Patrick Hutchings on Gulumbu Yunupingu

This seems to be my week for interesting reviews of exhibitions, having discovered today Patrick Hutching’s essay on Gulumbu Yunupingu’s latest show, at Alcaston Gallery, which appeared in The Age on January 14. Apart from a confusing bit on the middle about Gulumbu’s translation of the Bible into Gumatj, it’s quite a lovely piece of work.

Quoting Immanuel Kant and Iris Murdoch (surely an unlikely pair of literary references), Hutchings makes a superb argument for the humanism embedded in the work. The selection from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is quite apt: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence, the more often and more steadily one reflects on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

One of the reasons that this review and this argument for the humanism of the work has special appeal to me stems from a rather unusual experience I had in Broome last August. I was introduced to John Olsen–certainly the most unexpected event of our trip–at Short St Gallery. Emily Rohr was in the midst of preparing for the solo show of Alma Webou’s work that took place in Sydney in September, and as she brought out each of the large canvases Alma had recently completed, Olsen made interesting and astute comments about the painterly qualities of the work. It was quite the treat to hear him speak; he does not have a deep familiarity with indigenous art, and it was fascinating to see what appealed, what element of each painting caught his eye and earned his praise. He was particularly taken by the fact that the paintings seemed to come together “without any drawing,” that an artist was capable of creating a coherent canvas by simply painting the composition.

But as he turned to leave, he delivered his final judgment. His own work, he said, builds upon a tradition of humanism, the recognition of the human spirit and its nobility that extends back millennia, at least to the Greeks. And that tradition, sadly, he found lacking in indigenous art. 

He may be absolutely right that the particular tradition of humanism that the West has inherited from the Greeks finds no voice in indigenous art. But to deplore the absence of a humanist impulse in this work seems a short-sightedness, a blinkered vision. If we can not see the nobility of spirit in the work of great artists like Gulumbu Yunupingu, then, to paraphrase another of the West’s premier humanists, the fault lies not with the stars, but with ourselves.

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