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.