Gulumbu Yunupingu Australian
Not on view
This work is a singular example of contemporary bark painting by the senior female Aboriginal artist Gulumbu Yunupingu, whose paintings are consciously both universal and distinctly Yolngu. Born in 1943, Gulumbu is the daughter of Mungurrawuy Yunupingu (c. 1905–1979), leader of the Gumatj clan of Yolgnu peoples in central and eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. She married Mutitjpuy Munungurr (c. 1932–1993) of the Djapu clan, who like her father was a renowned artist. Yirrkala was established as a Methodist mission in 1935. In the 1950s reserves of bauxite were discovered on Gumatju land, and without consultation, the Commonwealth government granted mining leases. Soon after Yolngu people began their struggle to achieve the recognition of their rights to land, and art was central to their campaign. Both her father Mungurrawuy and husband Mutitjpuy painted sections of the 1962 Yirrkala Church Panels which anchored the socio-political and spiritual relationship basis of Yolngu knowledge to their land. One year later, Yolngu sent petitions on bark to Parliament in Canberra and subsequently challenged the granting of leases in the famous Gove Land Rights Case of 1971. They lost the case, but legislation was changed with the passage in 1976 of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act. This legislation enabled Yolngu to gain ownership of most of their land. The change came too late to prevent the exploitation of the bauxite reserves, and Yolngu had to come to terms with the disruption and infrastructure of a large mining operation built in their midst and without their consent. Whilst Yolngu were confronted with this upheaval they nevertheless engaged with the visitors who had come to live in their midst. Indeed for centuries, Yolngu have had exchanges with Macassar peoples of Sulawesi in Indonesia who visited their coastline for many centuries to collect and cure trepang (Holothuria, or sea cucumbers) for trade with the Chinese market.
Like many senior members of the Yolngu community in this region of east Arnhem Land, many individuals worked through and accounted for the rapid changes in the social fabric of their community by producing customary artworks at the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka, the dynamic indigenous art center in Yirrkala. Situated a short distance from the township that had been established for the new mining community at Nhulunbuy, she joined other senior clan women in the printmaking workshop at the centre and honed her skills over many years producing meticulous work on strips of prepared bark as well as a new innovative form that evolved from the customary memorial poles (known as larrakitj). In 2004 Gulumbu won the major prize in the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards in Darwin for a set of three memorial poles (larrakitj) and she was selected for the international project commissioned for the newly constructed Musée du quai Branly in Paris which opened in June 2006.
Gulumbu’s early, small-scale star paintings on bark were the original inspiration for these two much later works which are larger, more complex and aesthetically powerful. The paintings are an evocation of the night sky and are anchored in Yolngu conceptions of the universe. Gulumbu Yunupingu’s source of inspiration for Garak I (Universe) and Ganyu (Stars) appears at first glance to be a literal representation of the Milky Way, an important ancestral story for the Yolngu people of north east Arnhem Land. However, Yunupingu has stated that her art is about the entire universe, reflecting all of the stars that can be seen by the naked eye and indeed everything that exists far beyond it in the imagination. The stars are also a reference to the spirits of deceased Yolngu, who are metaphorically plucked from the pool of life that is the clan waterhole and exist in the astral dimension. The Milky Way is conceived of as a great river across the sky, also manifest in diverse features on the earth. Stars are a further manifestation of the spirits of the dead, in which the memories of people are located. The sky, clouds, winds and complex patterning of the stars at night are understood to be in dialogue with the earth – and alive with spiritual connections. The artist reflects: “We are just like the stars. All gathered close together … We are so many living together on the earth. The land, the sea and the sky are a continuum. Like one, with us."
Maia Nuku, Evelyn A.J. Hall & John A Friede Associate Curator, AAOA, 2019