It’s been a decade now since Buku-Larrnggay Mulka and Bill Gregory presented Buwayak: Invisibility at the Annandale Galleries in Sydney, an exhibition that heralded an extraordinary new direction in painting from Yirrkala. If you look at Yolngu painting from just a few years either side of 2003, you’ll be immediately struck by the difference in styles.
In the 2001 NATSIAA, Buku-Larrnggay Mulka was represented by four artists: Gawirrin Gumana, Wolpa Wanambi, Bakulangay Marawili, and Dhukal Wirrpanda. Although each artist has a recognizable, personal style, the paintings as a whole are representative of the work that had been produced at the art centre for years, if not decades. Against a geometric field based on clan designs, ancestral narratives and totems played in strong figurative style. Black and red ochres gave the works a strong, dark cast.
Go back a few years earlier to the Saltwater collection in which Yolngu asserted their rights to the sea. The works are again typical of much painting that had preceded them, although looking at the catalog now with the benefit of hindsight, I can already discern in Galuma Maymurru’s Yindiwirryun at Djarrakpi and Djamabawa Marawili’s Baraltja the beginnings of the style of buwayak, in which the representational elements, through manipulation of both design and color, merge and disappear into the clan designs. (The Saltwater work of Wanyubi Marika, the third artist included in Buwayak, adumbrates his later style to a much lesser degree.)
In the years since, the radical innovations of buwayak have come to alter the styles of art-making in Yirrkala, and Gregory’s Annandale Galleries have continued to be a locus for the introduction of often surprising new developments. Djambawa Marawili has gone on to become an elder statesman of Yolngu painting while continuing to experiment with form and design. In 2006, the Young Guns exhibition showcased the early incised larrakitj by Guny’bi Ganambarr that signaled the artist’s first innovations with traditional formats. Also in that show, Yinimala Gumana presented a series of bark paintings in which conventional representations of mangrove leaves became the basis for work that manifested a new take on the geometry of clan designs.
in 2008, Wanyubi Marika’s surprising reinterpretations of the Yalangbara story picked up that thread with a series of designs based on the image of the surface of the sea the moment after the Djang’kau’s paddles were lifted from the water. These paintings were paired with Young Guns II, in which Ganambarr displayed his radical double-sided bark paintings and Dhurrumuwuy Marika’s Rulyapa barks presaged a new era of over-all design that once again altered the shape of geometry in Yolngu painting. It has been a heady decade and one that has changed the face of Yolngu art from Yirrkala decisively.
So now it’s 2013: the fiftieth anniversary year of the presentation of the Yirrkala Bark Petitions in Parliament, the most dramatic gesture in the Yolngu attempt to defeat the invasion of their country by Nabalco and the bauxite mine. Of course, the petition was largely ignored at the time, and the subsequent legal action in Milurrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd and Commonwealth of Australia defeated. The mine came to Yolngu lands, transforming the landscape, carving away chunks of country to be transported along tens of kilmeters of conveyor belts to processing plants on the coastline.
The mine also scattered many of the people who were living at Yirrkala back to their homelands, either to escape the pernicious influences of the incomers, or to defend their country against further incursion. The production of art became an important part of the economy of the outstations, allowing Yolngu to have access to boats and fuel, to the facilities at the Yirrkala Mission, and to their now dispersed fellows. In some ways, the art history we have witnessed growing, changing, and thriving at Buku-Larrnggay Mulka is a direct response to the presence of the mine, which the Bark Petitions were not able to avert.
And yet the Bark Petitions sparked more than the development of the arts industry. More crucially, they laid the framework for the legal struggles that, along with the Gurindji and the Pintupi insistence on returning to their homelands, resulted in the passage of the first land rights legislation. It is the start of that struggle, and the celebration of its accomplishments, that have been celebrated in this fiftieth-anniversary year of 2013.
At the end of August, down in Sydney, Annandale Galleries closed the doors on another remarkable show of work from Yirrkala, one that I believe is as much a gamechanger as any we have seen to date, and one which has special significance to the celebrations of the Bark Petitions.
The exhibition was titled Found. The name derives from the materials that were used in the production of the artworks: found objects, often discarded from the apparatus of the mine or the construction that has taken place around its operations. There are works painted on sections of the rubber conveyor belts that transport the bauxite to the processing center in Nhulunbuy. There are paintings on discarded louvers from the windows and doors of houses. There are paintings on MDF board, on glass and perspex scavenged from the detritus scattered across Yolngu lands. There is a massive dugong, over five feet long, fashioned from cast-off chicken wire; in the installation it floated above the other works in the gallery like a tutelary spirit (see the image at the end of this post).
