Elaine and Jim
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Red Case: Myths and rituals

Lena Yarinkura

Bush mice

Geometric design 1920–35 pearl, ochre National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Lena Yarinkura Bush mice 2002 aluminium and wood National Gallery of Australia, Canberra enlarge

Aboriginal art is well known for painted and carved representations of totemic animals and ancestral figures that are created for particular ceremonies. However, images of animals, including birds and fish, and everyday domestic objects form much of the subject matter for carvings and fibre sculptures created by Aboriginal artists working across Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. An essential part of everyday life in places like Maningrida, Northern Territory, is the gathering of bush tucker.

On these excursions, people often see small animals such as djirrkkinj (bush mice) busily searching for food. Native mice and rats are found in many habitats across Australia, including mangroves, deserts and alpine regions.

Bush mice is made from aluminium by a sand-casting process. The artist used plasticine to make a model for the cast. Many artists are attracted to the natural silvery white colour of aluminium and appreciate its long-lasting properties. These are the first of only 25 sculptures made from their particular casts. This is known as a limited edition—a restricted number of sculptures is produced and then the cast is destroyed.

Lena Yarinkura (Rembarrnga/Kune people) is one of the most innovative Aboriginal fibre artists in the country and often works collaboratively with her husband, the artist Bob Burruwal. Her subject matter includes Yawkyawk spirits, camp dogs and various animal species, including northern quoll, bandicoot and bush mouse. She now also creates contemporary metal sculpture, working with a foundry in Brisbane.

  • Compare the two bush mice. What do you think the marks on the bodies of the mice represent? Discuss how the artist has created slightly different personalities for each mouse.
  • Research native animals in your area. Choose a favourite and draw it in its natural environment. Think about the marks you could use to show the texture of the fur or skin.
  • Turn the mice over in your hand. Do you feel the rough texture created by the sand-casting process? Research and discuss sand-casting and how it is used.