Gulumbu Yunupingu: We all look at the same stars - Art Collector

Issue 30, October - December 2004

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For Gulumbu Yunupingu the stars lead us upwards through life towards the heavens. Her richly painted ceremonial poles depict this universal journey, writes Susan McCulloch.

When she looks at the stars, she sees those visible to the eye, and those not - the multitude, which are out of human sight and lead ever onwards to infinity. This expansive view of the universe is the underpinning inspiration for the richly-painted poles which won for Arnheim Land artist Gulumbu Yunupingu this year's top Aboriginal art award - the $40 000 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award.

The installation of three ceremonial poles ranging in height from about 1.7 metres to more than two metres is called Garak, The Universe. Layers of heavy white ochres are mixed only with a little glue to help the paint adhere to the stringy bark hollowed tree trunks which Yunupingu (with the help of her grandsons) cut herself. Shining through the heavily impastoed white ochre are detailed abstracted star shapes in variations of brown and yellow ochres. With their simple, graceful form and shimmering paintwork they have both a sense of mystery and ageless quality.

Surrounded by spotlights and cameras at the announcement of her win at Darwin’s Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) the 59-year-old Gumatj-Rrakpala clan woman gestures expressively towards the heavens as she describes the inspiration for her work. So engaging is her power of storytelling that it is as though we listeners too are taken from day to night, to the heavens and luminous night sky she describes.

“Every night since I was born I have been looking at the stars,” says Yunupingu. “There they are – so many – leading us from earth to the heavens. They move us upward through life and eventually through death.”

It is an affirmation of her belief that death is not the end of existence but only a phase in a broader evolution.

Also, says Yunupingu, the stars are a reminder that all people can be unified. “We all must work together – and the stars show us that we are all the same underneath. We can all look at these stars whichever sky we are looking at.”

It’s a sentiment reminiscent of those of many of the Western poets and painters who have been similarly fascinated with the power of the night sky.

Yunupingu’s paintings however incorporate an added dimension, based on belief of the creation of stories on which the images for these poles are based.

Born in 1945 in an island off the coast of Arnhem Land, near Nhulunbuy (Gove), Yunupingu is one of the large clan of Yunupingus whose members are both highly respected clan leaders and instrumental spokespeople and cultural leaders in modern day Aboriginal development. She is the older sister of cultural leader Galarrwuy and Mandawuy Yunupingu of Yothu Yindi fame. Her profile in the Western world may not be as high as that of her famous brothers, but Gulumbu’s achievements and talents are equally as impressive.

She is a senior healing medicine woman whose male relatives defer to her knowledge and she spends much time caring for everyone from women in childbirth, ill children, those with serious disease and the elderly. “Whenever there is someone to be looked after she will be there,” says her son in law Will Stubbs, co-ordinator of Yirrkala’s Buku Larrnggay Mulka Centre. “My manager” Gulumbu describes Stubbs. The two cannot say each other’s names as due to family relationships this is precluded under Yolgnu (Arnhem Land Aboriginal people’s law.)

Growing up in the then mission settlement of Yirrkala, on the coast of eastern Arnhem Land in the 1950s, Yunupingu learnt Christianity. This she incorporates not as a separate religion but as part of a pantheistic belief system of the universe as it relates to Yolgnu. One of her major achievements has been translating the Bible from English to Gumatj.

Published recently the Gumatj bible took 26 years to produce and is
an achievement of which she is proud but modest.

“Well it’s just something that someone needed to do,” she responds lightly when asked about the vast nature of the task.

It is an enthusiasm, joie de vivre and persistence which embodies her whole attitude to life and with which she approaches all activities – from daily hunting with her favourite digging sticks (one metal with which to hook out mud crabs; and one wooden to dig out edible plant roots) to the making of string which she then weaves into dilly bags, to the cutting and painting of tree trunks to paint.

“When I decided to do these I got up at six every morning and worked and worked for about two weeks until they were done,” she says of her award-winning poles. “I didn’t let the children come in and put their hands on them; these are clean, clean ones and I wanted them to look all white and really beautiful.”

Judges of this year’s Award were Art Gallery of New South Wales director Edmund Capon and the National Gallery of Victoria’s indigenous art curator Julie Gough.

“These hollow poles literally glisten with innumerable constellations, which colourfully evoke the enormity and magic of an endless universe,” they said. “They eloquently express Gulumbu’s sense of connection with local place, tradition and the stories as told to her [evoking] the wonders of the shared night sky and the universality of all peoples under that great canopy.”

Yunupingu collected the ochre for their making from Darwin’s Eastern Point while on a visit there from Yirrkala about 800 kilometres north east of Darwin last year. “There was some good yellow and browns there that I really liked,” she said. “So it is as though these are coming home.” (As winner of the Award, her work will join those of previous winners in the collection of Darwin’s MAGNT.)

Yunupingu is the third Yirrkala artist to win this prestigious award. In 1997 bark painter Yanggariny Wunungmurra, won with a detailed bark painting Gangan comprising densely textured quality of cross hatching, and formal clan design typical of Yirrkala works. In 2002 clan leader, painter and Uniting Church minister Gawirrin Gumana won with a beautifully incised and painted memorial pole.

Yunupingu is however the first woman from Yirrkala to have won the award. Traditionally the prerogative of male clan leaders, over the last 20 years painting has been taught to their female relations by men such as Mawalan Marika, one of whose daughters Banduk, has become a famous painter and leading spokesperson for indigenous rights.

Yunupingu, says art co-ordinator Will Stubbs, has been painting forever
but only in a larger more professional context for the last several years. She exhibited a bark painting in last year’s Aboriginal Art Award and her work was selected for showing in the World Expo in Hanover in 2000. It is in several collections including the Art Gallery of South Australia and the Kerry Stokes collection and she is holding her first solo exhibition of bark paintings and carvings at Melbourne’s Alcaston Gallery in November 2004.

More recently she has learnt printmaking, her textured designs well suited to the lined blocking of the process of screen-printing. Her prints along with those of other Yirrkala artists were shown in an imaginative hanging – from the branches of white ochre-painted palms in Darwin’s Botanic Gardens – at the same time as this year’s Award.

The poles she paints are not those used as hollow log coffins in Yolgnu burial ceremonies, although the logs – naturally hollowed-out by termites – are similar in look to those used for this purpose. But these are memorial poles made for ceremonial and educative purposes. Her father Munggurrawuy Yunupingu who taught her their making, made some as a statement of Yolgnu culture during the 1960s when the Yolgnu were making representations to the Australian Government for control over their lands with the encroaching of mining in their area.

In the 1970s Yunupingu with her sister, husband and children were instrumental in establishing the outstation of Biranybirany – where she now lives some of the time, continuing to teach English, maths, writing and Gumatj.

A strong worker towards the unification and education of people about each other’s culture, Yunupingu, with her brother Galarrwuy was a founder of the area’s annual Garma Festival of arts and culture.

The stories for her Award-winning poles come from two creation stories told to Yunupingu by her father. One relates the tale of two sisters, once living on earth, who turned into stars that sit under the Milky Way. During the dry season the sisters argue and sit apart from each other with different fires. When the season is cooler they are seen sitting closer together. Their fires near each appear as brighter stars.

The second story is about seven sisters who on earth went hunting in canoes, bringing back a great variety of food such as turtles, water snakes, yams and berries. They too can be seen in the sky as seven stars that come out together.

“We are always connected to those sisters – most nights I would look up to find them,” says Yunupingu.

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