Australia 1951 – 1991
Gunbalanya (Oenpelli), Western Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, bark paintings, natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark
Since ancient times, myths about water spirits with female torsos, flowing hair and gleaming fish tails have been recorded from diverse cultures around the world. The Bininj (Aboriginal) people of western Arnhem Land also have such beings, commonly known as yawkyawk or ngal-kunburriyaymi, which literally means a young girl with a fish’s tail. They dwell deep in the fresh waters of the region alongside the Rainbow Serpent, Ngalyod one of the most powerful ancestral beings associated with the destructive and regenerative forces of the monsoon season.
Robin’s work illustrates a Djalama clan story about two sisters, Likanaya and Marrayka, who were pursued by the ancestral being Lumaluma. To escape his amorous advances, the sisters dived into Malwon waterhole where they metamorphosed into mermaid-like beings. Lumaluma, who is sometimes described as Ngalyod’s son, introduced the sacred Mardayin ceremony to western Arnhem Land along with distinctive geometric body paintings, infilled with fine crosshatching or rarrk. Contemporary bark painters like Robin have adapted personalised versions of these complex internal patterns to indicate the ancestral power of their religious subjects.
In this painting Robin uses zigzag patterning with finely wrought hatching to create a striking rippling effect within the figure and the surrounding waterweeds and fish. These shimmering, scale-like designs also evoke the spirit being’s emanating power that promotes the luxuriant growth of water plants and other aquatic life. The artist’s use of aerial perspective enhances the sense of looking at these forms floating and wavering below the water’s surface.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (eds) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010