Agenda Setters: Gunyabi Ganambarr - Art Collector

Issue 51, January - March 2010

This profile appeared in the "Agenda Setters" feature, part of the annual special issue "50 Things Collectors Need to Know 2010"

At the age of 36, Yolgnu artist, Gunybi Ganambarr, has brought a new vitality to the age-old discipline of bark painting. To put Gunybi’s achievements into perspective one must remember that his preferred medium dates back 40,000 years and has remained completely static for all but the past couple of decades.

It was only with the growth of the Aboriginal art market in the 1980s that painters began to make large-scale works with elaborate stories. Figures such as Jack Wunuwun, David Malangi, Mick Kubarrku, George Milpurrurru and John Mawurndjul, to name only a few, have made original contributions to the field, with personal styles as distinctive as any signature. Yet none of these respected artists have achieved as much, in such a short time, as Ganambarr.

Because traditional Aboriginal art is so tightly controlled by lore and clan groups, there are strict limitations on subject matter and symbolism. Ganambarr has achieved his breakthroughs by working within the existing rules while undertaking a dramatic series of formal inventions. Already renowned as the first artist to paint on both sides of a piece of bark, in his recent exhibition at Annandale Galleries, he unveiled more innovations than most painters achieve in a lifetime.

The first thing that struck the viewer was that Gunybi’s barks were not simple rectangular slabs. One version of Baraltja was shaped like an hourglass; another billowed upward like a mushroom cloud, with a hole in the middle. Yet another had a curved top and serrated edges.

Munbi was roughly circular in form, with a top that sprouted like the leaves of a plant. All this was entirely new.

In other works, the head and neck of a bird rose gracefully from the bark in serpentine fashion. One of these pieces, Dhangultji, was attached to a frame that resembled an easel – another innovation. The idea resurfaced in one of Gunybi’s painted ceremonial poles, where the heads of two intertwined snakes spiralled upwards, detaching themselves from the body of the work.

Every motif had been incised into the surface of the bark in the manner of a woodcut, lending an amazing strength to Ganambarr’s sinuous lines and mesmeric patterns. In pieces such as Buyku and Wurran he scraped away the upper layer of bark, made a paste out of the shavings, and reapplied it to give a rough, textured effect.

Yirrkala art co-ordinator Will Stubbs is amazed by Gunybi’s powers of invention, identifying him as a young man who is destined to become a leader of the Arnhem Land community. Like the great artists of the past it is apparent that Ganambarr thinks of his work as a series of problems to be solved. For him, the fact that something has always been done in a certain fashion is no reason to continue blindly along that path. He continually asks the question: “Why not?” He recognises that one can be faithful to tradition while taking a radically different approach to materials and form.

Ganambarr’s emergence allows one to feel optimistic about the continuing vitality of Indigenous art at a time when many older artists have passed away and there is a fear that their creative legacies will be lost. Ganambarr’s immediate inspiration is Djambawa Marawili, a senior Yolgnu bark painter still working at the height of his powers, but he has not been content to simply emulate his mentor. Ganambarr has opened the door to a fresh approach to bark painting, and it is only to be expected that many others will hasten to follow his lead.

John McDonald

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