Artists create a wide range of wooden and fibre sculptures: spirit figures, birds and animals, lárrkkan (hollow log coffins), and contemporary renderings of fish traps and ceremonial poles. Carvings and fibre sculptures are usually painted with natural pigments, and woven sculptures are coloured with native plant dyes.
The antecedents of contemporary sculptures are the wooden objects that are an integral part of ceremonial and everyday life for the Aboriginal people of Arnhem Land. Three-dimensional objects and carvings are still used during ceremonies and rituals, and ceremonial spirit figures were made from twined fibre and paperbark.
Artists transform hollowed logs into sculptural art objects, often in the dry season when bark isn’t usually harvested. They choose a suitable trunk of a termite-hollowed yárlk, stringybark tree (Eucalpytus tetradonta) and paint it with an elaborate design. Kuninjku artists often use rarrk and create designs far more intricate than those painted on the mortuary lorrkkon that these sculptures emulate.
Lárrkkan is a term for a hollow-log coffin or ossuary that is part of a secondary reburial practice that was a feature of ceremonial life in Arnhem Land. The Lárrkkan ceremony might take place many years after the person had died and last for up to two weeks. On the final night of the ceremony, the bones of the deceased person were placed in a hollow log painted with totemic designs related to the deceased person’s clan.
There are two styles of Lárrkkan ceremonies, distinct in their use of different instruments. In the western style, the ceremonial singing is accompanied by karlikarli, sacred boomerangs used as rhythm instruments. The singing in the bungkurl style Lárrkkan ceremony of Eastern and Central Arnhem Land people is accompanied by the music of didjeridus and clapsticks. This style of ceremony was documented at Gupanga, east of Maningrida, in the award-winning film Waiting for Harry.
John Mawurndjul’s magnificent re-interpretation of a lorrkkon features as part of the interior architecture of the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. Other celebrated artists of this medium are Ivan Namirrkki, who was a finalist in the Clemenger Awards, Kay Lindjuwanga, Samuel Namundjdja, Laurie Marbaduk, Fiona Jin-majinggal and Paul Nabulumo.
Crusoe Kuningbal (c.1922–1984), a Kuninjku singer and dancer famed for his popular mimih performances, was the first person in the Maningrida region to carve wooden mimih figures for the art centre. They were inspired by the mimih carvings Kuningbal made and introduced to the Mamurrng trade ceremony in the 1960s. Previously, carved and painted figurative and abstract objects were made for ceremonies.
Lena Kuriniya (1939–2003) was the first Kuninjku woman to regularly make carvings. She was taught by her husband, Kuningbal, who showed her how to carve and decorate mimih sculptures in his style.
Two of the sons of Kuningbal and Kuriniya – Owen Yalandja (1960) and Crusoe Kurddal (1961) – began to make carvings after the death of their father. Both quickly became highly regarded artists, developing unique repertoires and styles. (Kurddal is also an accomplished actor whose credits include the lead role in Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr’s film Ten Canoes.)
Award-winning Rembarrnga artist Bob Burrawal is renown for carved wurum (fish-increasing spirit) sculptures, crocodiles and also buya male (ceremonial poles).
Lena Yarinkura was taught to create 3D interpretations of stories and narrative works by her mother Lena Djamarrayku. Yarinkura has worked in a range of natural materials from the homelands where she lives with her husband Bob Burruwal, and she has also worked with cast metals.
Brothers Ivan Namirrki (1961) and Samuel Namunjdja (1965) were taught to paint and carve principally by their father, Peter Marralwanga. The mimih that appears in Warwick Thornton’s satirical film Mimi is an animated version of a carving by Namirrki.
There are several types of wood that artists from the Maningrida region usually use to make carvings. One commonly used type of soft and light wood is sourced from kábbukkurdurkk, the cotton or kapok tree (Bombax ceiba), which is found in monsoonal forests. Another frequently used wood is the hard and heavy wood of the màrno, northern kurrajong (Brachychiton diversifolius), a tree that is found in the open forests and woodlands of savannah country.
The conical fish trap has become the ritual focus of certain clan ceremonies, and often appears as a design motif painted on bark. Sacred sites for the fish trap are scattered across western and north-central Arnhem Land, and certain creation beings are said to have imparted the knowledge of fish-trap technology to human beings.
People in north-central Arnhem Land traditionally relied on fish traps for bountiful fish harvests during the times of the year when fish migrations occur. Large groups of people would congregate at seasonal camps and the manufacture and installation of fish traps was a communal activity. Such large-scale hunting drives are still an important context for the renewal and strengthening of company ties between smaller family groups, and to this day they often occur in conjunction with traditional ceremonies. At these times, a large group of people gather together for extended periods of up to several months. The provision of food and other necessities forms part of the ceremonial duties of people in certain kin relations to those who own the ceremony.
Long woven mats, and sometimes more solid trapping fences made from sticks, grass and mud, are used to create barriers in creeks to divert fish into a conical woven fish trap (mandjabu / an-gujechiya).
Anchor Kulunba was a master maker of fish traps; he would weave mandjabu around three metres long. Conical fish traps are now a highly sought-after sculptural fibre art that are mostly made by women.
Making a good conical fish trap is hard work: the vine is difficult to manipulate and artists often work across three or four weeks on the fish trap. It is made by twining fibre into shape around a set of hoops. The fibres usually used are: mírlírl, the burney or jungle vine (Malaisia scandens), makùna, a tough sedge grass (Cyperus javanicus), ngarakáya, pandanus (Pandanus spiralis), and djélarra, a strong climbing plant (Flagellaria indica).
Artists firstly harvest the runners of the sturdy mírlírl and put it in water to soften. Meanwhile they make hoops from djélarra. The hoops internally hold the cylinder shape of the fish trap, and are attached to the twined vine with string made from pandanus or the bark of the kurrajong tree. String is also used to tie the conical end of the fish trap closed.
In 2003, Lorna Jin-gubarrangunyja (1952) won the Wandjuk Marika Award (3D) of the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award with a colourful pandanus fish trap.