National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award

Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin

The overall winner of the 1997 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award (NATSIAA) was Yanggarriny Wunungmurra of Yirrkala for his work in natural pigments on bark titled Gangan. Other prize-winners were Narputta Nangala from Haasts Bluff for her work in synthetic polymer paint on linen, Karrkurrutinytja; Wakartu Gory Surprise of Fitzroy Crossing for her work in synthetic polymer paint on paper, Tapu; Djutjadjutja Mununggurr of Yirrkala for his work in natural pigments on bark, Bol'ngu; and Lena Yarinkula of Maningrida for her sculptural work in natural fibres, Family of Yawk Yawks.

Yawk Yawks (pronounced Yowk) are fish-tailed beings, frequently compared with mermaids, living in freshwater streams in various locations throughout Arnhem land. Ancestor Yawk Yawks travelled the land in human shape, changing to the aquatic form as a result of various site specific adventures. They are recorded in song and in paintings and carvings throughout Arnhem land. In this depiction Yarinkura created two adults and two children, with a strange feeling of a European nuclear family about them. The Yawk Yawks are life-size, twined from pandanus fibre, stuffed with paperbark and painted with natural pigments. Feathers have been attached for hair, and in the case of the father, a beard.

There are very few central Arnhem Land women artists who, like Lena Yarinkura, are versed in a range of artforms, and who demonstrate a great facility for innovation. Her proficiency as a bark painter and decorator of hollow log bone coffins, whilst significant, is as this Award recognises, overshadowed by her exceptional talents in her earliest medium, fibre. This is the area she feels provides her with the maximum scope for experimentation, and is the one in which she excels.

During the 1980s Yarinkura developed an innovative approach to fibre craft by combining various weaving techniques, resulting in unusual basket shapes and feathered decorations. In 1994 her art moved in a new direction with the production of major sculptural installations of near life-sized figures in bound, painted paperbark. Since then she has experimented further with her technique, turning, in the case of the family of Yawk Yawks, to constructions based on twined pandanus in the style of open weave dilly bags. In this winning work Yarinkula has demonstrated as clearly as anyone before her the truly dynamic nature of Aboriginal art: her work is an outstanding example to those who are tempted to assume an artist's place of residence is a reliable measure of their works' traditional or contemporary content.