Kabimbebme: It really pops!

On some Kunwinjku art terminology

Nawu Kolobarr dja Dalkken nakka Yirridjdja bokenh benewokmarnburreni bu kabenekukbimburren. … Wanjh Kolobarr bibimbom Dalkken bu biyakwong bibimbom Dalkken dolkkang kuknarrinj minj djareniwirrinj nawu Dalkken bikukwarrewong bu bibimbom. Wanjh Dalkken yimeng ngudda kankukwarrewong bu kanbimbom dja kundang ngardduk ngimarnbom mankimuk kandangwarrewong … bimarneyimeng Kolobarr ngudda wanjh ngardduk kunkanj. 

The Antilopine Kangaroo and the Dingo were once two Yirridjdja moiety men who decided to paint each other. … Once the Kangaroo had painted the Dingo, the Dingo jumped up and looked at his body. He didn’t like what he saw. He said, “You’ve painted my body wrong and my mouth is too big!”… So he told the Kangaroo, “From now on, you will be my meat”.

          Andrew Manakgu[1] 

Words are like territories. Like invisible boundaries laid down in the vast forest of experience, they parcel up reality into sections which can be named, like addresses or the clan estates of Arnhem Land. To compare two languages can be like overlaying the maps of two different cultures. Just as Manilakarr clan lands, for example, are split between Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land, the conceptual boundaries of words in two languages rarely align neatly. 

Take even a simple verb like “to paint”. In English it is possible to both “paint” a picture and to “paint” a monochrome background to prepare the surface. But in the Kunwinjku language of West Arnhem Land the idea of painting an image (bimbun) and covering a surface with a colour or liquid (barung) are expressed with different words. Barung, in fact, overlaps with a number of English words. It may refer to actions such as “smearing” ochre on someone for ceremony, “coating” a bark-eating utensil with honey, or ritually “rubbing” underarm sweat on someone’s mouth to lift a silence restriction. Barung is not a visual or tactile concept; it is about imbuing one surface with another material, including perhaps its properties and power. It is a mundane word in most contexts, but in others succinctly communicates a belief in the spiritual power of materials.  

Wanjh waral werrk waralno kabirribimbun wanjh rungkalno kabirrikurrme yerre wanjh rarrk kabirrikurrme. 

First artists paint the silhouette, then they put down the outlines, then they fill it in with hatching. 

          Andrew Manakgu

Glen Namundja, Nawaran dja Barrk
Glen Namundja, Nawaran dja Barrk (Oenpelli Python and the Black Wallaroo), 2015, ochre on stringybark. Photo: David Wickens, Injalak Arts

Having painted the background, artists usually proceed to paint the waralno.[2] This is the “silhouette” of the figure or object to be painted. Waralno can refer to a drawing in general, but also means shadow, reflection or spirit. Sacred rock paintings are often described with the phrase waralkurrmerrinj, “a spirit placed itself (and became a painting)”. In the Lorrkkon burial ceremony, the hollow log ossuary would be painted exclusively with silhouettes of animals of the same patrimoiety as the deceased, directly communicating the power of these Ancestral animals.[3] In short, waralno cannot be perfectly glossed as a “silhouette”, but carries a powerful set of connotations all its own.  

The waralno also sets the proportions and pose of the figure. The proportions of animals in particular are of great importance in Kunwinjku painting. A well-painted form can be described as kukmak, literally “body-good”. In the story above, the Dingo accuses the Kangaroo kankukwarrewong, “you’ve done my body wrong”. Many stories tell of how animals gained their current proportions.

In this way, the figures of animals carry an implicit, subtle moral dimension. Not only do these stories have morals in themselves, but to paint a form correctly, kukmak, is to correctly reproduce the Ancestral order. Spirits, especially monstrous ones, may be painted with all kinds of distortions, but in the natural world proportion and balance are prized. Like a Classical Greek sculpture, a Kunwinjku painting of an animal is not usually a specific creature but an ideal type. In the words of the ancient physician Galen, classical artists depicted “whatever form is most beautiful in man or in the horse or in the cow … the mean within each genus.”[4] 

There are a number of what could be called “classical poses” in Kunwinjku painting. A crocodile is often shown kukbarlungmeng, “turning the direction of its body” to catch a fish. A magpie goose might be shown komwayhmeng, “neck raised”, to observe for food and threats. They are not so much individual animals shown scratching themselves or preening their feathers, but representatives within the greater natural order, hunting and being hunted, nourishing life and taking it away.

Ngarridadjdadjke, yibengkan kore “joint”. Wanjh rarrk ngarrire.

We divide up the figure with lines at the “joints”, you know. Then we paint the hatching. 

          Gabriel Maralngurra

Gabriel Maraingurra, Manimunak (Magpie Goose), 2014, ochre on stringy bark
Gabriel Maralngurra, Manimnak (Magpie Goose), 2014, ochre on stringy bark. Photo: David Wickens, Injalak Arts

Depending on the artist’s style, the silhouette can now be divided into sections using lines. This division can be referred to using the verb dadjke, “to cut”, which is used for drawing lines in general. This is an apt if mostly unconscious metaphor in Kunwinjku culture, where the cutting up of animals is a fine and ancient science. In fact, the dividing lines within rock art animals are often a kind of teaching aid. Each cut of meat has a traditional recipient within the kinship system. At this point the internal organs or ngukno are also painted. The outline and internal dividing lines can be referred to collectively as rungkalno.  

