdi tribe, which gave him special access to the objects associated with the group's culture. The unique spears, harpoons, and boomerangs in the collection, for example, were given to Derzsi upon his instatement as a member of the tribe. Other pieces were purchased from other members for nominal amounts, as those within the tribe customarily treat each other as family. The collection's spears, harpoons, boomerangs, didgeridoos, and various other implements aptly represent the culture and lifestyle of the Numbulwar community. The distinctive didgeridoo featured here is one of ten in the collection.

In Australia, tribal folk tales, animal figures, and legends are frequently depicted in richly coloured pointillism, the image shown here being one of four such paintings in the museum's recent purchase. Hand-painted on canvas, the piece features two cockatoos, one black and one white, sitting on a tree branch, their necks painted in red, and their tail and wing feathers marked with yellow. The birds are framed by a red band and set over a background formed of coloured dots. Such paintings involve a great deal of meticulous work, which may take an artist up to several weeks to complete.

The didgeridoo, whose name in English reflects an attempt by early travellers to mimic a particular folk rhythm, is a traditional wind instrument used by the Aborigines of the Northern Territory. Native names for the instrument include yidaki, mago, and kenbi, among others. The didgeridoo is generally made from a piece of eucalyptus wood that has been hollowed out by termites, with beeswax applied to the smaller end to form a mouthpiece. Often, the outer surfaces of such instruments are decorated with painted designs. The piece seen here features black-painted ends and a body decorated in horizontal and vertical stripes of red, white, and black. Traditionally played by men, the didgeridoo is used to provide a rhythmic accompaniment to song and dance, and is therefore rarely employed as a solo instrument.

The technique used to play the didgeridoo is similar to that of any horn: the musician fits his pursed lips to the narrower end of the instrument, then pushes air out between them to vibrate the air column within the instrument's body. The quality of the resulting sound is dependent upon both the length and diameter of the instrument, and the nature of its interior surface. Players can add vocalisations to enhance the didgeridoo's overall sound, while shaping rhythms using the tongue, lips, and fluctuations in air pressure. Using the technique of circular breathing, a skilled player can sustain a single note for up to several hours.

Krisztina Pálóczy

Inv. no.: 2014.49.40

Inv. no.: 2014.49.36