Nineteen-year-old Gutiŋarra Yunupiŋu with his video work, in which he shares his kinship connections using Yolngu sign language. (Supplied: Art Gallery of South Australia/Saul Steed)
As a gauge of Australian contemporary art, the annual Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAAs) have become key; Tarnanthi, a biennial festival and art fair in Adelaide, is another.
Both provide comprehensive showcases of the very best of Australia’s thriving, diverse Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art scene.
So when both the NATSIAAs and Tarnanthi show evidence of a Yolngu takeover, it’s time to take notice.
This work by “young gun” Yolngu artist Gunybi Ganambarr is called Darra (Yolngu for waterweed). (Supplied: Art Gallery of South Australia/Saul Steed)
In August, Yolngu artists from north-east Arnhem Land scooped four of the seven 2019 NATSIAAs, including the major prize (worth $50,000); this followed a banner year in 2018, where they took five of seven awards — again, including the major prize.
Earlier this month, the Art Gallery of South Australia revealed the flagship exhibition within its Tarnanthi program: a showcase of Yolngu art called Gurrutu.
Tarnanthi: key facts
- Tarnanthi Festival of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art was created by the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA)
- It is comprised of a biennial art fair, a flagship exhibition at AGSA, and a constellation of exhibitions at Adelaide galleries and museums
- The festival is held every two years, with its first edition in 2015
- In alternating years, AGSA presents an exhibition related to Tarnanthi
- Tarnanthi means “to rise, come forth, spring up or appear” in the Kaurna language of the Adelaide Plains
Next-door to Gurrutu another exhibition, Dhawu (Fly Away), showcased more than 20 recent bark paintings from the region, including a stunning new work by senior Yolngu artist and 2019 Telstra Art Award winner Djambawa Marawili.
So, what the heck is going on in north-east Arnhem Land to warrant this buzz?
Tarnanthi artistic director Nici Cumpston says the strength of Yolngu art is mainly due to three things.
Firstly, she says, Yolngu are innovators: “These people are seriously creative; the way they think is not like how anyone else thinks.
“All of their ways of thinking are like stepping sideways and looking at it backwards.”
Nici Cumpston is artistic director of Tarnanthi and curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the Art Gallery of South Australia. (Supplied: AGSA/Saul Steed)
Secondly, they have the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre, at Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land.
“It’s an incredible arts centre that is managed by someone [Will Stubbs] who has been there for a long time,” Cumpston says.
“Some art centres suffer because people are only there [for a short time], there is constant changing of staff. I think the stability helps people feel secure to push their ideas.”
The third key factor is the strength of Yolngu culture, from which all art flows. In particular, Cumpston says, it is their “gurrutu”: a system of living and being that is unique to the Yolngu people.
Gurrutu could be roughly summarised as an all-encompassing system of connection.
“Western people might say kinship, but kinship doesn’t even come close to what that actually means,” Cumpston says.
Young Yolngu artist Ishmael Marika says: “Everything is connected by gurrutu and linked to songlines, back through people, plants and animals.”
Ishmael Marika started working at the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre when he was 18. (Supplied: Art Gallery of South Australia/Nat Rogers)
Cumpston called her exhibition Gurrutu because the works and artists featured in it are trying to communicate and share this system with non-Yolngu people.
For Tarnanthi, Marika and Joseph Brady, who work at the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre, worked with their community to transpose gurrutu into a video work that visualises the system as a kind of expanding constellation.
Standing out the front of the Gurrutu exhibition, I watched their film for 20 minutes — and realised I was never going to understand this complex system, which Yolngu learn as children.
As Djambawa Marawili suggested to ABC RN’s The Art Show: “We need to have a university for this, I think.”
Marawili is passionate about sharing Yolngu culture and systems with balanda (white people) and the world. You might describe it as a mission.
“Art is the number one way [to explain gurrutu to people],” he told The Art Show.
Besides being an artist, Marawili is a Madarrpa clan leader, and a key protagonist in the Yolngu ‘sea rights’ movement. After the desecration of a sacred site in his homeland of Blue Mud Bay in 1996, Marawili spearheaded a collective of 46 artists from 15 clans who began making a series of bark paintings that articulated their connection to saltwater country.
