From bark painting to video: innovation goes bush

Embedded in a history of self determination and activism, Yolŋu artists are rethinking traditional storytelling with a 21st century inflection, from recycling materials to immersive video, keeping culture current.
From bark painting to video: innovation goes bush

The Mulka Project, Yirrkala; image ArtsHub

Four hours on a plane, and then another bouncing in the back of a Landcruiser 'troupie', is not the journey one would usually expect to arrive at the seat of some of the most innovative art being made today.

But Aboriginal artists working out of the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala, located in northeast Arnhem Land (NT), have been leading the contemporary conversation with their unique voice - a practice tinged with political resonance and a highly innovative approach.

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These artists have dominated the winners circle of recent editions of the National Aboriginal Torres Strait Island Art Awards (NATSIAA) - the benchmark for contemporary Aboriginal visual arts practice.

Over the past two years the digital category has been awarded to artists working out of The Mulka Project at Yirrkala. Gan Gan artist Gunybi Ganambarr won last year’s major prize with an expansive etched aluminium 'painting' and this year Nonggirrnga Marawili won the bark category with a painting created using spent printer cartridge inks.

Nonggirrnga can be found most days at Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre, sitting on the outside verandah with her dog, prolifically painting the stories of her country. Her work is the very embodiment of past, present and future fused as one.

Both Nonggirrnga and Gunybi’s work will be presented at the forthcoming Tarnanthi Festival (18 October 2019 – 27 January 2020) in exhibitions at the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA), which will include around 40 different artists from the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre and Yolŋu homelands.

Tarnanthi Curator, and host on this journey to Yirrkala, Nici Cumpston told ArtsHub: ‘I feel like I am the conduit; they are doing what they are doing.'

‘We work together over a number of years. It takes time and a lot of conversations, and if anything, it is more of a producer role that we take,’ she said, emphasising that no one was controlling these voices.

Wukun Wanambi on his ancestral lands,Yirrkala; image ArtsHub

Self determination at the heart of innovation

The Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre employs over 30 staff, and has a global clientele. Its gallery showroom is scattered with purchases boxed ready for dispatch. Alongside the complex, ground has just been broken for its new hotel.

Despite being a 30-hour drive to Darwin, and with a population of just 809 people (2016 census), this is far from a back water. It is a bustling hub where artists, tourists and visiting museum patrons co-exist on a daily basis. It is one of the most fertile art hubs in contemporary making today.

Its tradition of Aboriginal-led self-determination reaches back to the 1960s, when Yolŋu artist Narritjin Maymuru set up his own beachfront gallery in Yirrkala, from which he sold art.

His vision of Yolŋu-owned business to sell Yolŋu art was further realised in 1976, when the ‘Buku-Larrŋgay Arts’ took over the old Mission health centre, coinciding with the withdrawal of the Methodist Overseas Mission and the Land Rights and Homeland movements.

It was deliberate, it was bold and it was an affirmation of Yolŋu culture to the rest of the world. It is this tone that will sit across this year’s Tarnanthi, celebrating these political foundations and their manifestation as innovative contemporary art making.

A more dimensional version of storytelling

It’s a ‘no brainer’ that many Aboriginal artists have turned to video and multi disciplinary art making, given that the expression of culture is traditionally holistic and nuanced – seamlessly moving from dance, to song, to oral storytelling. Immersive video makes sense.

Today the Buku Mulka art centre encompasses the Yirrkala Print Space (since 1996), a Museum, and The Mulka Project (2007) – a media lab including a cinema, recording studio, editing suite, virtual reality hub, and a repository of historical images and films, some dating back to the 1930s.

In the last edition of Tarnanthi (2017), Ishmael Marika and Nawurapu Wunungmurra activated The Mulka Project for their work Wanupini (Cloud) - a collection of mokuy (spirit sculptures) with video.

Installation view Wanupini, Tarnanthi 2017, AGSA; image ArtsHub

Here the mokuy and larrakitj (bark memorial poles) were presented against a full wall projection of clouds, with a second collaborative work by Gutingarra Yunupingu and Mundatjngu Mununggur that transported viewers into a world of silence, using the experimental filmic moment, blurring past and present - drawing both from the Thomson archive of the 1930s and newly shot imagery.

Culture appears timeless.

This year, Wukun Wanambi will also bring together larrakitj  and video, taking his signature fish designs off the surface, to swim around the visitor in an immersive floor piece.

Cumpston said of Wukun’s new work: ‘Seeing the installation, and the way that Wukun has wanted the audience to feel immersed in it, I think people will get a real sense of Gurrutu, bringing all these different elements together.’

