String figure E083683 - Two dingoes Click to enlarge image
String figure of Wungan – Two Dingoes, made by Ngarrawu Mununggurr in Yirrkala, Northern Territory in 1948. Collected by Fred McCarthy during the American- Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. Image: James King
© Australian Museum

The String Figures of Yirrkala were collected by Frederick McCarthy (a curator at the Australian Museum from 1920 to 1964) in 1948 on the Australian-American Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land. This is the world’s largest known collection of string figures from one community made at the one time.

Northern Territory Yirrkala Map
Northern Territory Yirrkala Map Image: Design Unit
© Australian Museum

Ngarrawu Mununggurr, McCarthy’s principal collaborator and informer, made the majority of the 192 figures in the collection. McCarthy was greatly impressed by her knowledge of designs, her powers of recall and skills in figure-making: ‘Her astoundingly wide knowledge of the designs, sequences of manipulations and subjects is, from the technical and quantitative points of view, proof of a mastery of her craft and of the possession of highly intellectual powers of mental and manual co-ordination. With Na:rau string-figure-making is an art.’

In November 2009 two members of the Yirrkala community visited the Australian Museum to view the collection, Djarpirr Mununggurr, an able string figure maker herself and the artist Naminapu Maymuru-White, the daughter of Ngarrawu. Spending time in the museum’s stores, they were intrigued to see how string figure making had been converted into collection objects, documented and preserved. Naminapu was pleased to see the work of her mother valued in this way, and she felt that the collection provided a direct link to her mother and to that time in the life of their community.

matjia-wuma or Sting Figures
Who’s the painted cave man Who lives in Arnhem land You’ll find it’s Fred McCarthy Tying strings around his hand. — Author unknown These words are from the journal of Frederick McCarthy, an Australian Museum anthropologist who was part of a 1948 expedition to Arnhem Land. The Australian Museum has a collection of 192 string figures collected by McCarthy from the Yolngu people at Yirrkala, in the Northern Territory. This collection is the largest-known of its kind collected from one community at one time in the world. Plant fibre, cardboard 19 (high) x 44.5 (wide) cm Yirrkala, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory Collected by Frederick McCarthy during the American–Australian Scienti c Expedition to Arnhem Land, 1948 Registered 1949 AM Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Cultural Collection Top: E083684 Wungan, Two Dingoes by Ngarrawu Mununggurr Above: E083685 Walu û the Sun by Ngarrawu Mununggurr Photographed for the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition and catalogue in 2017. Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum

String figure making continues as a popular activity in Yirrkala in a standard repertoire of well-known figures and techniques, a remnant survival of what, from the evidence of the collection, was a highly developed cultural practice.

The community’s reconnecting with the collection through the work of Robyn McKenzie (a PhD researcher at the Australian National University in Canberra) has provoked a resurgence of interest in string figures. A number of Yirrkala women participated in workshops at the GARMA Festival, teaching visitors how to make string figures. In response to the collection itself, a series of etchings of figures made with bush string (hand-made from natural fibres) were displayed at the Gapan Gallery in Yirrkala in 2010. In August-October 2013 these prints were displayed in the exhibition 'String Theory' at the Museum of Contemporary Art.