The Dugong is the work of Guny’bi Ganambarr, who is himself something of a tutelary spirit for the exhibition, for his continuing innovations in form have inspired much of the experimentation evident here. Even his larrkitj represent startling departures from the norms of the genre: in Gangan he leaves large sections of the trunk painted only with red ochre. The depiction of the waves of the bay at Garraparra runs lengthwise down a surface that has not been smoothed out but retains the contours of the tree, adding a three-dimensional physical correlate to the zigzag pattern that is normally laid out horizontally to simulate the choppy waters of the saltwater current. His experiments with incised barks have now extended to cut-outs in sheet metal in Ngaymil Font that suggest industrial templates of sacred designs.
Djirrirra Wunungmurra contributed a number of new variations on the Yukuwa designs that have garnered her so much praise and recognition in recent years, though these are painted on manufactured wooden boards and MDF rather than on traditional bark supports. She has a pair of boards in which the leaves of the yukuwa yam plant that dominate her familiar designs morph Escher-like into the forms of Ngerrk, the sulphur crested cockatoo who is the harbinger of death; the juxtaposition of these symbols of vitality and morbidity is shiveringly eerie.
There is a single piece by Wukun Wanambi included here, Iron Fish. It takes the familiar iconography of his paintings of fish swirling and leaping around the sacred rock of Bamurrungu in Trial Bay and transposes it onto a sheet of corrugated iron. Like Guny’bi Ganambarr’s Garraparra larrakitj, the undulations of the iron mimic the turbulence of the waters in which the fish swim. The Wanambi family has been transforming and abstracting those fish in recent years into swirling triangles, and that transformation continues apace in works by Wukun’s younger brother Yalanba and elder sister Ralwurrandji.
Yalanba’s etched and painted works on perspex are startling, especially Trial Bay. One can almost hear echoes of desert painting in this piece, with its translucent dotted background designs and graceful, flowing, and spare depiction of the three rocks in Trial Bay, represented by painted ochre circles connected by sinuous cross-hatched lines.
Ralwurrandji’s pieces, several small works on glass and perspex louvers and larger works on discarded perspex, glass, laminate board, and fragments of conveyor belts are even more dramatic in their designs. The small works experiment with strong diagonals or break the field up into panels that recall the division of large barks into segments of ancestral stories (as in the Yirrkala Church Panels as well as in much bark painting in the decades after their creation). But the geometry of these designs is foregrounded and looks very little like conventional clan configurations. It feels as though a new genre of invisibility, of buwayak, pervades these paintings.
The bold geometric circles and chevrons (I can’t help but think of Kenneth Noland’s experiments in the 1960s) on Ralwurrandji’s larger works offer new manifestations of ancestral power. The effect here seems to be generated not so much by the brilliance of the cross-hatching as described by Howard Morphy in his seminal article “From Dull to Brilliant: the aesthetics of spiritual power among the Yolngu” (Man, vol. 21, no 1, 1989). Rather it is the bold totality of the designs and their execution on the strange materials that creates the effect.
Ralwurrandji’s glass and perspex pieces, like Yalanba’s, add yet another element to the way in which the new materials support the showing forth of the ancestral. And here I am about to turn to western art history once again, not to suggest influence, but more to speculate on a case of convergent evolution, the independent evolution of similar features in different species that informs the squid’s eye and the bat’s wing. Especially noticeable in the catalog photographs of two works entitled Bamurrungu is the way in which light passing through the perspex casts an image of the sacred design on the wall behind the piece. In just such a way did the stained glass windows of medieval cathedrals cause the glory of God’s light to cast the images of saints upon the bodies of worshippers in multi-colored splendor, affirming the potential for holiness in all men. Are these, indeed, new church panels from Yirrkala?
And that thought brings me full circle, back to 1963. In his catalog essay, Will Stubbs quotes the directive set forth by Gawirrin Gumana: “If you paint the land you must use the land.” As Stubbs glosses this, “Miny’tji or sacred patterns belonging to the clan estates must be made by hand using the natural materials sourced from the land itself.”
Sourced from the land itself. Found. What I see in this exhibition is another assertion of fifty years of Yolngu Power, of an undeniable claim over the land. But now Yolngu have gone one step further and laid claim to the introduced materials that carpet their country, to the conveyor belts and the cast-off boards. (And there are echoes of the Pintupi here again.) Yolngu country has changed greatly since 1963, and yet Yolngu continue to assert their connection to their country and now proclaim their ability to transform the white man’s transformation, to take what has been carelessly cast aside and create objects of spiritual power and significance from them. As beautiful as these works are, it is this assertion that makes this show such a gamechanger. Guny’bi Ganambarr started showing his recycled industrial material works two years ago at Annandale; Yalanba’s etched glass appeared eighteen months ago in the March 2012 Rising Stars exhibition at Outstation Gallery. But massed together in this anniversary year, the political impact of these artistic choices is inescapable. Collectively these works say that Yolngu will not be constrained; moreover, they will prevail over the incursions on their land. A finer demonstration of the resilience of culture and its capacity to change and at the same time maintain its essence would be hard to imagine.