Monash University Toggle Search
Marrngamarrnga, Anniebell - 2018.61

Anniebell Marrngamarrnga

Yawkyawk 2018
natural earth pigments dyed on woven pandanus (Pandanus spiralis)
232 x 88 cm
Purchased 2018

Yawkyawk are highly revered spirit beings among the Kunwinjku people, who live in Western Arnhem Land. In the Kunwinjku/Kunwok language, yawkyawk means ‘young woman’ and ‘young woman spirit being’. Having long hair and a fishlike tail, yawkyawk are often equated to the European ‘mermaid’. The enigmatic figure occupies freshwater streams and rock pools in the sandstone escarpment of the Arnhem Land Plateau (known locally as Stone Country). In the dark of night, yawkyawk will occasionally journey across dry land to visit other prominent water sources. Kunwinjku people have their own unique accounts of yawkyawk, tied to specific locations within each clan’s estate. On Kunwinjku country, particular geographical features are attributed to the actions of yawkyawk. So too, certain landforms and waterways are said to embody their anatomy. For example, a bend in a river or creek is understood to be the tail of the yawkyawk, a billabong may be the head.

Over many years Kunwinjku artists have presented various representations of yawkyawk in bark paintings and sculptures. There are also rare depictions of them in rock art in shelters throughout Stone Country. The expansion of fibrecraft to include figurative forms of animals and ancestral figures emerged in the early 2000s. At this time, Kunwinjku artist Marina Murdilnga began to create three-dimensional woven forms, using many of the same skills required to make utilitarian items. This inspired a number of women, including Anniebell Marrngamarrnga, to begin experimenting with figurative interpretations of yawkyawk that could be displayed on a wall.

Weaving has both practical and decorative applications in Arnhem Land. Specific techniques yield mats, baskets, string bags and fish traps for everyday use. Decorative forms such as armbands and dancing belts are created for use in ceremony. The most commonly used fibre is pandanus (Pandanus spiralis). The collection and preparation of pandanus for weaving is a laborious task, often undertaken by women. During and after the monsoon season (November–April), new leaf growth is harvested from the top of the pandanus tree. Roots, leaves, berries and barks of various local flora are collected and prepared for use as dyes. Pandanus strips are soaked in heated drums of dye and then hung out to dry, the entire process taking several days.

Marrngamarrnga was taught to weave by her late mother, Nancy Djulumba. Her sculptures often refer to a yawkyawk spirit who lives in a waterhole at Kubumi, near the Mann River. This Dreaming belongs to Marrngamarrnga’s husband, Dick Nadjolorro. Marrngamarrnga’s yawkyawk each begin as a large, bare bamboo frame; given Nadjolorro’s cultural associations with yawkyawk, he often fashions the frame. Marrngamarrnga then weaves dyed pandanus strips into the frame, in colourful concentric patterns of red, purple, orange and white. Each segment is completed with a netlike stitch, from the outside in. Marrngamarrnga’s yawkyawk is pregnant with twins; it references the belief that women who swim in waterholes visited by yawkyawk may become pregnant with twins or triplets.

Luke Scholes is curator of Aboriginal art at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. Since 2016 he has been the curator of the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Awards.