How the Yolngu Do It

Published August 16, 2019
Djambawa Marawili's 'Journey to America' - this year's big winner at the NATSIAA

One hot August night in Darwin, every year, all the tribes gather on the lawn of the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. Most of those tribes are overwhelmingly white: the dedicated collectors of Aboriginal art, the curators and gallery directors, the art dealers, the journalists. For the artists, gathered from all parts of Australia, the occasion allows them to see work from other regions – places where different languages are spoken, different laws and customs are followed.

The indigenous world is a mass of separate nations, each with a passionate attachment to its own piece of country. The Awards – AKA. “The NATSIAA” or “The Telstra” (after the chief sponsor) – impose a semblance of unity on this heterogeneous crowd. Everyone is gathered to see who takes home the prizes, and to learn what it takes to be a winner. The party continues at the well-attended Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair, and the National Indigenous Music Awards. Next year there will also be an Indigenous Fashion Award.

Curator, Luke Scholes, who has the task of hanging the NATSIAA, says there are about a hundred amazing entries every year that have to be trimmed by a third, the rejects ending up in a Salon des Refusés at the Charles Darwin University Gallery.

Nyaparu (William) Gardiner, ‘Our Old People’

From year to year Scholes sees how artists take note of others’ work and return with something bigger and more engaging. He stresses the huge encouragement that comes from having a work hung for the first time, let alone winning a prize. The late Nyaparu (William) Gardiner, for instance, was inspired by last year’s NATSIAA to create “his largest, most ambitious work”. That painting, Our Old People, took out this year’s Telstra Works on Paper Award.


Myrtle Pennington, ‘Mupulya munu Kanpa’ from this year’s NATSIAA

Scholes also points out a strong representation of five works by artists of the Spinifex group, who made a concerted effort to participate in the 2019 show. Their hometown, the tiny Western Australian community of Tjuntjutjara, may be one of the most isolated art outposts, but paintings by Timo Hogan, Fred and Ned Grant, Lawrence and Myrtle Pennington were among the most striking NATSIAA works.

All five artists were featured in the Salon project, a suite of five shows held at different venues around town, organised by local art dealers, Paul Johnstone and Matt Ward. Many collectors went away claiming Myrtle Pennington at Tactile Arts as one of the discoveries of the week, although the real eye-opener was probably the exhibition by Dhambit Munungurr at the Salon Project Space in Parap.

Dhambit, a Yolngu artist, was hit by a car in 2007, suffering permanent injuries that make it impossible for her to grind the ochres used for bark painting. It was decided that in this case the usual rules could be relaxed, and she would be permitted to paint on bark with acrylic colours. The result is the world’s first show of predominantly blue bark paintings.

Having taught herself to paint with her left hand, Dhambit’s works are unusually free and expressive. The same might be said of her subject matter which features groups of men in sail boats fighting with sea monsters. The most common response to Dhambit’s work seems to be: “I’ve never seen anything like it!”

Dhambit Munungurr.. the blue bark has arrived!

Dhambit’s achievements would be even more startling if those expressions of surprise and rapture were not being regularly repeated in front of works by a dozen or more artists at the Buku art centre in Yirrkala. For if there is one community leading the way as a powerhouse of innovation-within-tradition, it is the Yolngu of north-western Arnhem Land.

In this year’s NATSIAA Yolngu artists scooped four of the seven prizes, including the Telstra Art Award of $50,000, presented to Djambawa Marawili AM, for a bark painting called Journey to America, which has a small image of the Statue of Liberty at the top and an Australian coat-of-arms at the base. The rest of the work is covered in those characteristc zig-zag patterns that represent the meeting of salt and fresh water.

The painting was inspired by Djambawa’s own visits to America, where he has gone to expound the Yolngu philosophy of life at the invitation of the Kluge-Ruhe Collection at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville – a town which is famous for the wrong reasons, being the site of the Neo-Nazi rally where President Trump discerned some “very fine people”.

It’s something of an irony that Charlottesville is also home to an important collection of Australian indigenous art, and the initiator of a Yolngu exhibition that  will tour the United States next year.

Djambawa himself is a remarkable figure, being a leading spokesperson for his people and an experienced activist. He is looked up to by everyone in the community and wields great influence over the dynamic art that has been emerging from Yirrkala over the past decade.

