Swimming with the yawkyawk

By Vita Forest

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Sketch of Lena Yarinkura’s Yawkyawk 2002

It’s a wet day so the others think it’s too hard, they’ll come another day when the weather’s perfect, when the trains are running, when they feel… inspired.  But Fiorella comes to sketch, rain speckling her glasses, and so do I.

We’re at the MCA and there’s a giant cruise ship blocking the view of the opera house.  But you can still see the harbour bridge.

If you want to draw it.

There’s a sculpture on the terrace outside the café and we sit at a table out of the rain but still in the wind and Fiorella pulls out her sketchbook as I sip my chai and eat chunks of warm banana bread.

We laugh.  It’s not only a sculpture it’s a weather vane.  It’s not only a weather vane it has two moving parts which move two different ways – a giant windmill that lazily spins, a horizontal female form which rotates as the wind blows.  This doesn’t matter unless you are trying to draw it.  Unless you are trying to commit to one angle, one view.  Fiorella persists valiantly while I go in search of another subject.

I trail down the stairs and notice vistas of rooftops and historic façades out the windows.  I enter another level and pass through rooms of paintings and installations, none of which suit my purpose.  I notice an artwork by Fiona Hall, pieces of driftwood, twisted and bone-like.  I earmark it but continue on.

Behind a strangely out of synch clock sculpture, is a small room off the main gallery.  It’s a room focusing on the work of Indigenous artist Lena Yarinkura.

I have found my subject.

There’s wonderful woven sculptures – a yawkyawk, a rainbow serpent, a selection of camp dogs and even a bronze echidna with sticks for spines.  I’m attracted to textures, to natural elements, to objects that are organic and surprising.  Yarinkura’s sculptures are perfect.

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Echidna by Lena Yarinkura

I sit down cross-legged on the concrete floor in front of the Yawkyawk, a kind of female water spirit similar to a mermaid.  As I sketch it out, I remember seeing a puppet show years ago at the Maritime Museum with yawkyawks floating and diving through dark space, a hint of menace despite their gracefulness.  I map out the bands of colour that circle the body and realise the white ochre pattern suggests fish scales.

You never see what is right in front of you until you draw it.

Patrons drift in and out of the little room and I wonder if they see the scales?  If they know the masked figure is drifting in water, not air?  I am on display and used to it now.  I think back to long ago sketching days when I used to hide away.  Perch out of sight.  Now if I want to draw something I do.  Even if I have to sit right in front of it.  Even if I become something of a novelty, another exhibit in the museum to inspect.  People talk to you when you draw.  Or peer over your shoulder.  Or think you’re an expert on yawkyawks (I did pass on a few facts).  And then there is the crazy English woman who leaps in front of the yawkyawk, arms outstretched, shielding it from my view.

You thought you were nearly finished but now you have to add in this feature! she cackles.

But she moves on too, so I don’t have to alter my composition after all.

I can hear the clock in the other room ticking to a strange rhythm, striking every now and then.  It’s keeping a different time, a faster time, cycling to another heartbeat.  It’s a little intense and disturbing, a steady grind just beneath my consciousness.  I drift in and out of the present, in and out of the room, between the dark still waters of a billabong and the white walls of the gallery.  The pressure of my pencil changes as the colours deepen as the body swells and narrows.  At last the drawing is finished and I blink and shift my buttocks on the hard ground.

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The Rainbow serpent

I stand and notice Fiorella on the other side of the room drawing a kooky camp dog.  I give her a wave and stand to peer at the rainbow serpent hanging from the ceiling.  Its body is a tight woven tube with a mane of feathers and antlers of sticks.  I stand and draw its portrait.  Its face like a dragon, its downy pelt.  My lines are looser now.  Quicker.  I finish and start on the echidna, noticing how each stick making up the spines has been sharpened to a point, you can see the strokes of the knife.  And later, I capture the camp dog as Fiorella moves on to the rainbow serpent.  We circle each other in the small room and meet up again at the echidna to look at our work.

Look at all we’ve done!  says Fiorella.  The others will wonder how many sketchers came today when they see the album on the internet with all these drawings in it!

We collect our bags and jackets and say goodbye.  Head back out into the world.

I pull up my hood.  It’s raining outside.

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My sketch of the rainbow serpent

 

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