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Wurum (Fish Increasing Spirit)

Aboriginal people throughout Australia undertook rituals, which were designed to result in the increase of various natural species. The Rembarrnga people of Central Arnhem Land tell of the spirit being Wurum who 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.

In order to create an abundance of certain fish species, Rembarrnga people would draw an image of Wurum on the side of a tree. They would then call out the following invocation; Deny ngarra-jalman ngarr-mangara, ‘We want to get fish’. Following this they would sleep for a night and then it is said that there would be an increase in fish.
Wurum is associated with a site called Kukaddjerre in Balngarra clan estate south of Maningrida. The Wurum also has a further function.

Burruwal described the paperbark Wurum he constructed as the ‘true’ or original form. This suggests that the more solid wooden carving may have been a later innovation. The artist told that ‘in the early days’ these paperbark figures would be placed, standing upright, around a mortuary site for two distinct purposes; to watch and ward off evil spirits, and to signal to people the presence of a mortuary location, so they could find or stay clear of it.

The ability of a contemporary artist like Burruwal to make these highly traditional paperbark figures – a relic of a bygone era – underscores the intimate spiritual links Burruwal has to his personal ancestry.

Name: Bob Burruwal (dec)

Language: Rembarrnga

Community: Maningrida


“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.”   - Bob Burruwal

Bob Burruwal, born in 1952, is a celebrated Rembarrnga artist, who lives and works at Ankabarrbirri, an outstation, close to Maningrida.  He performs an important role in ceremony and song with in his clan.


Burruwal along with his partner, Lena Yarinkura, have led the innovation in fibre art from Arnhem land which has received local and international critical acclaim for the better part of three decades. 


Common subjects of his work include the wurlga, wurum (fish-increasing) and namorrorddo spirits. Since the early 1990’s his practice has extended into installation, creating scenes from stories handed down to him. Occasionally creating major installations  with Lena Yarinkura,  narrative is a  key feature of his work.  His  1994 collaboration with Yarinkura, ‘Family Drama’, won the  prestigious Wandjuk Marika Memorial Three-Dimensional Award at the 11th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. 



Burruwal is also well know for his mako (didgeridoo), prized for the artist's fine selection of wood and their resulting acoustics.



His work has also appeared in numerous solo & group exhibitions  and in major institutional shows nationally and internationally.  His work in held in public and private collections around the world.

© the artist / art centre