Lena Nyadbi by Margie West

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

I paint my country from Crocodile Hole to Doon Doon. This is my father’s country. I don’t paint my mother’s country; I don’t really know her country. She passed away when I was a good size (maybe 12 or 13), but she did tell me about her father’s country and I paint that country, I paint Dayiwul Lirlmim.(1)

Since her career began at Warmun, Western Australia in 1998, Lena Nyadbi has elegantly resolved her two major Ngarranggarni (Dreamings) into dramatic, iconic compositions of repeat lines for her Jimbirlam (spearpoints), and arcs for her Dayiwul Lirlmim (barramundi scales). The arcs replicate women’s body paint used in performative rituals associated with this elusive fish, whose main site is Thilthuwam (Old Lissadell Station) on her grandfather’s Gija Country.

In 2013, a major intercultural shift occurred when Nyadbi’s Dayiwul Lirlmim image was selected to cover the 700‑square‑metre mezzanine roof of the Musée du quai Branly in Paris. Her monochromatic painting of shimmering white arcs is now the largest Indigenous mural in Europe, best viewed from the elevated heights of the Eiffel Tower or by Google Earth. It is accessible to millions of people worldwide, but not to visitors to the museum itself. The mural, in effect, is both visible and invisible.

This idea was as audacious as the decision to select Nyadbi for the commission, given that her Jimbala and Gemerre (spearhead and scarification) was one of seven other Australian Indigenous murals completed for the Musée’s opening in 2006. Nyadbi is now the only artist with two major museum murals that represent her most important Dreamings.

The story of Dayiwul Lirlmim centres on the ancestral barramundi being chased by a group of old women with nets of rolled spinifex. In desperation she escapes by jumping through the mountain’s gap (Barramundi Gap) and shedding her scales, which transform into white and other variously coloured diamonds.

The association of barramundi scales with diamonds crystallised after diamond mining began at Argyle in the 1980s, and eventually levelled the significant Barramundi Gap site. While relationships have improved since the signing of the Argyle Participation Agreement in 2004, the women remain saddened by the site’s destruction, and their belated recognition as its custodians. Nyadbi consequentially expresses mixed feelings about her Paris mural:

It made me sorry for my country, poor bugger. That fish, he is a long way from his country. He is next to a different river, but he is a long way from his country. I was thinking about my mother and my family. It made me sorry but it also made me feel strong and good about my country.(2)

(1) Gabriel Nodea, ‘Nyadbi considers career and country’, The West Australian, 24 February 2014, at thewest.com.au/news/wa/nyadbi -considers career-and-country-ng-ya-366164, accessed 12 December 2019.

(2) As above.

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: West, Margie. "Lena Nyadbi" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 280–281.

MARGIE WEST is Emeritus Curator, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin.

Lena Nyadbi appears in

  • The Book

    With more than 150 artists profiled, the Know My Name book celebrates art by women from across Australia.