Dabborrabbolk birri-kurrmeng koroyil. Minj rarrk birri-kurrmeninj rarrk yak kaluk bolki.

The old people put these internal division lines in like that. They didn’t do crosshatching [in paintings], that’s a recent thing.

          Mick Kubarkku[5]

Inside these divided sections artists paint their rarrk, the hatching that is perhaps the best-known piece of Arnhem Land art vocabulary. Technically, rarrk refers only to the multicoloured crosshatching originally used for ceremonial body painting, although in everyday language any hatching is often referred to as rarrk. A rarer term not used by all artists is koroyil, which refers to the internal dividing lines of a painting and, by extension, simpler parallel hatching styles. Koroyil also refers to the ceremonial string harnesses of the Wubarr ceremony. As in the case of rarrk, this word links the painted figure in art to the decorated body in ceremony.  

Kangukbarme, nangukmakkayhken laik delek nawu. Ngukmak delek, yiman kabirriyime ngalyod laik ngamedmeng toilet yimeng namekke.

[Good quality] white ochre shines, it’s “great shit”. “Good shit”, like they say, the Rainbow Serpent whatsit, went to the toilet.  

          Joey Nganjmirra

Each of the Kunwinjku primary ochre colours has associations with particular ceremonial uses and other materials, although they are also simply colours. For example, delek (white clay or huntite) is believed to be 
the faeces of the Rainbow Serpent, and in fact good delek is described as ngukmak, literally “good shit”.  A bright moon (dird) can be described as dirdngukmak, which is a perfect analogy for the kind of pure, shining delek that is preferred by Kunwinjku artists. Karlba, yellow ochre, is often associated with yellow animal fat. Yellow ochre in a particular creek in the Maburrinj estate is said to be the fat of an Ancestral Emu, for example. Kunrodjbe (red ochre) can be associated with blood, but it is also simply a conventional background colour.

Of white ochre and rarrk in particular can be said to be kabame, “it shines”. This effect can also have spiritual connotations, as the body of the Rainbow Serpent is said to be shiny. Bame is also the verb for the effect something bright like rarrk can have on your eyes. So you can say yimimbame, “your eyes are dazzled”. There is also an opposite verb in Kunwinjku, so when something is dark kangurlme, “it darks”. A deep sacred waterhole (or a picture of one, painted with charcoal) could be described with the phrase kabongurlme, “the water darks”. 

Red yellow minj nganan, because njamed bimbuyung. Kabimyakme, but nawu white kabebbebme.

Red and yellow don’t stand out to my eyes, because they are a bit “dim”. The picture is low contrast. But white jumps out at you. 

          Gabriel Maralngurra

A desirable effect for Kunwinjku artists is kabimbebme, literally “the picture comes out”. This overlaps with the English word “contrast”, but specifically in the sense of an image that “stands out”, like a bright white figure on a dark background. A well-executed, contrasting outline can also give this effect. The closest English equivalent might be to say “the picture really pops”. Kabimbebme can also be said of a painting as a whole, especially if it contains a lot of rarrk and white ochre. The whole picture seems to jump forward off the wall. A low-contrast picture can be described as bimbuyung (dim or faded) or kabimyakme, literally “the picture disappears”. Only bright, pure ochres can really give the effect of kabimbebme.

These are only a few examples of Kunwinjku art terminology. They may not be in the typical noun forms familiar in English (contrast, composition, juxtaposition), but the verbs and adjectives of Kunwinjku are just as expressive. Of course, Kunwinjku art can be appreciated without knowledge of any of these words. But, like a novel read in the original language, it is never entirely translatable.

Glen Namundja, Kolobarr deja Darken
Glen Namundja, Kolobarr dja Dalkken (Kangaroo and Dingo Story), 2014, ochre on Arches paper. Photo: David Wickens, Injalak Arts


  1. ^ Andrew Manakgu produces written texts such as these for artwork documentation and interpretive materials at Injalak Arts. Translation by the author. All other quotes are from interviews with the author in 2016 unless otherwise noted 
  2. ^ This is an Eastern Kunwinjku and ‘Stone Country’ form of the word. An alternative form in Western Kunwinjku dialects is kunwaral.
  3. ^ Compare discussion in Luke Taylor, ‘Seeing the Inside’, Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 112
  4. ^ Galen, de Temperamentis, I, 9 (trans. J. J. Politt), in Hugh Honour & John Fleming, A World History of Art, 4th edition, Lawrence King, 1995, p. 118.
  5. ^ Unpublished interview with Murray Garde, 1994.

Dan Kennedy was the Arts and Cultural Officer at Injalak Arts in Gunbalanya for two years in 2013–15. He has studied languages and visual arts, but is currently rebelling against his artistic upbringing by studying for a degree in computer science, while working part time at Cooee Gallery in Sydney.