Nyapanyapa Yunipingu: Painting with light - Art Collector

Issue 58, October - December 2011

A few years ago Nyapanyapa never used to be able to get her hands on the good materials in the studio. She was just a secondary artist at her art centre in Yirrkala, misunderstood because of her wildly idiosyncratic approach. But this free hand and inventiveness has since earned her a substantial following writes Timothy Morrell. And there’s another surprise in store. The 66-year-old painter has now begun working with animation.

Almost simultaneously in 2008 Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, a little known artist from Yirrkala in north-eastern Arnhem Land, won the Wandjuk Marika 3D Memorial Award at the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards and had a solo exhibition of bark paintings at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney. This year she is exhibiting with Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery for the third time and has also fielded an invitation to take part in the 2012 Biennale of Sydney. Her work is now in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Nyapanyapa, who was born around 1945, was a prodigiously active artist before the events that dramatically raised her profile, but always worked on a small scale. Before her career took this sudden upturn, there was an enthusiastic market for the colourful silkscreen prints that she had been making for a decade, but little interest in the small paintings she produced on offcuts from larger sheets of bark that were being used by better known painters. Other Yolngu artists disregarded her work; her painting was loose and messy when others prized precision, and she chose idiosyncratic subjects rather than culturally important clan motifs. It is a revealing insight into the differences between the culture of Indigenous Australia and the canons of contemporary art that what is prized by one can be incomprehensible to the other.

Most of Nyapanyapa’s paintings are filled with vigorous fields of hatching, resembling a much looser version of the shimmering rarrk pattern familiar to admirers of bark painting. She paints these lines in the traditional manner with a brush made from human hair, which is drawn steadily across the surface away from the body. Yet the frisky mesh patchwork that results is virtually the opposite of the subtly modulated tonal qualities normally associated with the rarrk technique. The word rarrk is from the Kuninjku language in western Arnhem Land. The Yolngu have a word for cross-hatching, miny-tji, but Nyapanyapa’s interpretation of it is entirely personal. Her freely exuberant, often all-white compositions, which appeal so strongly to outside viewers, don’t look like Yolngu art.

Will Stubbs, the co-ordinator of the community-owned Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre, began to take a particular interest in Nyapanyapa’s eccentric inventiveness in 2008. He’d returned to Yirrkala after a period of leave to find a cache of her small barks that had been assembled by his colleague Andrew Blake in his absence. Stubbs was already well aware of her work – Nyapanyapa is the only artist who uses the art centre as her studio – but seeing the collection allowed him to appreciate the distinctiveness of her style for the first time. He asked her to paint on a large piece of bark. They discussed an appropriate subject for the painting and Stubbs suggested the story most often associated with the artist about the time in the 1970s when she was so badly gored by a buffalo that she had to be taken to Darwin for medical treatment. There is no tradition of narrative painting in Yolngu art, so although unaware of it at the time, he was encouraging her to develop her own approach to visual storytelling. He was so impressed by this painting that he decided to enter it in that year’s NATSIAA, where it won the prize for three-dimensional work.

There is another element of serendipity in the train of events that made Nyapanyapa’s first big painting part of a prize-winning installation. In 2007 the Yirrkala community embarked on the Mulka Project, a production house and digital archive owned and operated by the Yolngu people. One of its first productions was an interview with Nyapanyapa, which was played on a flatscreen monitor above the painting as the other half of her NATSIAA entry.

She is described by Stubbs as “one of those people who has to create” and is constantly compelled to make art. The most recent development in her work, painting on sheets of clear acetate, occurred during the dry season when the supply of bark ran out and she had to paint on something else. The possibility of using these painted transparencies to create an animation was considered, but this never eventuated because Nyapanyapa was not inclined to accept the constraints of working in a precise sequence.

When several of her acetate paintings were gathered in a stack to be put away after a day’s work, Stubbs was struck by the effect of seeing them superimposed over one another. So instead of producing a conventional animation, the images are now used in photographically reproduced layers, almost infinite variations of which are randomly generated by a computer program developed for the purpose. The continuously evolving on-screen composite image changes so slowly that the viewer sees what appears to be a static picture, but by an imperceptible process it has become a different picture several minutes later. The effect is something Stubbs calls “light painting”.

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