Fibre sculpture adapting techniques learnt from her mother

Lena Yarinkura

Lena Yarinkura is a Kune woman from Buluhkaduru in Maningrida, Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. In the mid-1990s Yarinkura pioneered a new school of fibre sculpture, adapting the techniques she learnt from her mother, Lena Djamarrayku, to construct sculptural work. In recent years, Yarinkura has connected elements of her practice to realise large and complex multimedia installations that contain characters and events drawn from the cultural knowledge and stories shared between her and her husband.

No one taught me to use pandanus to make my animals. I have been teaching myself, I create new ways all the time. They are only my ideas … I pass my ideas on to my children and my grandchildren. It is important that I teach them, because one day I will be gone, and they will take my place
Lena Yarinkura

Yolanda Rostron

Yolanda Rostron is a Rembarrnga woman from the Balngarra clan. She grew up at Bolkdjam, an outstation near Maningrida community, and later moved to Ankabarrbirri outstation, where she lives today. From an early age she helped her artist parents, Lena Yarinkura and Bob Burruwal, to harvest materials and watched them create sculptures and bark paintings. In her own practice, Rostron depicts a range of figures, including yawkyawk (female water spirit), wurum (fish-increasing spirit), djamo (dog) and djurn (black-nosed python), interpreting the stories passed down to her as well as developing her own identity as a fibre artist. Recently her daughter Philomena Kelly also began learning techniques from her mother and grandparents, visible in her expressive sculptural animals and spirit beings as well as dart (bark painting).

Ngalbenbe (The Sun Story)

Lena Yarinkura, Kune people, Northern Territory, born Buluhkaduru, Northern Territory 1960, Ngalbenbe (sun story), 2018, Ankadbadberri, Northern Territory, pandanus (Pandanus spiralis), kurrajong (Brachychiton populneus), paperbark (Melaleuca quinquenervia), feathers, rocks, sand, earth pigments, natural dyes; Gift of the artist and acquisition through Tarnanthi: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art supported by BHP 2019, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, © Lena Yarinkura/Maningrida Arts & Culture/Copyright Agency, photo: Grant Hancock.

Ngalbenbe (The Sun Story) is an installation created by Lena Yarinkura and her daughter Yolanda Rostron which depicts an important ancestral activity in the cosmology of the Kune and Rembarrnga people of Arnhem Land. The sculptures within the installation are made from pandanus, paperbark (Melaleuca quinquenervia), feathers, rocks, sand, earth pigments and natural dyes. This work tells the story of Ngalbenbe (the sun) and the journey of three fishermen who head out to fish with their walabi (butterfly fish trap). Many stories like this inform behaviour and define knowledge and values, as Yarinkura explains:

Ngalbenbe is the sun. Beyond Ngalbenbe is another larger star, the mother of Ngalbenbe. Each morning Ngalbenbe rises through the sky and sets at night.

‘I am tired. Can I rest for just one day and you will rise?’ Ngalbenbe asks.

Ngalbenbe is the sun. Beyond Ngalbenbe is another larger star, the mother of Ngalbenbe. Each morning Ngalbenbe rises through the sky and sets at night.

‘I am tired. Can I rest for just one day and you will rise?’ Ngalbenbe asks.

‘No, I am too powerful, I cannot shine: if I rise, everything will die,’ says Ngalbenbe’s mother.[i]

Korokko (long ago), three bininj (men), Kodjok, Bulanj and Kamarrang, went hunting for djenj(fish). Bulanj and Kodjok are custodians for Ngalbenbe, and Kamarrang is djungkay (manager).They had a walabi (butterfly fish trap), but they struggled to hold it in the water because the river was too high. They appealed to Ngalbenbe and made a fire, a really hot fire, which made the sun shine brightly. The water level dropped and the hunters could place the fish trap in the river. They told everyone, ‘The water is dry now, we can go hunting for fish.’

In the past, people made kunkarlewobe (stick fence fish trap) at a place called Kukadjdjerre. There’s a little fish there called ngadjbel (mouth almighty) that would travel far up the river and bring back all the larger fish: bilmu (barramundi), barrhmanj (saratoga) and bikkurr (catfish). When there were no fish, people would do a painting of ngadjbel on a tree behind the fence, leave it overnight, and the next morning there would be plenty of fish. As custodians for Kukadjdjerre, wurum (fish-increasing spirits) look after the area and also call out for fish when people ask.

