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Erlikilyika (1865–1930)

by D. J. Mulvaney

This article was published:

Erlikilyika (c.1865–c.1930), Aboriginal sculptor, artist and anthropological interpreter, was born into the southern Arrernte language group, Central Australia. As erlia signified emu, his totemic name may relate to an emu ritual region near Charlotte Waters telegraph station at Adnyultultera waterhole. The station attracted Aborigines, a few of whom gained employment. As he also spoke Kaytetye, the language around Barrow Creek, he probably worked along the Overland Telegraph line.

A sympathetic Charlotte Waters stationmaster P. M. Byrne appreciated his abilities, recommending him as 'a first class black boy', to (Sir) Baldwin Spencer and F. J. Gillen for their 1901-02 cross-continental anthropological expedition. They recruited him and Parunda (Warwick), also a southern Arrernte man, in March 1901. Both proved indispensable as guides, rounding up and harnessing horses, providing game, and in various camp duties. Erlikilyika, known to Europeans as Jim Kite or Kyte, often drove the supply wagon, also riding long distances delivering or collecting mail at repeater stations. As the sole expedition member who spoke Kaytetye, for several weeks at Barrow Creek he was virtually a research assistant. Spencer's patronizing journal entry (11 June 1901) praised 'a splendid blackfellow with us—Jim by name . . . he helps us much and acts as an interpreter. He is by way of being an artist and is very fond of drawing on bits of paper so we give him a sheet . . . and a pencil and he makes what he calls notes when asking [informants] questions'. His markings (probably traditional message stick signs) were successive stages in stories, which were recorded by Spencer in more literary form. After the party reached Borroloola in November 1901, the Aborigines departed for home on horseback, armed with revolvers. Two packhorses and cached food ensured supplies. Following their nearly 700-mile (1127 km) trek across unrelated tribal lands, Byrne received their horses and equipment in good order, four months later.

As well as expedition guide and interpreter, Erlikilyika showed remarkable artistic aptitude. Invited to sketch on one blank page in a journal, to Gillen's surprise he enthusiastically filled all the blank pages with eleven sketches. Three weeks later Gillen provided a book in which the artist drew twenty-seven original drawings for Gillen's sons. He was also celebrated for sculpting or carving items from wood or kaolinite, the latter quarried near Charlotte Waters. Popular tourist items included kaolin meerschaum pipes, grasshoppers, cicadas and scorpions, or slabs engraved with scenes of Aboriginal activity. The whiteness of the clay heightened the visual impression, although some objects retain ochre traces. Wooden boomerangs and spear throwers made by him have finely tooled lizards and animals.

Erlikilyika exhibited his work while on a visit to Adelaide in 1913, receiving favourable press comment. Herbert Basedow purchased many items (now in the National Museum of Australia, as are the sketches for Gillen's sons). Observers noted his simple tools: penknife, wire, shearing blade gripped with rag and gum. Probably during this visit, he produced twenty-four botanical drawings, annotated with Arrernte and scientific names, for the South Australian Museum.

Returning to Charlotte Waters, he sold items to passing travellers until the 1920s. Bypassed by the railway, by 1930 the telegraph station had closed. Erlikilyika may already have died. He had participated in ceremonies in 1923, but his presence was not recorded in 1935, when his brother Jack Kite was involved ritually.

Gillen nicknamed Erlikilyika 'the subdued', reflecting his quiet, agreeable and reliable character. The anthropological assistance and his long, productive artistic career suggest a stable man, adapted to cultural challenges. So does the suited, watch-chained, moustached figure photographed during his Adelaide visit. He evidently retained traditional beliefs, while producing artworks suiting European taste. His motifs, however, like those of Albert Namatjira, reflected an entirely Aboriginal universe.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sayers, Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century (Melb, 1994)
  • H. Morphy, Aboriginal Art (Lond, 1998)
  • J. Mulvaney, From the Frontier (Syd, 2000)
  • J. Mulvaney, ‘Erlikilyika’ in A. Anderson, I. Lilley and S. O’Connor (eds), Histories of Old Ages (Canb, 2001)
  • Register (Adelaide), 18 July 1913, p 7.

Citation details

D. J. Mulvaney, 'Erlikilyika (1865–1930)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Kite, Jim
  • Kyte, Jim



1930 (aged ~ 65)

Cultural Heritage

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