Butterflies, Dragonflies, and Yams

wunuwun-songs-of-the-dreamtimeOn Thursday June 6, Wally Caruana will be coming to the Toledo Museum of Art to discuss “The Emergence of Aboriginal Australian Art” as part of the Masters Series of lectures and in conjunction with the Crossing Cultures exhibition.  The talk will begin at 6 p.m. in the TMA Peristyle lecture hall.  I’m eagerly looking forward to it, remembering fondly how much I enjoyed talking with Wally just about a year ago when we met for the first time at the opening of the Ancestral Modern show at the Seattle Museum of Art.

The following Tuesday, June 11, Caruana will join Francoise Dussart for a moderated discussion at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection in Charlottesville, VA entitled “After the Dreamings: 25 years of Australian Aboriginal Art in the U.S.”  (Reservations are required. Please call 434-244-0234 or email kluge-ruhe@virginia.edu.)

In honor of Caruana’s visit, I thought I would write today about an artist dear to his heart, Jack Wunuwun.  Wunuwun was born in Arnhem Land around 1930, a member of the Gangarl (Gang-ngal) clan of the Murrungun people of the Dhuwa moiety.  The Murrungun are custodians for the banumbirr ceremony, a song cycle concerned with life, death, and regeneration, as well as being important in rituals of diplomacy and exchange. He grew up at the Methodist mission on Milingimbi and worked in Darwin in the late 40s and early 50s as an Army cook’s helper.

Wunuwun returned to Maningrida in the 60s; there he began painting in 1968, taught by his older brothers.  Together with Johnny Bulun Bulun, his brother-in-law, he set up an outstation at Gamerdi, east of the Blythe River, in 1979 that became a center for art and painting as stabilizing forces of traditional society against incursions of European culture.

He served from 1978 to 1991 on the Aboriginal Arts Board.  In 1984 at the inaugural National Aboriginal Art Award (which evolved into the NATSIAA), Wunuwun was awarded second prize for his painting Fish Trap Story.  Two years later, in 1986, the urban painter Lin Onus visited Maningrida; Wunuwun adopted the younger man as his son and together with members of his extended family at Maningrida taught him stories and designs of Gamerdi which came to feature prominently in Onus’s work.

Three years before his death on December 31, 1990, Wunuwun undertook to present the vast sweep of the Murrungun Djinang stories with paintings composed in series, including the Banumbirr Manikay, comprising one large canvas and thirty bark paintings illustrating  key episodes in the journeys of the ancestral hero Mukarr.  These works,  acquired by the Holmes à Court collection, were later published in a small book called Songs of the Dreamtime: the Morning Star Series (Fidado Pty Ltd, 1995) that was produced (oddly enough) for Australia Post.  Wunuwun’s son, Terry Gandadila, wrote the text that accompanied the paintings and retells Mukarr’s story.

According to the Banumbirr Manikay, the creator Djang’kawu made the earth by cracking open an egg, with the yolk forming the land and the white the sea. He sent Mukarr, also known as Malawurrwurr, to earth to see if all was good. Mukarr emerged from the primeval flood through a waterhole called Bulawirri on Galiwin’ku.  From there he traveled west to Miwirnbi, the traditional homeland of Wunuwun’s clan on the mainland just west of Milingimbi.  En route, he observed and named many of the plants and animals that filled the country.

At the start of the wet season, as winds began to blow from the northwest, Mukarr set out to return to Galiwin’ku and landed with his canoe at the nearby island of Djimarlu. Here he cleared the land for new growth by setting a fire that swept the entire island.  After this, Mukarr made the first morning star pole, and created the ceremonies associated with it before starting out for the voyage back to Galiwin’ku. Because Mukarr was Dhuwa man of Murrungun clan, these ceremonies belong to them today. Mukarr, however, had made a wrong-way marriage and was banished to the Marrangu clan, who now are the witnesses, or custodians, of the Banumbirr ceremonies.