After a big catch, everyone would celebrate together. People sent mak(message stick) to spread the word. Singers and mako (didgeridoo) men would travel for the celebrations. That’s what they do when they tell people, they share bunggul (dance). Sharing fish and dancing together. We dance Karrh (Spider) and Manwodberr (Cocky apple). The songlines for Karrh and Ngalbenbe are together, they are family.[ii]

[i]Lena Yarinkura, 2018, personal communication to Michelle Culpitt.

[ii]Lena Yarinkura, 2020, personal communication to Chloe Gibbon.

Yarinkura has adapted the fundamental skills of weaving learnt from her mother, including coiling, twisting and looping – processes that may be used to make a dilly bag or fish trap or to create an array of fibre sculptures. What skills have you learnt from a female figure in your family?

Ngalbenbe teaches values, practices and history of Kune culture. Look at the installation and read the story of the work. What are the values being taught? Make a list of all the things that are valued or practised in your school and home environment.

What is the role of Ngalbenbe(the sun) in this story? Why is the sun so important – what is its role in the universe and for planet Earth?

Read a well-known creation story as a class. While listening to the narrator, create an illustration to accompany this story.

Look closely at the Woven figure, 1996, made by Lena Yarinkura and compare this to her collaborative installation Ngalbenbe, 2018. How has Yarinkura’s practice evolved or changed over time? You may also like to look at other examples of Yarinkura’s work held in other collections across the country.

Lena Yarinkura, Kune people, Northern Territory, born Buluhkaduru, Northern Territory 1960, Woven figure, 1996, Bolkdjam, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, natural ochres on woven (twined) pandanus (Pandanus spiralus) stuffed with paperbark., 118.0 x 47.0 cm, 18.0 x 119.0 x 47.0 cm (box); Maude Vizard-Wholohan Art Purchase Award 1996, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, © Lena Yarinkura/Copyright Agency.


detail: Lena Yarinkura, Kune people, Northern Territory, born 1960, Buluhkaduru, Northern Territory, Ngalbenbe (sun story), 2018, Ankadbadberri, Northern Territory, pandanus (Pandanus spiralis), kurrajong (Brachychiton populneus), paperbark (Melaleuca quinquenervia), feathers, rocks, sand, earth pigments, natural dyes; Gift of the artist and acquisition through Tarnanthi: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art supported by BHP 2019, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, © Lena Yarinkura/Copyright Agency, photo: Grant Hancock.

Lena Yarinkura, Kune people, Northern Territory, born Buluhkaduru, Northern Territory 1960, Ngalbenbe (sun story), 2018, Ankadbadberri, Northern Territory, pandanus (Pandanus spiralis), kurrajong (Brachychiton populneus), paperbark (Melaleuca quinquenervia), feathers, rocks, sand, earth pigments, natural dyes; Gift of the artist and acquisition through Tarnanthi: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art supported by BHP 2019, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, © Lena Yarinkura/Maningrida Arts & Culture/Copyright Agency, photo: Grant Hancock.

Look at different examples of figurative works of art by artists who have used textiles or fibres to create their works and compare these to the techniques, materials and ideas used by Yarinkura and Rostron. While they are very different, what similarities do they share? Create a soft sculpture of an important figure in your life. Write a story or creative biography to accompany your sculpture.

Tip: Look at soft sculptures by Yarrenyty Arltere Artists and fibre figures by Tjanpi Desert Weavers.

Recall a funny or happy moment you have experienced with your family. Describe the sensory elements – can you feel the sun on your skin or cold wind on your face or can you recall the aromas from the kitchen or sounds from outside? Recreate this scene using sculpture and include a sound element.

Lena is renowned for her fibre sculptures that include people, spirit beings and animals such as the bandicoots and dogs that can be seen in the installation Namorrorddo, 2017, which was made by Lena and her husband Bob Burruwal. In Ngalbenbe, Lena has collaborated with her daughter Yolanda.In pairs, select a children’s book that features animals as the main characters. Select a scene from this book and create at least two sculptures using textiles, fibre and recycled materials to illustrate an important part of the story.

Investigate other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists who have used astronomy as inspiration for their work. Explore how these artists explain the cyclic phenomena involving the sun, moon and stars in their works of art. Create a work of art that pays tribute to a cyclic phenomenon of your choosing.

Tip: Other artists to start with - Badger Bates, Tjampawa Katie Kawiny, Brian Robinson and Gulumbu Yunupiŋu.