In the beginning, I used to make dilly bags from pandanus. My mother used to make dilly bags with me.

One day, I had the idea to make camp dogs with paperbark. Then, I tried to use pandanus to make them. Pandanus is easy, it is not too hard. It is easy for me to make all kind of animals and spirits. I make wyarra spirits, yawkyawks, Rainbow Serpent, etc. I can make all the animals. I make camp dog, bandicoot, possum, wallaby, turtle, goanna, bush mouse, stingray, etc.

No one taught me to use pandanus to make my animals. I have been teaching myself. I create new ways all the time. They are only my ideas. Today, I use bush string with the pandanus.

I pass on my ideas to my children (Selina Brian and Yolanda Rostron) and to my grandchildren. It is important that I teach them, because one day I will be gone, and they will take my place.

Lena Yarinkura is an inventive and influential artist who creates woven sculptures of ancestral spirits and cheeky jamu (camp dogs). These works of art simultaneously embody a level of sophistication, humour and joy. Yarinkura resides on her mother’s Country, at Bolkjam, an outstation located close to Maningrida in central Arnhem Land. Like many other young women in her community, Yarinkura was taught traditional weaving techniques from Elders within her community. This passing on of important cultural knowledge occurs across Indigenous Australia and ensures the longevity of one of the world’s oldest living cultures.

Yarinkura’s mother, Lena Djammarrayu, a renowned and distinguished fibre artist, took a highly active role in educating her daughter in such techniques. Initially, Yarinkura spent her time creating functional objects such as kunmadj (dilly bags) and djerrh (string bags); however, after refining her skills and abilities, Yarinkura started to produce and exhibit true innovations within the tradition, developing her own unique aesthetic and mode of working. Most recently, Yarinkura has become well known for her depictions of animals and spirit beings to which she has both a personal and cultural affinity.

During the mid 1980s, Yarinkura married Bob Burruwal, and he taught her the skills and sensibility required to create paintings on both bark surfaces and hollow log coffins, as well as how to make ceremonial dance belts. These art forms and modes of working were dominated at the time by the male artists of Maningrida. At that stage of her life, Yarinkura had become highly proficient and was respected as an artist within her own communities and the broader visual arts sector.

Yarinkura and Burruwal were awarded the prestigious Wandjuk Marika Three-Dimensional Award at the 11th TelstraNational Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award in 1994, for their installation comprising a woven family of mimih spirits, a dog and a burial platform. Three years later, she was again awarded the Marika Three-Dimensional Award for her refined and highly acclaimed Family of yawkyawk 1997.

Although both mimih and yawkyawk spirits are commonly depicted in bark paintings and sculpture (there are also a few examples in rock art dating back thousands of years), they are not commonly woven in fibre. Before 2002, Yarinkura and her mother were the only artists producing fibre sculptures in and around Maningrida. Now, a new generation of Rembarrnga artists are following in their footsteps, using the same materials and employing the same practices to produce their own distinct works of art.

Yarinkura heavily applies ochre to her sculptural forms, rendering the surfaces with a distinct and recognisable patterning that is often seen on ceremonial fibre containers. The chevron designs of her yawkyawk figures in unDisclosed depict the pattern of waves or the wake of a swimmer. Multiple layers of feathers on the torso are suggestive of fish scales or the light reflecting off the surface of water. Yarinkura has created an impression of the figure in the water, and the feathers in the hair are blooms of soft algae trailing behind the yawkyawk as it swims.

The figures for which Yarinkura has received such acclaim have and will continue to be of great significance and importance to her people. Like many of her people, her commitment to the ongoing interpretation, reinvigoration and presentation of such imagery celebrates and shares the unique worldview of Indigenous Australians and offers great insight into the importance of their connection to both culture and Country.

Kelli Cole