Lena Nyadbi: Dayiwul in Paris

Lena Nyadbi, Daiwul Lirirmim (Barramundi Scales),
Lena Nyadbi, Daiwul Lirimim (Barramundi Scales), 2013, installation view on the rooftop of the Musée du quai Branly


The nearness and distance of environmental things among themselves are always grounded in primary remotion, which is a character of the world itself ... I thus use the word “remotio” to a certain extent in a transitive, active sense: re-moting [entfernen, etymologically “removing distance” ] making distance disappear.
Martin Heidegger[1]

Making distance disappear is not a trick of the eye or a clever word – it is intercultural work. “Vive le différence” can simultaneously mean both, to “own the difference’” and to “subvert the ownership”. The problematic of the Musée du quai Branly is inward and I won’t really go there except to say that this international museum of significant cultural and artistic materiality pilfered from the world’s Indigenous peoples and presented in glass vitrines within a cave of leather clad walls, houses nothing of European Indigenous culture. This clearly remains a challenge.

But the real story is the commissioning of an Aboriginal artist from the other side of the world to install the most highly significant piece of contemporary art that ever landed in Paris. Lena Nyadbi’s Musée du quai Branly rooftop installation Daiwul Lirlmim (Barramundi Scales) (2013) is indelibly etched into the Paris city skyline as the single largest contemporary art installation ever seen in a European city. A visionary statement by the Museum and commissioning architect Jean Nouvel, but even more so by the City of Paris itself, which has perhaps inadvertently brought contemporaneity[2] to Paris.

Yet, two years on, it remains to be seen whether the full importance of the work has been realised, not only in Paris, but around the world. Dayiwul Lirlmim (Barramundi Scales) (2013) is certainly an audacious re-visioning of global intercultural trajectories and arguably a reconfiguration of contemporary time itself; yet, for Nyadbi, the work is simply a true story, an everyday Ngarrangarni story for all time.

Lena Nyadbi, Eiffel Tower, 2013
Lena Nyadbi, Eiffel Tower, 2013

In the Ngarranggarni (dreaming), three Gija women were fishing for Dayiwul the Barramundi with a trap made of nyiyirriny (spinifex grass). This is a traditional Gija method of fishing where ngirriny is rolled in the water to form a net. The women chased Dayiwul up the river to shallow water, but he was smarter than they were and he escaped by leaping over their spinifex grass trap and through the gap in the mountain range. When Dayiwul landed his lirlmim (scales) were scattered all over the ground. The Dayiwul Lirlmim turned into diamonds. Dayiwul Lirlmim Ngarranggarni is in Lena’s mother’s father’s country, Thilthuwam (now known as Lissadell Station). The biggest diamond mine in the world, Argyle Diamonds, now occupies this highly significant site, reducing what was originally a beautiful narrow gap between two ranges of hills, to an open cut mine. Yet the obvious sadness and tension in this reality is somehow thrown into new perspective by the power, wisdom and longevity of the Ngarrangarni. It’s not too late to listen. As Nyadbi points out, the scales of the barramundi look just like a diamond: “He looks just like a diamond himself, you can see him shiny-shiny”. With her characteristic self-deprecating sense of humour and irony, Lena laughs and says “my old people bin reckon that bush stone (diamond) was nothing, but a good sharp one for spear. They never bin know he’s a diamond.” At this point one realises that the agency of Daiwul Lirlmim is far more significant than one can imagine.

Over 700 square metres on the rooftop of the Musée du quai Branly, Lena Nyadbi’s Dayiwul Lirlmim (Barramundi Scales) leaves us in no doubt of the significance of this story, yet the real locus of power exists in the work’s informal counsel. Its formal placement is almost irrelevant – were it not for its intercultural significance and the way the artist envisions its flow through the city of Paris. Its formal design supports the reflective power of the intercultural journey of the Dayiwul Ngarrangarni to Paris; literally re-forming amid the flow of the city and the river Seine. Nyadbi says “that Dayiwul, he bin swim through that whole city, all over, all the way. But that Dayiwul, he’s really in my country”.[3]

Contemporaneity in all time is surely a given, leaving the dissolution of linear time in its wake. Nyadbi’s Paris installation makes it clear. The hiatus between what is generally considered to be an old-fashioned contemplative mode of engagement with art and a more contemporary experiential approach is no longer the discussion. Beyond global modernism, installation art has always been participatory; it is originary.[4] And Dayiwul Lirlmim is participatory on a grand scale. It can only be seen from the top of the Eiffel Tower or via Google Earth, which changes the game. All of a sudden the contemplative and the experiential are once again inseparable, renewable, egalitarian; open to the sky, this is a story for all.

