The YIRRKALA string figures

These etchings represent a suite from the String Figure print series, the result of a collaborative project between art historian and anthropologist Robyn McKenzie, the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka print space and members of the Yirrkala community. 

Australian Anthropologist, Frederick McCarthy, documented string figure making in Yirrkala during the 1948 Australian-American Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land - a joint expedition between the Australian Museum, the Smithsonian and National Geographic. During his time in the Yirrkala community, McCarthy immersed himself in the study and recording of string figure construction methods and meanings. The result was 193 mounted and annotated figures, the most comprehensive survey from any single region to date. 

Despite McCarthy singling out their importance as an entirely new area of study, upon returning to Sydney McCarthy did not nominate the mounted string figures for accessioning into the Australian Museum's collection. Reasoning that they were made with industrial string, not organic bush fibers, they were not considered to be ‘authentic’ artifacts. However, they remained in the Museum’s stores until 1988, when they were rediscovered and accessioned into the permanent collection.  

The String Figure etching project was prompted by the reconnection of this collection with the community. It evolved as way to recreate the figures using the next generation's hands to learn, enact and pass on this ephemeral, fluid art of chance.

Straddling disciplines, mediums and generations, these three-dimensional shapes are made into permanent, two-dimensional renditions. By making the figure, the slipping it off the hands and onto the etching plate, these suspended shapes recall the processes in which they were first recorded almost 70 years ago.