Gurrutu encapsulates traditional law, kinship systems and the embodiment of culture, not so much as a spiritual philosophy but a way of life.

‘Over the last year Wukun has worked with the Mulka team on making his work more interactive and much larger in scale,' said Cumpston. "It is really enabling him to have another way of presenting his larrakitj.’ He added that in combination the two will be palpable.

Luke Scholes MAGNT’s Curator of Aboriginal Art and curator of the annual NATSIAA has also observed this rise in digital installations. He told ArtsHub in an earlier interview: ‘We are now at a point where video is part this group of artists just another medium – it is not even new anymore.

‘That is the nature of the Yolŋu - they have this interest in regeneration and the outside world and where they might fit in, and yet they totally adhere to Yolŋu law.’

In 2017 there were just three entries in this category. In 2018, 17 were received – many with sculptural components – and this year that expanded again. Winners of the Telstra Multimedia Award both this year and last were from Yirrkala, making their work out of The Mulka Project - Gutingarra Yunupingu (2019) and Patrina Liyadurrkitj Mununggurr (2018).

Gutingarra is a key collaborator in creating a new work for Tarnanthi which will, in a first, unpack Yolŋu law and kinship in an interactive and bilingual way.

Nongirrnga Marawili working at Buku Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre, Yirrkala; image ArtsHub

The political act of recycling

Innovation is not only about technology; it is also about re-use and sustainability. Yirrkala artists are again leading in this area.

Nongirrnga Marawili has gained international acclaim for her bark paintings with their unique pink palette, derived from spent printer cartridges, which are used alongside natural pigments. The environmental message is one of concern for what is put back on Country.

This starts to make sense when you again turn to the history. as co-ordinator at Buku Larrnggay Mulka, Will Stubbs explained. ‘Further, the artists of Yirrkala were amongst the first Indigenous Australians to recognise the potential use of visual art as a political tool and put this into practice with the now famous Yirrkala Church Panels (on display in our museum) and Yirrkala Bark Petition (currently on display at Parliament House in Canberra) dating from 1963, also the Wukiḏi Installation in The NT Supreme Court, Darwin and the Saltwater Collection in the Australian National Maritime Museum.'

These topics, from land rights to an activist voice against waste and its impact on sacred lands, will continue to be a foundation for the Tarnanthi Festival, as expressed by contemporary Aboriginal artists working across many locations.

Cumpston explained Nongirrnga's work in the October festival: ‘She has also done this incredible thing where she has painted up sheets of paper at A3 scale that will fill the wall, and a suite of larrakitj come out from that, and a suite of incredible new bark paintings.'

Similarly, Gunybi Ganambarr’s practice incorporates innovative materials to create an environmental message. For him these materials have links to mining and industry – galvanised iron sheeting, rubber conveyor belts, plastic piping, insulation panels and so on - forming a reflection on the erosion of Aboriginal land rights.

Detail of multi-panel steel work by Gunybi Ganambarr to be unveiled at Tarnanthi 2019; courtesy the artist; image ArtsHub

The recently decommissioned Nhulunbuy bauxite mine and alumina refinery sits on Yolŋu land.

For Tananthi 2019, Gunybi will present a major new three-panel etched steel work and more than a hundred pieces carved into soft insulation material. The scale of these will speak volumes.

People ask me why I make work that is different. I usually say: Ngarraku mulkurr – it’s from my mind. These are ideas that come to me when I work at sharing my culture and law. It starts from our foundation,’ Gunybi said in a recent interview. ‘I am trying to balance the two worlds; balancing the Yolngu knowledge with the Ngapaki technology.’

Likewise, artists Yalanba Wanambi and Dhambit Wanambi are collaborating to create an installation that uses the ubiquitous window louvers and black sand.

‘There will be a whole wall installation of these louvers, and the wall itself will be painted with the black sand, and again paired with larrakitj,’ said Cumpston. The flow of air across sea and country, and into the homes of community, passing through one's very being as a cooling elixir, in itself encapsulates Gurrutu, where land, sea and life are interconnected.

When you start to thread these ideas together - from standing in a state gallery and feeling the energy in these works, to standing on Country and witnessing how culture is lived through art centres - the boundaries between these two worlds, these two understandings, begin to diffuse. This is one of the great gifts that Tarnanthi offers viewers.

Tarnanthi will be presented across the Art Gallery of South Australia and other city wide venues from 18 October 2019 – 27 January 2020.

The writer travelled to Yirrkala as a guest of the Art Gallery of South Australia.