When I first visited Yirrkala and the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in 2005, Will Stubbs described to me his dream of building a multimedia centre and library. At that time, his dream consisted of some ceramic tiles that might adorn the proposed building. I returned two years later to find construction well underway. Five years later, the dream is a productive reality, commonly referred to as The Mulka Project.
Since the days when I first became aware of the art of Arnhem Land I’ve been impressed by the way in which the Yolngu have embraced the future to help them remain connected to the past. This shouldn’t be surprising: it is Stanner’s “everywhen” manifested. If we look back only fifty years, we find the creation of the Yirrkala Church Panels that brought the traditional stories of the clans of northeast Arnhem Land into the Methodist mission church near the banks of Yirrkala Creek. (That creek, by the way, is shown in the image that runs as the header of this blog.) Within five years of the completion of the Church panels, the threat to Yolngu land and culture by the bauxite mine on Rirratjungu land at Nhulunbuy was poised to overwhelm the mission settlement; the Yolngu responded by sending their bark petition to Canberra.
Of course, they lost that particular battle, but Justice Blackburn’s decision in Milirrpum v Nabalco recognized the central importance of the land to the people and led to the first frameworks for establishing native title throughout Australia. For their part, the Yolngu knew that the coming of the mine would irrevocably alter them. Amazingly, they decided to document that momentous period of change on film. The Yirrkala Film Project, twenty-two films shot by Ian Dunlop over more than a decade from the mid-70’s onward, was not an attempt to record the last vestiges of a way of life imbued with ceremony, although it certainly contains some of the most extensive footage of sacred life I’ve ever seen: Dhapi Ceremony at Yirrkala (1972), Madarrpa Funeral at Gurka’wuy (filmed in 1976 and released in 1979) and the epic, four-hour Djungguwan at Gurka’wuy (1976, 1989) are among the most compelling cinematic explorations of indigenous life on record.
The Yolngu understood, even at the moment it was happening, that the mine spelled change, but not destruction, for their accustomed way of life, and the true aim of the Yirrkala Film Project was to document a particularly acute moment of transformation. Photographs of the “old people” are a common sight in many Aboriginal communities these days and the traditional prohibitions on speaking of the dead or viewing images of them are being transformed, as Jennifer Deger’s work among the Yolngu at Gapuwiyak demonstrates (see “The Remote Avant-Garde” and “Video Rom” for more detailed discussion). But in the early 70s, taking the step to preserve a record of a dynamic culture on film was a radical decision for an Indigenous community.
Perhaps it was this early experience with film that inspired the idea of the Mulka Centre’s multimedia focus. On my first visit to the art centre, I saw a small television set in the corner of the area of the building that housed historic works of art from the various clans; it was playing one of Ian Dunlop’s films through a VCR, and Will Stubbs mentioned how he’d love to have the whole series transferred to DVD. He talked about how he hoped that someday soon he could transfer old photographs to the Centre’s computers in the hope that people now living in Yirrkala could identify ancestors before no one was left to remember them.
That seems to be exactly what has transpired now, although new and creative applications for the video technology have emerged as well. Youngsters are interacting with art in perhaps unexpected ways, like young Nathan B’s hip hop video “Yolngu Land.” Senior artists made unforeseen use of video tools as well, the most famous of them being Nyapanyapa Yunupingu’s NATSIAA-award winning Incident at Mutpi. That was a true multimedia accomplishment, combining video footage and bark painting and inspiring the creation of an entirely new category for the annual art award. Incident at Mutpi is also, as Stubbs likes to point out, revolutionary in being an explicitly autobiographical work of art, and thus a new genre in Yolngu aesthetics as well. So it should come as no surprise that the first work to win the New Media Award, this year, was Nawurapu Wunungmurra’s Mokuy, in which those old videos of ceremony cast their flickering light across the artist’s attenuated sculptural forms.
A new video available on YouTube provides a capsule view of these activities, along with interviews with artists like Nyapanyapa herself and Wukun Wanambi (another winner at this year’s NATSIAA and an emerging cinematographer in his own right), art centre coordinators Stubbs and Andrew Blake, and glimpses of the wealth of historical documentation that the Mulka Project is preserving.
Shortly after Nyapanyapa won the NATSIAA award for Incident at Mutpi, the Mulka Project released its first anthology of short films, Nhama! (Look!) A year later, the followup Nhama ga Ngama (Look and Listen) appeared, a collection with the most memorable tag line in recent video history: “animation, documentary, horror, dance, ceremony, football, cross-dressing and Kevin Rudd.” One of these short subjects, “Dhuwa Dhapi,” is also available online.
Much briefer than Dunlop’s Dhapi Ceremony at Yirrkala (it also omits the actual moment of circumcision, which the earlier film did not), the new video is remarkable for showing how much continuity exists in ceremony today, how vibrant the ceremonial life remains, and at the same time, what has changed over the last forty years.
I love the ways in which Buku-Larrnggay Mulka continues to surprise me, whether it is through these innovative video projects or through the sudden appearance of saltwater in the desert, as with Raft Artspace’s recent exhibition “Barrupu Shows up in the Desert,” which featured works of ancestral fire by Barrupu Yunupingu in the midst of Desert Mob in Alice Springs. At almost the same time, the Sydney Harbour Bridge showed up in the work of Nyapanyapa at Roslyn Oxley (“In Sydney Again, 2010“), although that surprised me less than seeing the Rymanesque “White Paintings” (right) included in that exhibition. Freshwater to saltwater, Djirrirra Wunungmurra opens at Short Street this week, and maybe it’s not so surprising that the show is nearly sold out in advance. Quality always tells, and sells.