When I was a young man, I used to paint bark, make dancing belts, clap sticks and didjeridu. My parents were not artists. My father was a clever man. He taught me a lot of things about our way, our stories.

I started to make works of art, for the balanda (non-Aboriginal people) to see and learn about my stories, when I was 30. I can make Wurum (fish-increasing spirit) and Namorrodor (shooting-star spirit) with paperbark. When men used to go fishing, sometimes they would paint a fish on a tree and sleep under the tree. In the morning, they would go fishing, and the Wurum spirit would help them catch lots of fish.

I also make bushfire spirit. It is our way to look after our land; we have been doing it for a long time. I also make Morning Star pole, Buya Male (ceremonial poles) and didjeridu. They are important to us.

Bob Burruwal’s elongated fish-increasing spirits Wurum and Wurlga are tangible manifestations of these creation and regeneration spirits of central Arnhem Land. His willowy, animated depictions are often dressed in ceremonial regalia and can easily be imagined as spirits gracefully traversing the tropical savannah landscape of the Northern Territory.

Burruwal is a Rembarrnga artist who is an accomplished bark painter, sculptor and fibre artist. His body of work consists of paintings on sheets of bark, carved and constructed wooden figures, soft sculptured fibre objects and significant ceremonial items such as string belts and armbands.

Traditionally, Aboriginal men and women create important ceremonial and domestic items out of natural fibres. Three-dimensional figures of animals and plants are fashioned from paperbark, bound with bark-fibre string, embedded with feathers and heavily painted with natural earth pigments. Ceremonial containers, string belts and armbands are also created using these same materials and methods. Domestic containers, baskets, fish traps, fishnets and mats serve as important objects associated with the essential tools of everyday life. All of these items have their origins in the Dreaming: the ancestors created them and identified how they were to be used and, in some instances, the item is itself the tangible manifestation of an ancestor. These objects were originally collected by ethnographic museums as examples of ‘primitive’ technologies rather than as objects to be appreciated for their sculptural form.

One of the main Dreaming stories that Burruwal depicts is about the spirits Wurlga and Wurum. These ancestors are associated with the regeneration of fish supplies in the Bolkjam region in central Arnhem Land. Burruwal carves, paints and adorns these tall sinuous figures with dilly bags, fishing rods, ceremonial string belts, feathers and armbands. He evokes the spirits of these ancestors and hence ensures the proliferation of fish in the region.

According to Rembarrnga traditions, Wurum ‘had a human form and carried fish in dilly bags. He is sometimes depicted with fins called konno on his legs and arms suggesting a transformational human–fish nature’.[1] To evoke the ancestor spirit, Rembarrnga drew their likeness in either human or fish form on the side of a tree and called out ‘Deny ngarra-jalman ngarr-mangara’ (We want to get fish).

The Wurum spirit figures also serve another purpose. Burruwal describes the paperbark Wurum he constructs as the ‘true’ or original form. This suggests that the more solid wooden carving may have been a later innovation. The artist states that traditionally these paperbark figures would be placed, standing upright, around a mortuary location.[2] This interesting aspect alludes to another story, an additional layer of information, in which the spiritual figure performs a secondary role. Is the figure marking a location or protecting it? What is expected of a person when they approach such a figure in the bush—should they walk away or intrude? This uncertainty remains a mystery; ultimate understanding remains with the artist.

It is difficult to discuss Burruwal’s art without also talking about his wife Lena Yarinkura’s work. Married in the 1980s, both artists share a passion for and work within the dynamic and innovative realm of sculptural art in natural fibres: wood, bark string, pandanus, paperbark, ochre, feather and beeswax. In 1994, Burruwal and Yarinkura’s innovation and creativity took centrestage at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. Their art installation Family drama 1994 comprised a husband, a wife, two children, a dog and a burial platform and won that year’s Wandjuk Marika Three-Dimensional Award.

In Burruwal and Yarinkura’s collaborative work Wyarra family group 2010, their innovative approach to their art practice is evident. The whimsical spirit figures—male and female, young and old—stand gracefully near their camp dog. The carved wooden figures are Burruwal’s and the rather robust paperbark-filled pandanus dog standing guard is Yarinkura’s. As independent artists and as collaborators Burruwal and Yarinkura make an exciting and inventive team. They continue to inspire and encourage one another in the development of their work.

Franchesca Cubillo

[1] ‘Details of Wurum—Fish increasing spirit’, Short St Gallery, Broome, viewed 8 August 2011,

[2] ‘Details of Wurum—Fish increasing spirit’.