December 2020 – January 2021

Arts & Letters

Blue is the colour

By Quentin Sprague

Dhambit Munuŋgurr, Bees at Gäṉgän, 2019, synthetic polymer paint on stringybark, 183 cm x 117 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased with funds supported by the Orloff Family Charitable Trust, 2020. © Dhambit Munuŋgurr, courtesy Salon Indigenous Art Projects, Darwin

The idiosyncratic work of Yolngu artist Dhambit Mununggurr

The Yolŋu artist Dhambit Munuŋgurr, perched in her wheelchair alongside one of the largest bark paintings I’ve ever seen – a work in steady progress – looks at me with eyes flashing mercurially. Or she would be looking at me if I were there. Instead she’s looking at my digital version, playing out on a phone screen in the northern heat, as I try to ask questions of her from afar. I fear I’ve already put my foot in it. Influence, at least in a Western sense, can be a sensitive subject among tradition-minded Aboriginal artists, and I’ve just suggested that Munuŋgurr, who has only relatively recently begun painting at the local art centre (like most local artists, she previously worked at home), may have received support and guidance from the small group of older women, among them her aunt Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, who were already there.

My mistake. Munuŋgurr clutches a cigarette in her right hand, left near-useless by the vehicle accident that almost took her life in 2007, and inhales deeply.

“I do whatever I want,” she says emphatically, before pausing to let smoke billow from her nostrils.

It’s a fitting statement in light of her recent paintings, which are nothing if not striking when seen against the majority of the other work created at Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka, the long established art centre in the north-east Arnhem Land community of Yirrkala. Yolŋu art is famously strict in its conventions. Artists must paint their own identities, which are defined by specific ancestral narratives that correlate to certain tracts of country and sea. These are in turn held in check by the moiety system that splits the Yolŋu world into either Dhuwa or Yirritja. The famously intricate patterning that characterises Yolŋu art, known in the Yolŋu Matha language as miny’tji, is emblematic of this knowledge. In its often dizzying detail, miny’tji threads together an elemental language: saltwater, freshwater, smoke, fire, honey, lightning, the patterning of a fish’s scales or a crocodile’s hide. But these conventions are not only about what an artist can depict; they are about how as well. The late ceremonial leader Dr Gawirri Gumana was known to put it like this: “If you paint the land, you use the land.” He was directing artists to focus on the naturally occurring materials of the surrounding country: ochre, bark and kapok wood. Everything else was out of bounds.

Although a small handful of recent Yolŋu artists have subtly yet forcefully innovated within these boundaries, the resulting art is for the most part an art of precision, of fine lines meticulously layered into intricate ochre-toned patterns. Munuŋgurr’s recent paintings are, by contrast, a bright azure blue, offset by black and white. Painted in the store-bought acrylic paint she has used since her accident – it was her reduced ability to collect and prepare ochre that provided the justification to shift to acrylic – they are hardly “of the land” in Gumana’s terms. They are also loose to an almost radical degree: if they contain miny’tji, it is of the most abbreviated variety. For these reasons, her paintings stand out like the proverbial sore thumb.

Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka’s long-term art coordinator, Will Stubbs, is mediating my phone call. He’s been in Yirrkala for 25 years, and is married to Munuŋgurr’s classificatory sister – in Yolŋu Matha he calls Munuŋgurr galay, which means sister-in-law/wife. I’ve visited the community a number of times and well know the feeling Stubbs has for his work, the way his restless mind is constantly activated by the many contradictions and echoes that exist between Yolŋu and balanda (white person) ways. Today he wants me to see Munuŋgurr’s painting technique up close – the way she grasps the brush in her left hand (she had to learn to preference it after her accident), dips it in the paint and then almost throws it forth to hit her target; a line here, a patch of infill there, a roughly outlined figure. It possesses its own kind of precision, he explains, a concentrated energy that very much places it within the local canon regardless of the clear differences.

Stubbs’s enthusiasm speaks to a still-recent revelation: like many, he initially failed to recognise Munuŋgurr’s talent. He now readily admits that a “smug balanda thinking” guided his initial reaction to the small paintings she regularly brought into the art centre in the years following her accident. But once they had built up a significant cache, the oversight became clear. “It was as if she was a first violinist who had never once been featured alongside the full orchestra,” Stubbs said. The large-scale painting she prepared for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award in 2018, simply titled Ocean, is now seen as the beginning of what has since unfolded. Drawing heavily for the first time on what became her favoured blue, she sketched out a composition teeming with ancestral reference. Near the centre she depicted her namesake, a black rock that rises from the ocean near Elcho Island. It was soon surrounded by human and animal figures: a group of Makassans paddling in from the north; three brolgas from her father’s Djapu clan; and her paternal grandfather, Woŋgu (a towering cultural and political leader from Yolŋu history), encircled by the fish of Munuŋgurr’s mother’s clan, the Gumatj. Even Munuŋgurr’s long-term balanda partner, Tony Gintz, a French yidaki (didgeridoo) enthusiast, was there. Gintz sailed a yacht solo from Fremantle into Yirrkala, and thus found himself encompassed in Munuŋgurr’s painting by Ŋarrpiya, the octopus that denotes the waters of the traditionally seafaring Warramiri clan of the Wessel Islands.

