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Shy, sprightly Mimih Spirits from Arnhem Land

26 May 2021

Shy, sprightly Mimih Spirits from Arnhem Land

One of the things we’re most enjoying about the new HOTA Gallery is the opportunity to show the City Collection in a way it’s never been seen before.

Over three collection galleries, HOTA Collects presents a snapshot of the City Collection. More than 100 works are on display including selected works from our extensive collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art.

Here Rebecca Ray, Assistant Curator, Indigenous Art shares some insights into the commanding Mimih Spirits that greet you as you enter Gallery 3:

‘Featured within the HOTA Gallery collection are a variety of Aboriginal Spirit Poles hailing from the Northern Territory. Each of the figures, some standing up to ten feet tall, represent spirit beings that belong to specific geographic sites. These poles are carved from a single tree and painted using ochres, clay, and charcoal.

‘The spirits predominantly featured within the HOTA Gallery Collection is the Mimih Spirit. Mimih, with their playful expressions, are characterised by their incredibly elongated and slim bodies. These spirits have lived inside caves and the rocky escarpments of Arnhem Land since time immemorial.

‘Mimih are believed to be so thin that they can leave their spirit realm and enter the world of humans by slipping through the cracks in the rocks. So fragile that even a slight breeze can break their necks, Mimih are timid beings that only emerge at night or on windless days to hunt. As Mimih are said to hold similar kinship systems, languages, and social structures as Aboriginal people, they are believed to have taught the first people everything about survival in Rock Country.

‘Mimih spirits first appeared in the Northern Territory and encompass important bodies of cultural and spiritual knowledges that link people to rock Country acting as marker of cultural uniqueness and spiritual distinctiveness.

‘Each figure in the collection holds a story of their role in creation and have on-going responsibilities – whether it be safe-guarding certain places or to maintain a natural order. The sculptures are highly unique, representing a living culture with the spiritually deeply embedded into everyday life. The expressions found on each of their faces are typically a reflection on whether the spirits are gentle or malevolent. Many seem to display a cheeky demeanour such as the mischievous Mimih while others appear dangerous like the Wangarra.

‘These expressions not only reflect the individuality of each spirit but the diversity of culture and language of the peoples who live in the Arnhem Land region. This collection of spirit poles represents over ten different language groups, including a number of different clan groups and spans a wide range of age demographics.

‘These spirit sculptures are one of HOTA’s earliest acquired pieces of Indigenous art, supporting a significant period within the Aboriginal art movement—a period that saw the emergence of Aboriginal art inside gallery walls.’

Indigenous art has been a collection and exhibition focus for the Gold Coast City Art Gallery (now HOTA Gallery) since 1978, and the City Collection now includes one of the largest collections of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art in regional Australia. Many of the works have been generously donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program or purchased with funds provided by the City of Gold Coast.

You can explore selected works throughout the HOTA Collects exhibitions in Gallery 2-4 and you can read more about each individual spirit (and explore other works in the City Collection) online here.

Image: Students learning about the Mimih Spirits at HOTA Gallery.