Gunybi Ganambarr’s ‘Gangan’, from this year’s NATSIAA

The greatest individual innovator is without doubt, Gunybi Ganambarr, an artist still in his forties, who has transformed the face of indigenous art. Gunybi is a prodigious talent who began by making radical changes to traditional barks and poles, and has gone on to create works in steel, bronze, rubber, wire and PVC. He has used recycled materials from a water tank, and the mats from a conveyor belt at the nearby bauxite mine.

At this year’s NATSIAA people were still talking about Buyku, Gunybi’s winning work from 2018, which featured two massive sheets of aluminium etched with precise, intricate patterns.

Each time Gunybi has what he modestly calls “a good idea”, he runs it past his mentor, Djambawa, who has the power to approve or forbid any apparent departures from tradition. Gunybi owes at least part of his  success to Djambawa’s sympathetic attitude.

Nongirrna Marawili,
‘Lightning Strikes’

Where Gunybi has gone, others have followed, feeling empowered and inspired by his example. The traditional larrakitj, as straight as a gun barrel, has been superceded by poles that preserve the original shape of the tree trunk, with lumps, twists and knot-holes. Artists such as Nongirrna Marawili and Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, who have pioneered powerful, expressive forms of painting, are now represented exclusively by leading art dealers Alcaston and Roslyn Oxley, respectively.

In this year’s NATSIAA, Nongirrna won the Telstra Bark Painting Award for a painting called Lightning strikes, which used the pink residue from a toner cartridge. The Wandjuk Marika Three-dimensional Award went to another Yolngu artist, Malaluba Gumana, for three imposing poles, titled Rainbows in the lillies. The rising star among Yirrkala’s  “young guns”, Barayuwa Munungurr, was represented in the NATSIAA by a pole called Bones of Wuymiirru, which combined sculptural tension with dense, skilful patterning.

Another artist, Mulkun Wirrpanda, has collaborated with John Wolseley on a cross-cultural exhibition, Midawarr/Harvest, that saw both artists making works in response to the same environment. The show has been seen so far in Canberra, Darwin and Melbourne.

Barrayuwa Munubgurr, ‘Bones of Wuymirri’

A major catalyst for change in Yirrkala has been the establishment of the Mulka Project in 2008 – a multi-media centre that has preserved local records, and trained artists in audio-visual techniques. Mulka has helped produce the final Yolngu winner at this year’s awards, Gutinarra Yunupingu – a profoundly deaf artist who took out the Telstra Multimedia Award for a video in which, as ten small clones, he performs sign language with his whole body.

Gutinarra is a young man who has adapted quickly to new technology. It may be even more impresssive that a senior artist such as Wukun Wanambi, has begun to make films, and pole installations that combine delicate patterning with the projected forms of schools of tiny fish swimming on the floor.

The torrent of creativity coming through Buku will be celebrated by the Art Gallery of South Australia in October, in the third installment of Tarnanthi – a survey that is swiftly becoming Australia’s second essential indigenous art event, after the NATSIAA.

The Yirrkala component will feature attractions such as a large new installation by Gunybi, and an “engine” designed by the Mulka Project that seeks to explain the endlessly complicated nature of Yolngu kinship. After Adelaide the work will travel on to America, to the Kluge-Ruhe Collection.


Gutinarra Yunipungu, ‘Yolngu sign language/

This show within a show will be called Gurrutu– a word that Buku art advisor, Will Stubbs, says is almost incomprehensible to non-indigenous people. “If Gurrutu were a white thing it would be called a religion,” he says, “but it’s more like the shape of reality. It determines the relationship between you, me and everything else in a non-hierarchical manner. The world becomes a kaleidoscopic LSD trip, which is more interesting than being a Doubting Thomas and a Cartesian rationalist.”

“It’s as complicated as reality itself,” he continues, “the manifestation of a spiritual energy that is ongoing and infinite. It’s a dynamic stasis that recognises no distinction between past, present and future. To understand it you need an Einstein, who once said that people who belive in the past and the future are victims of a stubborn illusion.”

The attractive aspect of Gurrutu is its belief in an infinite sustainable balance – a concept previously equated with savagery by Europeans accustomed to value human beings only in terms of ther capacity for productive work. The Yolngu way is not at all productive in terms of labour and material goods, but it involves an intensive relationship with the essence of things that may be described in painting or song.

It is through art that the Yolngu make their philosophy of spirituality and sustainability available to everyone – if we want it. With the globalisation of indigenous art entering a whole new phase, perhaps the world is finally ready for another way of looking at itself.


36th Telstra National and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin, until 3 November


Tarnanthi, Art Gallery of South Australia, 18 Oct – 27 Jan, 2020


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 17 August, 2019