Published by on

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: Ivan Namirrkki

Language: Kuninjku

Community: Maningrida


“We have been all around the world to exhibitions. I am the voice of this artists group and a strong man; a proud traditional owner who is happy to inform my peoples of our future in telling stories around the world. We are thinking about our history, always thinking as we are creating and learning, and my family put their stories on some bark and some rocks here in this country. For my kids and grandkids to learn and teach their kids and grandkids, I think this is really wonderful. This is really important to me and the people of this community, so that this story can keep me strong story, one that is passed on for future generations.” - Ivan Namirrkki.

Kuninjku artist Ivan Namirrkki was born in 1961.  Namirrkki was taught to paint by his father Peter Marralwanga  (1917–1987) - a renowned bark painter and political proponent of the maintenance of ‘country’.

Namirrkki was first taught to paint by his father in a figurative manner. The focus was stories like Kalawan and Namorrorddo for his Kardbam clan lands near Mankorlod although later Marralwanga also guided Namirrkki in the stories for other clans around Kumurrulu. He helped his father work on two exhibitions in Perth in 1981 and 1983 and travelled to Perth as part of the project. To distinguish his own figurative works Namirrkki often used black paint as the background to the figures although, like his father, he also became adept at varying the pattern of infill from rarrk to dotting to sections of full colour to create dynamic visual effects. In the late 1990s Namirrkki moved to paint geometric work in the Mardayin style. His style is very strongly symmetrical with evenly spaced bands of rarrk arrayed in concentric diamond forms. This diamond arrangement has become his signature and it features as the background of works that show the complex interconnections between waterholes in his country. He also contrasts this patterning with dotting and other variations of rarrk to indicate the power of the sites. Occasionally Namirrkki will return to paint figurative images or combine them in more geometric images.

Common themes in his work include the ngalyod (rainbow serpent), birmlu and djarlahdjarlah (barramundi), kalawan (goanna), komorlo (little egret), komrdawh (freshwater turtle), nadjinem (black wallarroo), nakidikidi (a harmful and nasty spirit), namorrorddo (a profane spirit), nayuhyungki bininj (ancient people), ngaldjalarrk (snake), ngalyod (rainbow serpent), ngurrurdu (emu), and yawkyawk (a female water spirit).

He is also known for painting leech djang located at Yibalaydjyigod and maggot djang located at Yirolk.   Luke Taylor cites Namirrkki and his father’s work,  transferring this djang (or dreaming), as a political act, invoking a tangible aboriginal ontology in relation to land, life and the spiritual.  

“The point of painting such work for the market is to expose viewers directly to the power of the Ancestral realm…Namirrkki has spoken of his love for country particularly the soothing qualities of living adjacent to its important waters. There is also a confidence and peace derived from living in one’s heartland that  flows to all activities conducted there. An understanding of the importance of country provides the context for more developed understanding of Kuninjku concepts of personhood, sociality, power, and health, as well as local constructions of other frameworks of human experience such as aesthetic experience.”1

Namirrkki began exhibiting his work in the early nineteen eighties and has been presented in numerous group and solo shows over the years, both in Australia and overseas. In 2006 he was a finalist in the National Gallery of Victoria’s Clemenger Contemporary Art Prize.  Namarrkki’s art can be found in many collections including that of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of South Australia.

1.  Luke Taylor, Connections of Spirit: Kuninjku Attachments to Country,  in Country, Native Title and Ecology, ed. Jessica K. Weir, pp. 21-46.

© the artist / art centre