‘This is what spontaneity looks like… Nyapanyapa Yunupiŋu paints without anxiety about outcome’ praises Will Stubbs, director of the Buku Larrnggay Art Centre at Yirrkala in the far north-east of Arnhemland, where Nyapanyapa lives and works.
So, what has lead the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) to give Nyapanyapa its first ever solo show by an Aboriginal artist? In explaining this breakthrough, MAGNT’s Curator of Aboriginal Art and Material Culture, Luke Scholes recalls seeing one of Nyapanyapa’s first major works at the 2008 Telstra NATSIA Awards – when her bark painting of an episode from her youth, in which she was gored by a water buffalo, was augmented by a film in which she told this story dramatically: ‘I couldn’t help thinking both the bark and the film were so revolutionary’. And this was partly because her community’s Yolngu practice demanded that bark painting had to have ‘some kind of function’. But this was just her personal story. ‘And since then’, Scholes continues, ‘she’s never sat still. Her dramatic visual evolution really deserved being seen in one place to observe the development.’
Her earliest works featured that buffalo story – wacky, two-legged giant striped creatures with what looked like antennae on their heads – the horns that caused her injury. Also featured were what appeared to be fairy-lit Christmas trees – actually, the trees that carried the fruit that had drawn this hunter/gatherer woman into the bush in the first place.
Always in the background though was an intensity of scratched marks in colour that bore some resemblance to the traditional rarrking which gives so much zing and shimmer to Yolngu art, but which also more than matches Stubbs analysis of Nyapanyapa’s painting, with ‘each mark falling from the mind to the surface unhindered.’ This mark-making would become her signature as figuration almost entirely disappeared from her barks; commercial shows followed in high art galleries like Roslyn Oxley9 in Sydney, and ever-bigger barks and larrakitj poles were commissioned for Biennales of Sydney and Adelaide’s Tarnanthi Festival.
Yunupiŋu, of course, is a very familiar name – with Mandawuy and Galarrwuy, but not the late Geoffrey Gurrumul, both related male leaders and bearers of that name. Sisters include Gulumbu and Barrupu, leaders and artists. Their father was Munggurrawuy, a huge clan leader with many wives, also one of the painters of the Yirrkala Church Panels and a signatory to the Aboriginal Bark Petition to Parliament, when miners threatened his Country. Nyapanyapa was briefly Djiriny’s 13th wife, but was a widow at 22 – helping her sisters bring up their children, as well as herd cattle and goats. She was drawn to make art – initially making ‘small, imperfect, razor-inscribed softwood carvings of birds’. Linocuts followed – also incised. Then, by 2007, after a period in which ‘her wacky and boldly coloured screenprints had become a hit,’ she turned to bark. Nyapanyapa’s uniqueness was in full force at the 2010 Biennale of Sydney with her ‘Light Painting’. When the seasons in Arnhemland deny artists a supply of bark, ‘an artist who has to make art’, Scholes’s description, finds other materials. In no time, Nyapanyapa had produced 110 sheets of acetate marked with her expressive white lines. Stubbs organised digitisation at the dynamic Mulka Centre in Yirrkala, obtained an algorithm which would select three at a time randomly to overlap, and produced an artwork that was transfixingly original.
Oddly, the show’s excellent catalogue reveals that her fellow-Yolngu are ‘bemused by her success. Her paintings don’t communicate anything to Yolngu – only balanda – whitefellas’. And yet, Nyapanyapa identifies ‘everywhen’, which is emerging as the euphemism rather than Dreamtime for the Indigenous belief in past, present and future all coexisting. It’s certainly the idea behind the exhibition’s title, ‘the moment eternal’.
Jeremy Eccles is a specialist arts commentator who has been writing, broadcasting and filmmaking in Australia since 1983, with a special interest in Indigenous culture.
Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory
23 May to 25 October 2020