The route of Mukarr’s journey takes a classic “there and back again” form; the point of return, where the hero begins to retrace his steps, is Miwirnbi, Wunuwun’s homeland.  And it is on the island of Djimarlu, just off the coast east of Miwirnbi, where the narrative’s great dramatic event, the fire, takes place at the time when the dry season begins to give way to the wet.  Here, in more detail, is how Gandidila describes it:

When the wind started to blow he sailed in his canoe from the Miwirnbi flood plains and came to the island of Djimarlu.  This island was different, it was all green.  Here Mukarr noticed the leaves of the yam (barrtji) had changed colour.  He knew this was a sign to light a bushfire (duwarr) in order to clear the land for new growth.  So he lit a bushfire by rubbing two sticks together.  The fire covered the whole island and also accidentally the neighbouring island of Milingimbi.  Mukarr walked through the land and left his footprints in the ash.  He found a goanna (djarrka) which he cooked and ate.  In the rainforest Mukarr saw the butterflies (bunpa) dancing and he knew the monsoon rains were coming soon.  The dragonfly (migiwirrwarr) danced to tell him that it was time to harvest fish and yam.  When he found the banyan tree (djanpa), he ate the fruit (gunydja) then collected the bark and made a string bag (Wunuwun and Gandadila, p. 26).

wunuwun-smallThis episode in Mukarr’s journey is the subject of a magnificent bark painting that Wunuwun created in 1976 that depicts the yams, butterflies, and dragonflies.  In the center of this large (145 x 76 cm) bark, the ephemeral butterflies do indeed dance among the painted leaves of the yams, their varied coloring and sizes suggesting a depth of field that is rare in Wunuwun’s painting.  To their right, at the edge of the painting a string of four dragonflies ascend, one after another.

Above and below this band of insects, Wunuwun has painted yams.  Those at the top are “old yams” that have been harvested and cooked.  Those at the bottom (whose leaves are different colors, suggesting, as in Gandadila’s telling of the story, the imminent change of the seasons) are young yams, still growing underground, the black background infill between them perhaps indicating the darkness of the earth in which they thrive.

The difference in the treatment of the yams is extraordinary.  The old yams are spotted and stiff, static icons, while those at the bottom of the painting twist and thrust upwards, echoing in their shimmering cross-hatched execution the swirling dance of the butterflies that circle amongst their leaves.  Looking at the whole painting, you are immediately struck by the contrast between vitality and stasis, emerging life and dessicated death.

wunuwun-galiThis transition between life and death may also be suggested to me by the proximity of the events referred to in this painting to the next episode in Mukarr’s journey, in which he creates the first banumbirr, the morning star pole.  In the stories associated with these objects, the crown of feathers represents the morning star, whose light shines on the strings suspended from the pole.  These illuminated strings serve as pathways to guide the spirits of the deceased eastwards towards Bralku, the island of the dead, or alternately, to the camps in the skies of the Milky Way.  The tassels of feathers that hang from the pole represent food that the spirits consume on their journey.  If you look at a typical instance of a morning star pole, for example this one (right) by Gali Yalkarriwuy, the resemblance of the whole to Wunuwun’s composition in this bark painting in its shapes, patterns, movement, and heft is striking.  The large, pendulous clusters of feathers at the bottom recall Wunuwun’s young yams, while the smaller tufts closer to the top wreathe the pole like a cluster of butterflies.

Wunuwun is a fascinating painter, not least for the diversity he embodies.  He was resident in and largely identified with Maningrida, where the dominant cultural bloc has become the Kunwinjku painters whose tradition, in modern market terms, began with Yirrwala and extends through Mawurndjul and his family.  And yet culturally (in other senses) he is strongly allied with Yolngu traditions: the story of Mukarr comes out of the myths of the Djang’kawu rather than their central Arnhem Land cognates the Wagilag.  And the banumbirr/morning star ceremonies are most strongly identified with Yolngu enclaves on Galiwin’ku.  Stylistically, his paintings, especially those in the Banumbirr Manikay that is reproduced in Songs of the Dreamtime, most resemble those produced in and around Milingimbi, the community where he grew up and which lies between Maningrida and Galiwin’ku; if there is another major painter whose work Wunuwun’s most resembles, it is his brother-in-law Johnny Bulun Bulun.  The sobriquet of “a painter of Arnhem Land” lies more comfortably with Wunuwun than with almost any other artist of the North.

wunuwun-large

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