These paintings were decisive in the 2008 High Court case that recognised the Yolngu people’s ancestral ‘sea rights’.
One of Marawili’s paintings on bark from 1997 is hanging in the Dhawu exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia. It shows a story passed down from his father who got it from his father and so on, about the ancestral being Bäru (a human who turns into crocodile) and his wife (who turns into a blue-tongue lizard).
Installation view of Dhawu (Fly Away): The 2017-19 Kluge-Ruhe Madayin Commission, with work by Djambawa Marawili. (Supplied: Art Gallery of South Australia/Saul Steed)
Standing in front of this painting, Cumpston says: “It was Djambawa who started twisting and making things invisible … by changing up his designs and having things underneath the surface of the bark painting, so that you can’t see all of the magic going on.
“And it was his hand that then led to other people innovating.”
Djambawa Marawili with his 2019 NATSIAA-winning work Journey to America, inspired by his travels to the US to share Yolgnu culture. (Supplied: MAGNT/Fiona Morrison)
In 1996, in response to community interest in setting up a print workshop in Yirrkala (a new way of making art), senior artists and leaders formalised lore around art-making into a simple sentence, expressed by the late Gawirri Gumana: “If you paint the land, you must use the land.”
It meant that sacred clan designs (miny’tji) had to be made by hand using only materials found within the land.
Artists since then have tested the boundaries of this edict — under the permissive guidance of Djambawa Marawili and with the support of the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre.
The result is artists like Noŋgirrŋa Marawili — who mixes the magenta toner from printer cartridges destined for landfill with white ochre to make her vivid bark paintings.
Noŋgirrŋa Marawili won the 2019 Telstra NATSIAA for bark painting with her work Lightning Strikes. (Supplied: Museum and Art Gallery Northern Territory/Fiona Morrison)
Yolngu art at Tarnanthi: key exhibitions
- Gurrutu (Art Gallery of South Australia)
- Dhawu (Fly Away): The 2017-19 Kluge-Ruhe Madayin Commission (also AGSA)
- Gunybi Ganambarr: Mother and Child (Jam Factory)
Another key innovator is Gunybi Ganambarr, who turned his hand to engraving clan patterns on “found” materials from mining and other industries on his country — carving into disused conveyor-belt rubber from a local bauxite mine, or using a power tool to etch into discarded aluminium sheets, as with his 2018 NATSIAA-winning work Buyku.
As part of the wider Tarnanthi festival, Ganambarr has a solo show of six works at Adelaide’s Jam Factory called Mother and Child (in Yolngu language, Yothu Yindi) that includes new works developed as part of a series of residencies.
Wukun Wanambi is one among several artists who have expanded the traditional practice of making and painting larrakitj (hollow logs for ceremonial burials) to include not just perfectly straight, unblemished poles but more sinuous, curving tree limbs.
“These are like nothing else, these larrakitj,” Cumpston says.
Wanambi’s installation Djalkiri, given its own room within Gurrutu, includes a digital projection of hundreds of small hand-drawn animated sea-mullet that flow and swirl around the various stringybark poles.
The experience is somewhere between standing in a body of water and drifting in a small cosmos.
Younger Yolngu artists are also choosing to take their art practice in altogether different directions unencumbered by the rules around sacred patterns.
In the video work Gurrutu’mi Mala (My Connections), 19-year-old emerging artist Gutiŋarra Yunupiŋu, who was born deaf, performs his own system for acknowledging connection and kinship, using Yolngu sign-language.
Yunupiŋu made the work through Buku-Larrŋgay’s Mulka Project, an archive and digital studio that launched in 2008, and which functions as a ‘custodian’ of archival footage, photography and audio stretching back to 1935 that has been digitised and made available to the community.
Ishmael Marika, 28, who works at the Mulka Project, grew up learning painting from his family and elders, but has taken to video art and documentary filmmaking as a medium — because, as he says, it offers a “powerful way of telling stories” and “documenting culture and lore for future generations”.
I ask Marika why he thinks Yolngu art is so strong right now, and he says: “We want to share our knowledge and also educate the outside world; let them know that we have knowledge, we have culture, we have language.”
Tarnanthi at the Art Gallery of South Australia runs until January 27, 2020.
Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA) exhibition at the Museum and Art Gallery Northern Territory (Darwin) runs until November 3.