Gintz is also helping to facilitate my FaceTime session. His long residence in Yirrkala has resulted in a full beard and deep tan, but his accent remains strong. Since Munuŋgurr’s accident he has become an essential support figure for both her and her practice. As we speak, he shifts the vast bark for Munuŋgurr to accommodate her limited reach. He explains that he has long been responsible for driving out from the community with a chainsaw and tomahawk, and peeling the still-living sheets of stringybark from the forest trees. As Munuŋgurr’s current work displays, her favoured scale has grown exponentially in recent years. Gintz is rightly proud of his involvement: a bark like this doesn’t even fit in the back of a LandCruiser Troop Carrier; one must take a trailer as well.

The piece Munuŋgurr is working on is destined for an exhibition at Sydney’s Roslyn Oxley9 gallery in late 2021, but the majority of work Munuŋgurr has made since Ocean has been set aside by the National Gallery of Victoria. The gallery’s director, Tony Ellwood, and curator Myles Russell-Cook visited Yirrkala in 2019 intent on collaborating with Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka for the upcoming NGV Triennial (December 19 – April 18), but were unsure what this might entail. This was not long after Munuŋgurr completed Ocean, and the visitors were bowled over by another work she was then painting in the art centre’s shaded internal courtyard. It depicted the time her maternal grandfather, Muŋgurrawuy Yunupingu, was overcome by a cloud of butterflies as he paddled a canoe in the open ocean. The colours that Russell-Cook had seen as their flight from Cairns descended towards the Arnhem Land peninsula – the red of the earth, the bright green trees, the overwhelming blue of the Arafura Sea – were still fresh in his mind. But, as he told me recently, Munuŋgurr’s blue was nonetheless “just extraordinary”. Not only was Munuŋgurr immediately offered a prominent spot in the Triennial, but Ellwood pledged the gallery would purchase every work she made in the interim, a group that grew to include nine painted arrakitj (the once-traditional hollow-log funerary poles now produced as sculptures for the art market), alongside 15 large-scale barks.

As is characteristic of such exhibitions, the NGV Triennial is markedly global in its reach. Munuŋgurr’s work will be presented among a sprawling selection of contemporary artists from more than 30 countries. Some are well known – the American Jeff Koons, an emblem of the art market’s most voracious tendencies, will be represented by a “mirror polished” sculpture of Venus, goddess of love. Others are comparatively obscure, more aligned with the contemporary exhibition circuit than the auction house. The Polish-German artist Alicja Kwade, for instance, is known for beautifully poised installations of blunt materiality. But regardless of the significant merits of the exhibition, it comes at a tricky moment. Even when audiences are free to return to public galleries, the COVID pandemic has unsettled the global logic of expansion and reach that underpins grand-scale exhibitions such as the Triennial. Like so much else, it too is enabled by global supply chains, by networks of freight and communication that strive to make even the most remote corners of the globe immediately accessible to all and sundry. If nothing else, the pandemic has exposed the hubris of contemporary life, that alongside the undeniable benefits of connectivity lie the very real pitfalls that may well undo us. Whether or not the pronounced local-ness of Munuŋgurr’s work provides a counter to this remains to be seen, but it is surely there that its power resides. In an increasingly dispersed world, she demonstrates a different way of being: grounded in place, surrounded by ancestors.

As our conversation ends, Stubbs takes the phone on a quick tour so I can see the art centre’s new buildings: a huge painting shed, a visitor accommodation complex; Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka is growing, as it always seems to be. I picture the community outside, the oppressive heat of the “build up” season, the clouds massing over the bay, the simple and elegant open-sided church that speaks directly to Yirrkala’s origins as a Methodist mission. The small barks that were once painted to trade at the tiny mission store seem a far cry from Munuŋgurr’s recent work. But they are one and the same, part of a lineage that includes far more moments of national significance than it reasonably should. It was, after all, the leaders of Yirrkala who produced the Aboriginal Bark Petitions in 1963 in protest against Nabalco’s development of the nearby bauxite mine (Muŋgurrawuy Yunupingu was a key signatory), as well as the jewel-like Yirrkala church panels that once hung behind the local pulpit and are now displayed in a temperature-controlled room at the art centre’s small museum.

Those things alone would place the community at the very centre of Australia’s cultural history, but how to explain everything that has happened since? The group of paintings of Yolŋu sea country that resulted in a landmark native title ruling in 2008, for instance, or the constant high-profile exhibitions and commissions that have now marked the success of generations of artists such as Munuŋgurr’s late mother, Gulumbu Yunupingu? The answers are complex: as much political as cultural, they speak to a widely recognised Yolŋu genius in both domains. It’s no accident, for instance, that in recent decades both Labor and Liberal prime ministers have made semi-regular pilgrimages to Yirrkala. But later, as I think back to my brief conversation with Munuŋgurr, I realise the answer is simple too.

I had asked Munuŋgurr why she so clearly favoured blue and white – how could I not? – and she explained with a smile that the colours were those of the local Gopu (tuna) football team, which counts Munuŋgurr’s son among its players.

It’s only partly a joke.

“Blue is the colour of gapu, of water,” she adds, and once Stubbs and Gintz help explain, I begin to understand. Water cradles the very spirit of the Yolŋu, it holds identity: gurruu – the animating force that defines and guides everything in the surrounding world (including, one assumes, not only the energy of Munuŋgurr’s striking paintings but also the fortunes of the Gopu football team) – flows from that source. From there it touches everything.

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer. His first book, The Stranger Artist, won the 2021 Prime Minister's Literary Award for nonfiction.

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