Margaret Rarru and Helen Ganalmirriwuy create timeless forms


Born in farthest northern Arnhem Land, Margaret Rarru Garrawurra and Helen Ganalmirriwuy Garrawurra were taught important Liyagawumirr clan designs by their father, and to understand the deep, poetic meanings of ancient creation narratives. When yothu (young), they were also instructed in the cultural meanings of woven fibre objects and a range of weaving techniques.

Margaret Rarru with Märrma’ mul mindirr (two black dilly bags) / Image courtesy: Margaret Rarru and Milingimbi Art and Culture, Milingimbi
Helen Ganalmirriwuy with her Mul mat / Image courtesy: Helen Ganalmirriwuy and Milingimbi Art and Culture, Milingimbi

Following the 2006 death of their brother Mickey Durrng, the sisters inherited the right to paint Liyagawumirr sacred geometry. As Durrng once stated, ‘These designs are the power of the land. The sun, the water, creation, for everything’.1 The women of his family understood the importance of their role, and Ruth Nalmakarra (their father’s sister) led their introduction to the revival and reinterpretation of their cultural heritage, which they approached with great creativity.

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Installation view of work by Margaret Rarru and Helen Ganalmirriwuy at ‘The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT9)

Now, Rarru and Ganalmirriwuy paint poles and barks in distinctive red (miku), white (watharr) and yellow (buthjalak) pigments, in variations of Liyagawumirr designs. Stripes reference body painting for ngarra, which is both a funeral ceremony and a celebration of regeneration and renewal. Other designs trace the tracks of buwata (bush turkey), or map, using circles and lines, freshwater springs made by the ancestral Djan’kawu sisters with their digging sticks on their creation journey across Arnhem Land.

Garrawurra women are central to ceremonial songs and dances that retell the Djan’kawu sisters’ story of when they wore beautiful and deeply significant objects, and spilled the Dhuwa moiety clans, languages, names and ceremonies from their woven baskets and mats throughout the land. The Garrawurra women honour this heritage in their art through replicating the Djan’kawu regalia, and imbue their work, both sacred and secular, with spirit and intensity.

Margaret Rarru, Australia b.1940 / Mindirr 2012 / Pandanus palm with natural dyes / Purchased 2012 with funds from an anonymous donor through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Margaret Rarru 2012. Licensed by Copyright agency 2019
Detail of Mindirr

The contemporary aesthetic of Rarru and Ganalmirriwuy’s painted images resonates with their basketry, for which they continually invent new forms and techniques beyond the traditional.2 The introduction of the coil-weaving stitch, in particular, has extended their range into larger, more solid forms and, with the discovery of a rare black dye (achieved in a secret process), they have developed their unique bathi mul (black baskets). Pandanus leaf strands, saturated with rich colour, are tightly woven into metallic-looking surfaces, where fields of subtly graded shades of black reveal a gleam of charcoal. In contrast, the twined strands in conical mindirr create a matt, textured surface, highlighted with slight irregularities due to changes in the spacing and tension of the weave.

Aerial view of Milingimbi, Northern Territory / Photograph: B Ward

Raw materials, which themselves have cultural meanings, are harvested locally on Yurrwi (Milingimbi), the surrounding islands and the nearby mainland. The women travel to favourite bush or saltwater sites in the appropriate season, casting their experienced eye over leaves, roots, grasses, bark and hollowed out trees, and gather what they need. A truck- or boatload is processed while fresh — pandanus and bark fibres are prepared for weaving and dyeing, wooden surfaces trimmed and smoothed, and rock pigments laboriously ground and crushed for paint.

Living remotely in their Arnhem Land island home, Margaret Rarru and Helen Ganalmirriwuy work tirelessly and professionally at their practice, and have established a reputation as two of the finest and most innovative textile artists in Australia.

Diane Moon is Curator, Indigenous Fibre Art, QAGOMA

1 Mickey Durrng, quoted in Brenda Westley and Steve Westley, ‘Mickey Durrng: Artist of East Arnhem Land’, Aboriginal Art Online,<>, viewed May 2018.
2 The artists’ works were a commission for APT9.

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APT9 has been assisted by our Founding Supporter Queensland Government and Principal Partner the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body, and the Visual Arts and Craft Strategy, an initiative of the Australian, State and Territory Governments.

Acknowledgment of Country
The Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land upon which the Gallery stands in Brisbane. We pay respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elders past and present and, in the spirit of reconciliation, acknowledge the immense creative contribution Indigenous people make to the art and culture of this country. It is customary in many Indigenous communities not to mention the name or reproduce photographs of the deceased. All such mentions and photographs are with permission, however, care and discretion should be exercised.

Feature image: Margaret Rarru Mindirr 2012

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