Dhaŋun ŋalma - Here we are

Ever since his first solo exhibition at Annandale Galleries in 2009, Gunybi Ganambarr’s star has never stopped rising. Eleven years ago Gunybi’s work was a revelation: no artist had ever managed to do so much with the traditional medium of bark painting while staying within the bounds of cultural orthodoxy. In the space of a single show Gunybi had pioneered a host of formal innovations in an artform that had remained essentially unchanged for thousands of years. Before Gunybi no-one seems to have carved into a sheet of bark or the top of a ceremonial pole. No-one seems to have incised the bark in shallow relief, or gathered up shavings to make a paste that could be reattached to a work.

Gunybi was the first artist to make poles from irregularly shaped trunks, and possibly the first to paint both sides of the bark. He combined figures and abstract patterning in an utterly unique manner.

By the time of his second Annandale exhibition in 2012, Gunybi had moved on again, realising he did not have to confine himself to natural materials such as bark and wood. Now he was making poles from PVC pipes and carving designs into rubber mats discarded from the conveyor belts of the local Bauxite mine. He painted on silvery sheets of ceiling insulation and made sculptures from chicken wire and slabs of galvanised iron.

These amazingly diverse works could not be called ‘junk sculpture’. They were distinguished by the quality of Gunybi’s craftsmanship, by their formal beauty and playfulness. They were the creations of a natural artist at the height of his powers. It seemed Gunybi had only to lay eyes on some object to begin imagining how he could transform it into a work of art.

Gunybi’s achievements have been recognised by his inclusion in numerous museum exhibitions, and a succession of prizes - from the West Australian Indigenous Art Award in 2011, to the National Aborginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award in 2018. The work that won him the NATSIAA was a three-metre square of etched aluminium, called Buyku, that represented the convergence of salt water and fresh water. It was the third in a series of large-scale aluminium works – a medium chosen not for the sake of novelty, but because Gunybi decided that by not using bark he was preserving trees.

Gunybi has continued to make etched aluminium works, and the one in this exhibition, Gunybi Alupanel Buyku, at 451 cm X 301 cm, is his most impressive to date. Instead of the meeting of two bodies of water, this piece depicts a swirling, competing rush of currents. It’s breathtaking in its optical dynamism and complexity, not to mention the countless hours of labour involved.

Smaller, shaped metal works such as Gunybi Buyku and Garrapara show Gunybi’s inventiveness, as he moves beyond the rectangular format. In another metal piece he etches a pattern on the drum of an old washing machine, transforming a utilitarian device into something resembling a ritual vessel.

When he turns to more traditional media Gunybi’s approach is just as innovative. Bulging knobs of dry wood ooze through a skin covered with dense, black-and-white patterning; a tree trunk, painted from top to bottom, appears to sway like a serpent poised to attack. Another stands like an animal pointing its snout into the air.

By now we expect Gunybi to astonish us with each new exhibition, and he has never failed to produce the goods. Even if we have seen him make work in a similar style there’s no way to prepare for the impact of pieces that overwhelm us with their precise, patient attention to detail, or their looming physical presence. Above all, it’s the creative freedom Gunybi claims for himself that sets him apart from just about any other artist I could name. His work becomes even more impressive when one realises that everything he does has to be carefully vetted to ensure that he doesn’t offend against community law and protocol, or claim ownership of a motif for which he has no inherited rights.

I’m pretty sure Gunybi has never read Kant, but he has instinctively understood the philosopher’s idea that “to be free is just to act in acordance with the moral law.” Gunybi is both revolutionary and orthodox, a radical inventor who stays within the parameters of tradition. He invests the most unlikely materials with a spiritual dimension. He is a trailblazer who has opened a path for other Yolngu artists to follow, and a pillar of the community. Like all great indigenous artists Gunybi is deeply attached to the place where he lives, but he is making art that’s setting the world on fire.

Gunybi Ganambarr:
Dhaŋun ŋalma - Here we are
Annandale Galleries, from 7 November

John McDonald is art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald & film critic for the Australian Financial Review


Dhaŋun ŋalma - Here we are
mixed media on steel, sculptures, Ceremonial Poles
ceremonial poles, works on panel

GUNYBI GANAMBARR is undoubtedly one of the most innovative artist's of his generation. Winner of numerous awards including the overall Telstra prize. We are pleased to announce the upcoming exhibition - his fourth solo show at ANNANDALE GALLERIES since 2008. Featuring some large scale works on steel and wood sculptures, the show has been three years in the making and promises to be his most exciting exhibition to date.

The front Gallery will be an exhibition of seven major works by the late, critically acclaimed MALALUBA GUMANA. This will be the last opportunity to see new work in a commercial gallery.
7th November - 19 December

Exhibition features:

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Please note, works in previous exhibitions may no longer be available, please visit our stockroom for available works