Joe Ngallametta / Kugu Muminh/Kugu Uwanh people / Australia 1945–2005 / Thap yongk (Law poles) 2002–03 / Carved milkwood (Alstonia muellerana) with synthetic polymer paint and natural pigments / 15 components: 182 x 250 x 250cm (installed, approx.) / Commissioned 2002 with funds from the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Joe Ngallametta

Joe Ngallametta
Thap yongk (Law poles) 2002–2003

On Display: QAG, Gallery 1

‘There were these two brothers . . . at the creation of the world only these two people, they were human, they left these two poles, they made . . . songs, I’m making these poles now because they left these poles and how they painted.’ — Joe Ngallametta

The Thap yongk or Law poles made by the people of Aurukun in west Cape York express an issue fundamental to Indigenous Australian culture — the interrelationships of land, culture and the creation time. These Thap yongk represent knowledge about people’s affiliations with the land and their responsibilities and rights within its boundaries. While this knowledge is provided through the Dreaming, it plays an ongoing role today and is held in trust by Elders such as Joe Ngallametta and passed on to the younger members of the community. Thap yongk are usually only seen by the men of the community, but Ngallametta shares these poles with wider audiences: ‘I know your laws: now you can understand mine’.

Representing upturned trees, the Thap yongk extend from the ground, suggesting branches hidden beneath the earth, with the roots at the top. The poles draw the spirits back to the ground, and the ‘hidden’ branches symbolise the network of stories and laws connecting people to the land and to each other.

Born at Aurukun Mission on the west coast of Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland, Joe Ngallametta was an Elder of the Kugu people and custodian for the Wanam ceremonial group from Aurukun. His country lies between the Kendall and Holroyd Rivers, south of Aurukun.

Ngallametta is best known for creating law poles, however, as a senior song man, he also travelled widely throughout west Cape York for cultural performances. He was a ranger in Aurukun for many years, taking groups (often school children) through the country and passing on his knowledge of bush food, medicine and survival techniques. Ngallametta was dedicated to rejuvenating of Aurukun culture, particularly for future generations.

Discussion Questions

1. How has the artist used colour and design, as well as physical arrangement, to demonstrate the poles’ significance for his community?

1. Consider the concept of laws. How do laws guide and govern society?


How has the artist used colour and design, as well as physical arrangement, to demonstrate the poles’ significance for his community?

Watch this video of Indigenous Australian artist, Tony Albert as he travels to a small town in remote Western Australia called Warakurna. Tony Albert met and collaborated with many children and artists in the community to create artworks as part of the ‘We Can be Heroes’ exhibition at the Children’s Art Centre in 2018. ‘We Can Be Heroes’ explores how we can all be empowered, by overcoming our fears, and this similar to Ngallametta’s ideas about law and power.


1. Consider the concept of law in society. Think about the ways in which laws govern society.

2. How does the media make us aware of the consequences of disobeying laws? List some examples.


Investigate other cultures and the way communities commemorate and share concepts of spirituality. What makes these communities unique? Create an artwork that reflects the meaning found in your own community.