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Mimih and Narawan (Snake)

The mimih spirit exists in a realm that runs parallel to and mirrors many facets of human life, also demonstrating the deep sense of time and place understood by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Such spirits feature importantly in relation to Aboriginal spirituality, cosmology, social and moral tales as well as ritual. As is true with the multiple mediums employed by artists of West Arnhem Land, the development of artistic style and form is in line with an awareness by the artist that the work produced is predominantly made for a broader audience. Whether show in a national or international context these works communicate and exist in a particular space that is cross-cultural and simultaneously so particular to the Arnhem region.

The mimih sits within a complex and important pedagogical and religious body of knowledge which links Kuninjku people to their distinctive escarpment homelands. Young Kuninjku artists, or apprentices, employ the mimih as an important exercise for the practice of the rarrk technique, as it could be achieved on a smaller surface area before, being attempted in larger scale, on pieces of bark. The mimih serves a purpose for those young artists first learning to carve in a social space of sharing and innovating. The initial mimih manifestation was a large form that almost mirrored the anatomy of a human and at this stage the sculptures have been likened to morkuy carvings visible in eastern Arnhem Land. Contemporaneously, mimih are depicted in a refined, slender, even emaciated form with a broad range of facial expressions giving both individual character to, and denoting the potential volatility and humour that mimih spirits are notable for in their interaction with bininj (humans). The sculptures are frequently carved from the thin trunks of softwoods such as kapok (bombax ceiba or cottonwood) kurrajong, beach hibiscus or leichardt and are painted with earth pigments for their colouring and design.

A leading figure engaging the spirit in visual storytelling was Crusoe Kuningbal, a Kuninjku man, who while traveling was familiarised with carving styles from the east of Arnhem at the mission in Milingimbi pre-dating World War II. This showing a notable connection and interaction of different language groups across such space. As well as travel and the development of art forms being informed by cross cultural dialogues within northern Aboriginal language groups. The mimih became a valued inclusion in performance and public ceremony by Kuninjku people like Kuningbal. At times these ceremonies were performed for extended language groups in the local region.

Now a familiar and broadly depicted figure of iconography, it is important to acknowledge the development of this quite recent sculptural tradition. The depiction of this particular spirit being, once used as an addition to the sharing of song cycles and ceremony, has since been elevated to a prominent form and subject of contemporary sculpture. Variation in the creation of
mimih acts as an indication of the individualism of each artist and their stylistic markers. Additionally significant to note is that in the space of the past thirty years the mimih has begun being produced by multiple language groups residing in the Maningrida area including the traditional owners of Maningrida, the Ndjébbana, speaking Kunibidji as well as Gurrgoni people who have strong ties to Kuninjku.

*Maningrida Arts & Culture acknowledge the work of many academic and non-academic voices when writing on this topic, it is important to note Luke Taylor, who’s broad research has informed this text.

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