Anniebell Marrngamarrnga is a Kuninjku woman from Maningrida, in western Central Arnhem Land. Her moiety is Yirritja and subsection Bangardidjan. In her work Marrngamarrnga frequently depicts animals such as the crocodile that lives at Kubumi, and most often the yawkyawk spirit.
In the Kuninjku/Kunwok language of Western Arnhem Land yawkyawk means ‘young woman’ and ‘young woman spirit being’. The Kuninjku people have various yawkyawk stories, which
relate to specific locations in clan estates. Yawkyawk are female water spirits who live in freshwater streams and rock pools, and are usually described and depicted in bark painting, sculpture and some rock art, as having the tail of a fish and long hair (associated with trailing green algae, man-bak in Kuninjku). There are interesting parallels with the European (and other) mythology around mermaids.
In Kuninjku mythology the creation ancestor yawkyawk travelled the country in human form and changed into spirit form as a result of ancestral adventures. Certain features of country are equated by the Kuninjku with body parts of yawkyawk, for example, a bend in a river or creek may be said to be the tail of the yawkyawk or a billabong may be said to be its head. Like much ancestral and creation mythology the yawkyawk stories link clans and language groups across country.
The people of Arnhem Land are well known for their beautiful fibre objects, which are an important part of everyday and ceremonies. The fibre art of Maningrida is some of the finest in Australia; its forms and techniques have been around for many thousand of years and that knowledge has been passed down through generations. Some of the distinctive fibre objects of the Arnhem Land region are coiled baskets, dilly and string bags, fish traps and mats, most of which are made by Aboriginal women.
The activity of making fibre objects is a very social one, involving women and children in the community. The most commonly used fibre is the pandanus (Pandanus spiralis).For weaving, the only part of the pandanus collected is the new leaf growth found at the top of the tree, which is only in season at certain times of the year, usually during and several months after the monsoon season. The natural dyes used are collected from the roots, leaves, berries and barks of local flora. The process of collecting fibres and native dyes, and then dyeing and drying the fibres takes days.
Marrngamarrnga uses a combination of colour and pattern in her work, often featuring reds, purples, oranges and white to create contrasting patterns and shapes that complement the woven form. The yawkyawks begin as a bamboo frame with strips of pandanus leaves finely woven from the outside in, until segment by segment the body and features are created. Many of Marrngamarrnga’s forms are quite large, demanding much time and skill.
Marrngamarrnga’s fibre art is innovative, playful and stunning. Her woven sculptures breathe new life into the rich traditions of her Kuninjku culture, bringing it to a world audience.
Information on yawkyawk stories from Murray Garde and Christine Kellor, provided by Apolline Kohen, Maningrida Arts and Culture, 2007.