My first encounter with her work was at the 25th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award in 2008 when her Incident at Mutpi (1975) won the Wandjuk Marika 3D Memorial Award. It was a confounding work: a bark painting accompanied by a video produced by the Mulka Project at Yirrkala. Both the painting and the video (entitled Gatapangawuy Dhawu – Buffalo Story) recounted a story from Nyapanyapa’s life when she was charged by a water buffalo and escaped by climbing a tree. First of all, the work challenged the category of “3D,” which had formerly been awarded to works that we might more easily fit into the category of “sculpture.” The emergence of video in Aboriginal art was stretching all sorts of boundaries for the NATSIAA, and the irony of two essential flat formats winning the 3D prize–painting and video–was complicated by the awareness that the combination of the two created something unclassifiable. It also threw into relief the often unstated assertion that bark paintings themselves are very much three-dimensional works.
But the other confounding factor was the nature of the story and its representation in the context of Yolngu art. In a genre dominated still by the presentation of ancestral stories in a visual language that privileged sacred designs belonging to clans and defining a group identity, here was a work that was essentially autobiographical. Its subject matter was a single incident in time; its visual language seemed to share none of the elements of classic Gumatj design. Was Nyapanyapa introducing multiple ruptures of genres with this work? What was going on here? Though I was pleased that the judges elected to draw special attention to this challenging artwork by awarding it the prize, I was puzzled. I didn’t know what to make of the work, and I wasn’t entirely sure that I liked it.
Nyapanyapa had touched a nerve. Galleries began to feature her work, along with that of her sister Barrapu. While Barrapu’s depcitions of ancestral fire were in themselves challenging in their design, they still fit into the framework of traditional, if somewhat experimental, Yolngu painting. Nyapanyapa continued to be something of an outsider, and she continued to draw upon her personal experience in her idiosyncratic style: soon she was exhibiting paintings of the Sydney Harbour Bridge at Roslyn Oxley. And then came the White Paintings.
Several of these monochromatic experiments are now on display in Canberra as part of unDisclosed: 2nd National Indigenous Art Triennial, and they are expertly explicated in Franchesca Cubillo’s catalog essay on Nyapanyapa. Cubillo describes the arc of Nyapanyapa’s creative journey, the manner in which she composed her earlier works, laying down a base of black or red primer, overlaying it with white crosshatching, and then finally painting in the objects of her story: the buffalo, the Sydney hotel, the bush apple trees that she is so clearly fond of. Then, with the White Paintings, Nyapanyapa elected to eliminate the figurative elements and present us with only the white shimmering cross-hatchings that had previously formed an understory in her works. In Cubillo’s words,
They are unpretentious intuitive white waves of free-flowing crosshatching. One gets a sense of the melodic rhythm of the ocean’s competing currents. The works are like random movements of white foam on the shoreline as the ocean tides advance and recede.
In this interpretation, perhaps we are back in the realm of classic Yolngu iconography: the preoccupation with water, with ebb and flow. And yet we don’t need to fully embrace this as the only possibility; for an artist like Nyapanyapa, who has given herself over to a career of recording the moments of her life’s story, these paintings may be more simply another chapter. They are a record of her days, of her engagement with painting on its own terms. In the artist’s statement that accompanies the catalog entry in unDisclosed, she has this to say:
My father Munggurrawuy Yunupingu taught me how to paint. I learnt from watching him. He was always working. He said to me, ‘When I am gone you will follow behind me and paint too. Show the people—paint and work’.
That is what he said, and that’s what I do. I love working. I miss it when the bark is too dry to harvest or I can’t find carving wood or make a print. It is the way I was brought up. If I cannot paint I have to go and get fish or oysters or yams. I cannot sit and do nothing.
Indeed, the simple but breakaway act of painting for its own sake suggests that Nyapanyapa is forging a new path through the annals of painting in Arnhem Land. These paintings and others like them, including her entry in last year’s NATSIAA, go by a general series title of “mayilimiriw,” a word that translates as “meaningless.” The brief annotation for the 2011 NATSIAA entry stated only, “This is a work without a sacred meaning. It is an expression of the artist’s hand.” But as Cubillo points out, the absence of reference to ancestral stories doesn’t imply that the paintings are “devoid of substance.” They are full of the stuff of Nyapanyapa’s life, her routines of going to Buku-Larrnggay Mulka every day to work, or to go looking for oysters among the rocky shores of her country. Do those white-on-white circles in the NATSIAA painting suggest oysters clinging to rocks under the sea foam?
Nyapanyanpa’s drive to create all the time lies behind the startling new work that will be on display at the Sydney Biennale this year from June 27. Here’s the description from the Biennale’s website:
Nyapanyapa Yunupingu’s Light Painting (2011) is a projection composed from a set of 110 drawings in white paint pen on clear acetates, made at Yirrkala Art Centre between 2010 and 2011. These drawings were then scanned into a custom computer program, which contains a algorithm that randomly selects three acetates at a time, assigns an opacity to each, then overlays that set against a second set of three. This process continues almost endlessly, at an almost imperceptible rate, and only repeats after several hundred million iterations. There is no start and no end. Each time the work is viewed it is different. The result is a painting with light as the medium.
Thanks to Will Stubbs, I had the chance to experience this mesmerizing new creation one evening while we were in Seattle. As the description above notes, the drawings that form the basis of Light Painting were done during the summer months, when bark is unavailable at the art centre. Casting about for a new medium for Nyapanyapa to explore, Will gave her a few sheets of acetate and the white paint pen. By the end of the day, she had produced perhaps half a dozen drawings. Some were simple line drawings, others were clusters of more abstract (meaningless?) designs, some were pictures of her beloved trees. Will gathered them up into a pile and as he went to store them away in a drawer in the print shop, he looked down at–and through–the layers of clear acetate, seeing six drawings superimposed one on top of another.
He was struck by the beauty of the composite images, and as the summer progressed and more drawings accumulated, Will sought a solution that might allow other viewers to share that strange and sudden simultaneity. The drawings were scanned and sent to a computer programmer in Melbourne, who worked out the solution that will be seen when Light Painting, projected at a height of two meters, debuts shortly at the Biennale. The individual panels shown in the illustration below are not single images
(acetates) per se from the work: rather, they are moments.
In the course of four years, I have changed my stance about Nyapanyapa from one of skepticism to one of profound admiration. I sometimes imagine her a bit like the Lonely Tree in the painting at the head of this post. Like much Aboriginal art, it has the feel of a self-portrait. The tree is vaguely humanoid in form, and I sometimes think of Nyapanyapa as the solitary artist committed to the pursuit of her craft (if not exactly alone or lonely). The tree is graceful, and rich with fruit. Nyapanyapa treads a unique path through the orchards of eastern Arnhem Land, a one-woman avant-garde. She is connected to the traditions of Yolngu painting without practicing them in any conventional sense; and if her work sometimes nestles comfortably in the conceptual sphere of contemporary Western art, it is not of that world either. Nowadays, as in 2008 with Incident at Mutpi, I’m not always sure what to make of her work, but instead of asking myself, as I did then, “What’s going on here?” I find the question that springs most readily to mind is “What will she do next?”