Dhuwa Saltwater

Whatever kudos or recognition flows to the current generation of young Yolngu artists like Gunybi and Dhurrumuwuy is richly deserved. They are making art that honours the strictures of sacred Law but still captures the interest of even a casual viewer. But their debt to artists of Boliny?s generation is etched in the record.

These young artists take for granted as a starting point what was in actual fact a pinnacle at the end of a long climb for people like Djambawa Marawili.

It seems natural for them to paint without any figurative imagery covering (and protecting the uninitiated from) the power of raw miny?tji or sacred clan designs.

It is the nature of linear art history to see the founders of a school as mere precursors of the later stars. For those of us with a linear mind it is easy to portray the last few decades of Yolngu art history as a natural progression just to the point of this exhibition. That is of course nonsensical and simply an artefact of time passing.

It is also the nature of family for the parents to gift without tie the bounty of their life?s labour. And it is meet for children to take that gift as of right, with nary a backward glance.

But old men like me are also entitled to mumble from the sidelines that these stunning young artists who seem unconstrained in their expression ?stand on the shoulders of giants?.

But Gunybi takes this starting point and strikes out on a new journey as daring as Djambawa?s long negotiation with the old guard about conventions and taboos exemplified by his work in ?Saltwater? and ?Buwayak?.

And like Djambawa before him, each of his gains are on behalf of a generation and in dialogue with the previous one. And the purpose is never change for change sake but a voyage to a deeper revelation to the wider world of the beauty/lawfulness of Yolngu essence.

But, like all good history, some of the motive forces are mundane and unintentioned as much as they are grand and heroic. Here is as good as anywhere to record one of these silly, apparently inconsequential, details that probably shape contemporary Yolngu art as much as any Napoleonic personage.

In Buku-Larrnggay, over the last thirty three years, we have had a family within a family, of artsworkers. Some have been artists as well, but many simply toiling in support of the Centre?s daily grind. Nuwandjali Marawili, Boliny?s sister, Ralwurrandji Wanambi, Lamilami Yunupingu, Marrnyula Mununggurr, Araluen Maymuru, Nyalung Wunungmurra. And over the last ten years or so Yarrangku and Shaun Winunguj, Ningiyama Maymuru, Napuwarri Marawili, Balwaltja Mununggurr, Barayuwa Mununggurr, Gunybi#2 Mununggurr and Whaiora Tukaki have all played an unsung part in the liberation of bark painting from an ethnographic and aesthetic cage.

Following a workshop from Don Whyte (our long term collaborator and framer from Darwin) in 1998 our staff were shown how to strap the barks with a custom made aluminium hanging system (originally designed by Karen Coote of Australian Museum).

As Buku staff became so proficient at applying this system to all major works we realized that the previous ?sticks? that topped and bottomed all barks were superfluous. So reliable and efficient was this group of artsworkers that we could actually tell the artists not to bother tying these bits of wood on to the barks. This piece of Yolngu technology had been mandated by art managers since the time of missionary art sales in the 50s as a counter to the reality and perception that ill-cured barks could buckle and curl.

It took a while, but after becoming used to looking at barks without their sticks top and bottom it dawned that the ?frame? of a (black or red) pigment field usually painted to go under the sticks was also unnecessary.

And all of a sudden bark became just a canvas. It was no longer possible to know from twenty metres away that one was looking at a ?bark painting? with all that implies as far as ethnography and exoticism. The ghetto that people kept in their mind for ?traditional? art by tribal people as distinct from contemporary sacred art by modern Australians was busted open without anything important to Yolngu law being missed.

The indicia of otherness was gone. And what was left was art. On a level playing field a bark could be viewed as a ?painting? and only later reveal itself as made from natural materials.

The loss of the painted ?frame? also let the power of the design surge off the edge of the surface. The patterns filled the whole. Another barrier was lost.

And all this from the fact that a little group of people in Arnhem land looked after each other to such a degree that it was reliably predictable that a hard working artsworker would be available to strap any bark that came in. A hinge factor, invisible to most, that propels history.

These boundaries that have melted away from the bark have had a profound effect on the aesthetic but have not been acknowledged in the literature until now.

So much for the invisible, and now to Gunybi, who is anything but.

I would like to make sure that I try and communicate the improbability of his innovation in it?s context.

Yolngu culture offers many freedoms but also some strict disciplines. Intellectual property in sacred designs is policed much more severely than in a Western context, which sees them as merely a property right. Yolngu see it as a matter of life and death. It can be a capital offence to misappropriate or mistake the clan's visual identity. Our equivalent of murder.

Naturally this view breeds conservatism and caution. Every artist has his freedom, but it is within a tight range. Although this is contrary to a modern Western view of ?the Freedom of the Individual? and ?the Right to Free Expression? it is probably a factor in the longevity of Yolngu culture. An explanation for the miracle that we have intact oral and visual records of eyewitness accounts of ancient meteors and tsunamis.

Coming up with a new form that complies with this law may seem 'clever' to an outsider but it is so much more than that.

I count nine important innovations that Gunybi has either devised or championed in the last five years. Sculpting in ironwood; Painting barks on both sides; 'Grinderism' - elaborately shaping larrakitj (memorial poles); insetting carved Kapok figures to hollowed eucalypt poles; incising the surface of barks; chiseling patterns into larrakitj; elaborately shaping barks; laminating bark onto bark to create three dimensions; attaching barks to timber frames.

Any one of these would mark him as a special person with the courage to test the boundaries of communal tolerance.

As it happened Gunybi's instinct for where change could be tolerated was spot on. None of these revolutions caused any outwardly perceived ripple of disapproval. I asked him why others hadn't made these moves before.

A translation would read, "I don't know. You will have to ask them. I only know what comes from my mind."

Will Stubbs, co Co-ordinator of Buku-Larrngay Mulka NE Arnhem Land


Dhuwa Saltwater
incised + shaped barks, ceremonial poles & sculpture
28 Oct - 5 Dec 2009

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