Lena Yarinkura Camp Dogs 2008, group of five, pandanus fibre, wood, ochre and feathers. Courtesy the artist and Maningrida Arts and Culture. Photo: Australian Museum.

An exciting collaboration between the Australian Museum and Object Gallery has created 'Menagerie', meaning both 'a collection of wild or strange animals, especially for exhibition' and ‘a place where they are kept or exhibited’.

There are 33 established and emerging indigenous artists who have created animals as small as an ant (to be gobbled up by the ever-present ant-eaters) to a spiritual ancestor - the 'Yawkyawk' – who soars at more than 2 metres tall at the entrance to the exhibition.

'Yawkyawk' (2009) opens the dialogue between the artworks as representations of animals known and loved and as representations of spirit ancestors linked through sound ecological practice to traditional and sustainable ways of life at risk in today’s world. It was created by Owen Yalandja, a Kunjinku man from Maningrida following in the tradition commenced by his father in 1968. In this instance, the 'yawkyawk' is a spirit figure, carved and painted on wood from trees whose shapes suggest lithe, female forms. ('Yawkyawk' is a word in the Kunwinjku/Kunwok language of Western Arnhem Land meaning ‘young woman’ and ‘young woman spirit being’.) Rising from their watery reaches, a fishy tail evokes freshwater streams and rivers and the finely painted details on the body of the sculpture suggest delicate patterns of scales on a white ochre background. From his father to his sons, the artist recognises that he is the link in this important tradition.

From this spiritual creature, the menagerie displays a group of 'Camp Dogs' (2008) closely observed and skillfully realised by Lena Yarinkura, also from Maningrida and working with fibre in an extension of the basketry techniques well-known from that region. These five playful dogs scratch and sniff and interact with each other but watchfully keep an eye on the gallery visitor. They know to expect the shouts or the kick and will evade this abuse with ease born of experience. Essential for keeping camps clean of litter and waste, these skinny-legged and remarkably well-fed specimens are a statement of the symbiotic relationship between the dogs and community life as well as ‘depicting ancestral figures from a story told to the artist by her father.’

Johnny Young Aherre (Kangaroos) 2008, pair, steel and copper wire, 28 x 39 x 92 cm and 49 x 26 x 66 cm. Courtesy the artist and Tapatjatjaka Art and Craft Centre. Photo: Australian Museum.

This duality (worldly/spiritual) is overtly expressed in the extraordinary self-portrait sculpture 'Baru' (2007) by Djambawa Marawili of Arnhem Land. Standing behind the man is the enclosing ‘cape’ of a crocodile, forearms resting gently on Marawili’s shoulders. He is himself and the salt water crocodile as well as the ancestral Madarrpa man who was changed into a crocodile by fire. Standing behind the crocodile the image of the man is obscured. Standing in front of the man, the head of the crocodile arches above him, patterned in the same markings as the man. They are as one - the story of the ancestral events is recorded in the catalogue: ‘the spirit of this event is within the land and the people of this place. The designs and ceremony of fire and crocodile belong to the Madarrpa people.’

Danie Mellor is represented by 'Red White and Blue' (2008), three life-sized kangaroos, the surfaces of which are covered with red, white and blue tessellated mosaic, referencing Spode china of the 18th century with its charming depictions of other cultures and their exotic and unknown wildlife for the delectation of imperial nations. The kangaroo and the emu dominate the Commonwealth Coat of Arms, the national emblem of Australia. (The emu is also represented in Menagerie by 'Emu' (2007) by Laurie Nilsen.) These national emblems are often found today on menus at restaurants catering for the heart-conscious consumer. (Are we the only nation that eats our native fauna?) The kangaroos of Mellor’s work hear nothing, see nothing and say nothing and stand, in his words: ‘also for the muted position of a culture that was dominated, undermined by loss of language and displacement and ultimately the deliberate attempt to curtail a way of life and the natural resources – cultural, spiritual, social and material – of the original inhabitants of the land.’ It is a superficially charming yet substantively complex work.

It is interesting to compare the Stingray works by Dennis Nona 'Gubuka (Stingrays)' (2008) and Frewa Bardaluna’s 'Stingrays Group of 7'. Nona’s work of bronze and aluminium with pearlshell inlay incised with channelled lines brings to mind his impressive prints. His love of the decorated two-dimensional surface is given play in the reflected light on the three-dimensional metallic forms. More than a metre in height and balanced delicately on their tails, the stingrays rear upwards indicating when they leap from the water: ‘an imminent change in weather conditions. The action of these stingrays represents their spiritual connection with man.’
By contrast, the stingrays of Bardaluna float their way across the gallery floor in a horizontal plane evoking the undercurrents of an ocean tide. Woven from pandanus fibre and dyed a range of subtle colours, these rays are a source of food and an integral part of the natural environment rather than the glistening feisty spirits of Nona’s work. ‘The stingray is in the river and the saltwater, there is a big mob in the river. We get the stingray when we are fishing, we eat it. It is good tucker.’

Leigh Namponan Waath (Crow) 2008, milkwood and ochre, 39 x 26 x 14 cm. Courtesy the artist and Wik and Kugu Art and Craft. Photo: Australian Museum. 

'Menagerie' is an exhibition of many animals, fish, fowl and insects from different areas of Australia and the Torres Strait created in all media. The sinuous wooden reptiles of desert carving, the large basketry form of the Murray Cod, spiky ant-eaters, lace-covered crabs, shiny metallic beasts, copper horses, delicate flying creatures and a Tasmanian Devil are all included.

Vicki West’s 'Hella' (2009) is her ‘voice for a wider understanding of survival and knowledge of respect and responsibility for our ‘home’...Today we are faced with the possible extinction of the Tasmanian devil currently threatened by facial tumour disease. It is my belief that since European invasion, disrespect for the land and the natural environment play a major role in the near-extinction of yet another significant Tasmanian mammal.’

The exhibition catalogue and the accompanying film are of great value. The catalogue is beautifully illustrated. Due to the nature of the research project undertaken by the curators – travelling to various locations and experiencing the production of the works, the artists’ voices are strongly heard. There are biographies and essays on the processes of making as well as an overview of contemporary indigenous sculpture in Australia. It is a catalogue that will be a reference work for many years to come and although it will stand alone, it is a worthy companion to an intelligent, comprehensive and visually dynamic exhibition.