The National 4: Australian Art Now at Carriageworks brings together 11 new artist commissions. For Teho Ropeyarn, family, Country and culture are carved into each line of his prints, embodying his connection to the Injinoo community, Cape York. Wintinganhu (sister-in-law) honours Jennifer, Ropeyarn’s mother.
Jennifer, from Great Keppel Island and K’gari (Fraser Island) married Ropeyarn’s father, George, in 1985. George had cultural obligations that predetermined a specific cultural role for Jennifer. As the in-law, she inherited the cultural responsibility of Marigeth (Spirit Hands), who represents the hands that look after the spirit. Jennifer was responsible for organising all components of a funeral service in the community. Her duty was not finished until the last floral wreath was placed on the grave, as this work depicts. Representing the Cape York lily (Curcuma australasica), the wreath is a singular repetitive print, individually cut and collaged together. It is accompanied by Jennifer’s oral story, which contextualises her experience in this respected role.
Adapted from a text written by Tina Baum (Gulumirrgin (Larrakia)/Wardaman/Karajarri people) for The National 4: Australian Art Now catalogue.
Oral story as told by Jennifer Ropeyarn:
“I was born Jennifer Fay Griffin, descendant of the Woppaburra people of Great Keppel Island and the Badtjala people of Fraser Island.
In my earlier years, I grew up in Brisbane, and then moved to Mount Isa, and spent my teens and young adult life there.
I knew nothing of my culture, language, ceremonies or traditions. I only became aware of culture when I met and married my husband George Martin Ropeyarn, an Angkamuthi man from Injinoo, Cape York. He is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander but identifies with his Aboriginal side of the Angkamuthi people.
George has a very strong cultural identity, speaking his language, following traditions and cultural protocols around religion, baptism, coming of age, marriage, and deaths in his family, to which he continues following with our family today through our children and grandchildren.
In the early years of our marriage, we moved from Mount Isa back to Injinoo and into community life. This is where I started to observe and take part in cultural practices and protocols. After a few years, and being immersed in their language, I myself started speaking Creole, which is a mix of traditional language and English. In that time, I had observed lots of customs and protocols, but had never heard of the word Marigeth. I was soon to learn that it was a custom that would play a very important role in my life, with heavy responsibilities and expectations to carry out.
The word Marigeth comes from the Western Islands dialect of the Torres Strait Islands. Mari meaning spirit and Geth means hand. Once the loved one has passed, they become a spirit and it is you, the Marigeth, and your hands, that will handle the spirit. The family is grieving and are not able to do anything as the loss is overwhelming. The Marigeth allows the family to mourn and grieve over their loss of their loved one.
This story is a reflection of my personal experience as a Marigeth, an outsider marrying into the family and learning a whole new culture guided by beliefs, traditions, and a way of life.
Just like the Cape York lily flower, there are layers upon layers of protocols and processes to follow until you reach the top and I wish to explain my experiences.
I had attended a few funerals where I observed a lot of cultural practices taking place. There were no funeral directors in the communities, and I often wondered who buried their loved ones. Their loved ones were not buried by strangers – funeral directors as I knew them – but by loved ones who had married into the family. It made perfect sense. Why would you give your loved ones to strangers to lay their spirit to rest? Just like the Cape York lily it belongs to the land and connected to the people. We return our loved ones back to the land, the earth. The connection to land is everything, even in death.
The role of the Marigeth is instantly activated when death occurs in the family. The title of Marigeth is often given automatically once you are married, but the respect of a Marigeth is only given once you can show your experience, and lay the spirit of the loved one to rest; with respect, compassion and true strength. I was one of the Marigeths to the Ropeyarn family from Injinoo. I was entrusted to take care of their loved one’s spirits when they passed.
There are always a few Marigeths in each family, with different levels of experience and I was just only one.
My experience began several years into my marriage when an Elder, an Aunty who lived next door, thought it was time for me to learn. She was a senior Marigeth, which means she had a lot of experience in the role, and she came to me one day and said: ‘One day you will come with me and learn about being a Marigeth.’ She said a young man connected to the family had passed and I would have to go with her and follow her, and she would teach me how to be a Marigeth and run the funeral. She was a Marigeth to the Solomon family as well, who were also connected to the Ropeyarn family.
I had no idea of what was involved in doing this, but I followed out of respect for my husband and family. There can be quite a long process of burying someone with such strong cultural traditions. A very strict set of rules to follow, to respect not only the loved one who has passed, but the family that is grieving. My learning was through observations and following, not by questioning why, which was a different type of learning for me.
My first big learning as a Marigeth was that you are not allowed to grieve and show any emotions, or feelings of sorrow, even if you were close to that loved one. This could only be done in a quiet place after you had finished laying your loved one to rest and your Marigeth job was completed.
In the lily plant, petals are perfectly positioned, and fits together, which is a reference to the various elements of the process coming together seamlessly. The process involves a group of Marigeths whose strength is reflected in the girth of the lily flower and together they hold the family together, like glue.
When you see the lilies, they only come out once a year, and as a Marigeth you only get to bury your loved ones once, and it has to be perfect, just like the lily. The Marigeth’s job is done once the last flower is placed upon the grave, then, and only then, can you rest, and you once again become a member of the family.
After 40 years of being a Marigeth, I have slowly transitioned away from this role due to personal health and wellbeing. It does take a toll on your mental health of holding onto these emotions that you have to keep. I still embrace the way they celebrate the life of a loved one and cherish the traditions.
But as I reflect on this work and my life as a Marigeth I feel a deep connection to the lily. Its singular individual flower standing tall on its own like a tower of strength. Its trunk and its roots connected to the land, its many parts, its structure perfectly placed, and its beauty, brings a sense of healing and peace to me, just like the lily.”
The National 4: Australian Art Now
30 March – 25 June 2023
Wed – Sun, 10am – 5pm