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James Iyuna / Ngalyod, The Rainbow Serpent (1A)

77cm x 57cm Ochres on Arches Paper

SKU: 4790


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Photo of Jame’s wife Melba and grandchildren, who brought the painting into the gallery as James painted on country and rarely went into town

Dob: 1959
Died: 2016
Tribe: Kunwinjku
Area: Western Arnhem Land. NT
Outstation: Mumeka
Language Bloc: Bininj kunwok
Language: Eastern Kunwinjku
Local Group (clan): Kurulk clan
Social Affiliations: Duwa moiety, Balang subsection

James is one of four brothers living at Mumeka, a remote outstation situated beside the mighty Mann River in the Stone Country which stretches in an almost unbroken line for 300 miles from Kakadu to Maningrida in Arnhemland.

James and his brothers had very little western education because of the difficulty of getting to a school at either Oenpelli or Maningrida, the nearest townships in Arnhemland. Instead they spent most of their time learning the history and religion of the Kunwinjku tribe as told to them by their uncle, the late famous bark painter Peter Maralwanga.

Their own father did not paint either on rock or on bark, and died when his four sons were quite small. Maralwanga took them to his outstation about 20 miles away and taught them how to paint in his inimitable style, which featured the complex pattern of rarrk or cross hatching for which he was most famous, and included brilliant flashes of white, said to be  the fossilised droppings of the Rainbow Serpent. This clay comes from a hidden deposit at a secret and sacred place to which no other artists have access.

All of the brothers – Iyuna, Mawundjal, Njiminjuma and Bandawunga – achieved fame as traditional painters of the mythology taught to them by their uncle.

In 2006 James and his wife Melba Gunjarrwanga were commissioned to create a public art project for the Darwin Entertainment Centre. James continues to paint at his isolated outstation, only leaving it to attend mortuary rites and secret and sacred ceremonies, for some of which he is the ceremonial leader. James’s paintings hang in major galleries, and are featured in many art books.

Subjects and Themes
Ngalyod Rainbow Serpent, Dilebang sacred site rainbow serpents, Buluwana
submerged ancestor at Ngandarrayo, Mandjabu conical fish trap, Kunmadj dilly bag, Mimih spirits

Selected Collections
Art Gallery of Western Australia
Museum of Contemporary Art, Maningrida Collection, Sydney
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
National Maritime Museum, Darling Harbour, Sydney
Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin
Aboriginal Art Museum, The Netherlands
Andreas-Avery Collection, Sydney

Aboriginal people believe that Ngalyod, the Rainbow Serpent, created many sacred sites in Arnhem Land, including a large billabong near the artist’s camp high up in the Stone Country between Oenpelli and Maningrida, where he is supposed to rest in the dry season. Characteristics of Ngalyod vary from group to group and also depend on the site. He can change into a female serpent as well as other creatures, and has both powers of creation and destruction, most strongly associated with rain, monsoon seasons and the rainbows which arc across the sky like a giant serpent. He is most active in the wet season, preferring to spend the dry season in billabongs and freshwater springs where he is responsible for the production of water plants such as waterlilies, vines, algae and the cabbage tree palms, his favourite food, which grow around the banks of all his resting places.

When waterfalls roar down deep gorges, it is said that Ngalyod is calling out, and large holes in stony banks of rivers and cliff faces are said to be his tracks. Aboriginal people respect and caretake sacred sites where the Rainbow Serpent is said to reside, and forbid certain activities to take place in case they incur the wrath of the serpent, resulting in sickness, accidents and great floods.

He is often depicted with two gristly bones protruding from the back of the head. This enables him to burrow underground more easily. Although Ngalyod is generally feared throughout the Stone Country, he is a friend and protector of the tiny mimi spirits, which sometimes curl up and sleep within his coils, where they feel safe.

Mardayin ceremonies, which are secret and sacred, consist of a series of song and dance cycles, which last for several days. Song men chant about the deeds of Ancestral Dreamtime Beings to the accompaniment of a clapstick man and didgeridoo player. The most important song cycles relate to the Rainbow Serpent.

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