Postcards from Buku Larrnggay-Mulka, Yirrkala - Art Collector

Issue 72, April - June 2015

Located in the small beachfront town of Yirrkala in North-East Arnhem Land, Buku Larrnggay-Mulka Centre has for decades held its own as a cultural giant in the contemporary art world. Una Rey writes.

Nyapanyapa Yunupingu at work. Courtesy: the artist and Buku Larrnggay-Mulka

The beachfront community of Yirrkala in North East Arnhem Land, much like Papunya in the Western Desert, commands an aura of historic gravitas and an enduring artistic legacy fostered through the Buku Larrnggay-Mulka Centre. Genesis of the 1963 Bark Petitions, the Yirkala Church Panels and The Saltwater Collection, home to rock band Yothu Yindi and host to the celebrated annual Garma Festival, Yirrkala community and its artists represent a consistently performing cultural giant in the contemporary art world, ever reflexive to changing politics, economies and audiences.

Magisterial bark paintings have long been an emblem of Yirrkala, whose first generation of artists include ceremonial leaders and painters Narritjin Maymuru and Mawalan Marika, well represented in public collections. The art centre’s entries in Darwin’s National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards are legendary, literally towering over their peers, while exhibitions at leading galleries constantly reinstate the classical grace of bark painting alongside stylistic and material innovations.

Launching the 2015 exhibition calendar at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Nyapanyapa Yunupingu’s Lawarra Maypa, from the Macassan term pages and pages, is evidence of this Yolngu creative enquiry, although as Nyapanyapa emphatically states: “Its just me, alone, doing this. By myself. I’m the only one [painting and drawing] like this.” Her new works include a spectacular graphic installation of works on paper and sculpted larrakitj or hollow logs. Her practice is expansive, without allegiance to a single visual language or method. Transcending and retaining Yolngu convention, her imagery bridges Western figuration and expressionistic cross-hatching to suggest a hybrid formalism.
As Alcaston Gallery director Beverly Knight observes: “Yirrkala’s women artists [especially] have been able to negotiate within the strong cultural constructs of the Yolngu and with substantial negotiation they have managed a sense of freedom, a unique view of the world and their individual practices. There’s a real intellectual rigour at work.” She refers specifically to Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, her sister the late Gulumbu Yunupingu, Nonggirrnga Marawili and her daughter Marrnyula Mununggurr, whose installation of 252 fish-net inspired barks at Gertrude Contemporary in February marks a new partnership of creative exchange between the Melbourne and Yirrkala based arts organisations.
Winding up its touring schedule back home in Perth, the Yirrkala Drawings from the Berndt Collection in association with Yirrkala artists has been a delightful revelation for audiences, both art historically and aesthetically. Created in 1947, the brilliantly coloured crayon drawings on butcher’s paper represent some of the most outstanding visual cultural archives available to the public. New generations of Yirrkala artists have been equally inspired, responding in a series of prints editioned by the centre’s Yirrkala Print Space and available online.

With Wukun Wanambi’s larrakitj lined up for The British Museum and exhibitions in Singapore, Aspen and the Istanbul Biennale confirmed, Buku is reaching international audiences. Locally, a sadly neglected art form is the yidaki, commonly known as didgeridoo and widely misrepresented as a tourist souvenir. Shaped from naturally hollowed eucalyptus tetrodonta trees, they resonate beyond their musicality, as art coordinator Jeremy Cloake explains: “Yidaki are grossly under represented in Australia, with most appreciation for traditional instruments coming from Europe, Japan and the United States. But these unique, culturally authentic artefacts, specific to North East Arnhem Land, are available for as little as $600 to $1,500.”
Since 2007 the centre has run The Mulka Project with philanthropic and government backing. This digital studio creates film, art and music as well as archiving images and audio from white contact onwards. Director Ishmael Marika recently featured in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Primavera survey of young artists with his short feature Galka.

Long after Narritjin Maymuru established a beachfront outlet for artefacts in the 1960s, Buku Larrnggay-Mulka, founded in 1976, has evolved to employ over 20 Yolngu staff while retaining long-term managers such as Steve Fox, Andrew Blake, Will Stubbs and Kade McDonald. Such consistency and strong relationships have undoubtedly contributed to the art centre’s reputation as an elite organisation; Yolngu agency ensuring only artworks and projects of utmost integrity end up in the public domain.

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