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Ngalyod (Rainbow Serpent)

The rainbow serpent is a powerful mythological figure for all Aboriginal people throughout Australia. Characteristics of the rainbow serpent vary greatly from group to group and also depending on the site. Often viewed as a female generative figure, the rainbow serpent can sometimes also be male. She has both powers of creation and destruction and is most strongly associated with rain, monsoon seasons and of course the colour seen in rainbows which arc across the sky like a giant serpent. For Aboriginal people in Northern Australia, the rainbow serpent is said to be active during the wet season.

Known as Ngalyod in the Kuninjku language of western central Arnhem Land, the rainbow serpent is mostly associated with bodies of water such as billabongs, creeks, rivers and waterfalls where she resides. Therefore she is responsible for the production of most water plants such as water lilies, water vines, algae and palms, which grow near water. The roar of waterfalls in the escarpment country is said to be her voice. Large holes in stony banks of rivers and cliff faces are said to be her tracks. She is held in awe because of her apparent ability to renew her life by shedding her skin and emerging anew. Aboriginal myths about the rainbow serpent often describe her as a fearful creature that swallows humans only to regurgitate them, transformed by her blood. The white ochre used by artists to create the brilliant white paint for bark paintings, body decoration and in the past, rock art, is said to be the faeces of the rainbow serpent.

Aboriginal people today respect and care take sacred sites where the rainbow serpent is said to reside. Often certain activities are forbidden at these places for fear that the wrath of the great snake will cause sickness, accidents and even tempests. This is not always the case however and there are many rainbow serpent sites today where people may enter to hunt, fish or swim. By painting this figure on bark today, Aboriginal people are carrying on the longest uninterrupted mythological tradition in the world, which has been the subject of art and ceremony for possibly thousands of years.

Name: James Iyuna (dec)

Language: Kuninjku

Community: Maningrida


James Iyuna was a Kuninjku artist of the Dhuwa moiety.  Painting mostly on bark and carved wood his major subjects were the myths and legends associated with the Kuninjku spirit world. Iyuna was the son of the renowned fish trap maker, Anchor Kalunba, and learned to weave with jungle vine to make traps and nets when he was young. 


Iyuna and along with his many other siblings (including John Mawurndjul, Jimmy Njiminjuma and Susan Marawarr) had very little Western education because of the difficulty of getting to schools in Oenpelli or Maningrida from their home at the Mumeka outstation. Instead, he learnt the traditional art and culture of his Kuninjku clan from his uncles, including acclaimed bark painter Peter Marralwanga.


Over time he developed his own iconic style and a school of art guided by him emerged at Mumeka outstation.  Iyuna regularly exhibited interstate and overseas. In 2006 he and his wife Melba Gunjarrwanga were commissioned to create a public art project for the Darwin Entertainment Centre. They created a ceiling structure for the 240-square-meter verandah area, inspired by kunkale wobe (traditional fish net fences) and constructed out of copper wire. They drew on their skills as weavers to design and construct the installation. 


In the later years of his life he exhibited large bodies of work with his wife at leading galleries including Alcaston in Melbourne and Annandale in Sydney.  His work is held in held in major public and private collections including the National Gallery of Australia, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales and Walonia Aboriginal Art in the Netherlands.


His legacy continues through the work of the next generations including his neices, Deborah Wurrkidj, Jennifer Wurrkidj and his grand children, Apphia Wurrkidj, Elias Wurrkidj and Pam Wurrkidj.

© the artist / art centre