Concurrently, any reinterpretation of Dayiwul Lirlmim (Barramundi Scales) (2013) is humbled and deepened by its difficulty and the expansiveness of this shifted course. It seems clear that this particularly aqueous evocation by the Dayiwul Ngarrangarni is capable of a highly symbolic and truly immersive leap – right through the gap between European and Indigenous knowledge. Lena Nyadbi makes it abundantly clear that the dissolution of intercultural disparity is not only necessary, but eloquently and immediately straightforward.

Lena Nyadbi and Mabel Juli, Dayiwul Country. Photo: Jonathan Kimberley

As a senior Gija law woman, and through her work as an artist, Nyadbi’s sharing of knowledge is direct, generous and gently instructive in its almost unfathomable reality. For those of us not from Gija country, this is continuous and important learning. Another Gija elder and artist, Rusty Peters, clearly states,

Mananambarra yirriyilinyi. Yirremoolonyi-berroowa jimerrawoon.
Bemberramoorloowardbe-ngarri wayinggi bemberrayidbe-yirri.
Damga bemberramoorlardbe-ngarri gelengen nuinjinuygirriwooroon-yarre.
Gelengegbe yirremenyi. Gelengen ngara-ngarar-garri yirran woolangen yirranyi-birri larrne.

We have become the senior law people.
We are holding knowledge from the old people forever.
Those things they used to hold, they taught us.
That knowledge they had, we don’t forget.
We make it new. Today when we paint we are the contemporary leaders of all time.[5]

The difference between the seemingly ephemeral and permanent trace of a story may exist in the machinations of the spatiality, rather than in the hubris determined by the discussion, the intention, the gap in knowledge … between us. Strolling along the Seine, or climbing the Eiffel Tower, may induce moments of intense cultural insight through a potent and classical combination of the contemplative and the experiential. Such romantic exultation occurs every day for the uninitiated in Paris, as it does for non-Indigenous visitors to Lena Nyadbi’s country in Australia, where the saturating expanse of ancient red ranges and spinifex plains can somehow cause an overwhelming shift in consciousness. By no means is Dayiwul Lirlmim merely a spatiality of the surface. At every level the potential for intercultural learning remains immense. “And we are still only at the frontier of the time when the western world, having gone around the Earth and, unlike exoticism, has no more horizon but to open up, from the interior of itself, to those it had tried to absorb …”.[6]

Dayiwul Lirlmim, immersed in the skein of contemporary Paris, offers another way through altogether. Lena Nyadbi shows us that gaps in global intercultural knowledge are brim-full with potential.



  1. ^ Martin Heidegger (trans. Theodore Kisiel), History of the Concept of Time, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992, p. 227.
  2. ^ See references to contemporaneity: Terry Smith, ‘Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity’, Critical Enquiry, Summer 2006 pp. 681–707; Ian McLean, How Aborigines Invented the Idea of Contemporary Art: Writings on Aboriginal contemporary art, Sydney: Power Publications, Sydney & Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2011. 
  3. ^ Lena Nyadbi in conversation with the author, Warmun Art Centre, April 2013.  
  4. ^ Some of the oldest known rock art galleries in the world sit quietly in the north of Western Australia and remain among the most important artistic installations in the world today. Their contemporaneity is ever re-interpretive, and can only be fully understood through collaborative discussion with those, whose people made them.
  5. ^ Rusty Peters, in conversation with the author, Frances Kofod and Gabriel Nodea, Warmun Art Centre, April 2013.
  6. ^ Augustin Berque. ‘Indigenous Beyond Exoticism’, Diogenes 50:39, 2003, p. 44.

Jonathan Kimberley is an artist and curator who develops intercultural and collaborative projects across Australia and the world. He curated the Mildura Palimpsest Biennale #10, 2015.