DETAIL : Jimmy BAKER 'Katatjita' 2006 synthetic polymer paint on canvas, Courtesy of Marshall Arts Aboriginal Fine Art Gallery, � Jimmy Baker
Gulumbu YUNUPINGU | Gan'yu (Stars)

Australia 1943 /1947
Gan'yu (Stars) 2005
natural earth pigment on hollow log
variable 234.0 (h) x 21.0 (w) cm
Courtesy of Annabel and Rupert Myer
© Gulumbu Yunupingu

In the Indigenous visual art scene many emerging artists, particularly those from more remote regions of Australia (that is, far from metropolitan art school training), are highly placed within their communities as ceremonial leaders and/or healers. Their profound knowledge is manifest in their art practice. So it is with Gumatj/Rrakpala artist Gulumbu Yunupingu, who is an important leader in her community at Yirrkala in North-East Arnhem Land. With connections to one of its most important cultural dynasties, and although relatively unknown in the art world only a few years ago, Yunupingu is now considered one of the most innovative of contemporary Indigenous artists.

I first became aware of Gulumbu Yunupingu’s art at the 2004 Garma Festival of Traditional Culture[1], held annually at Gulkula, an outstation and important ceremonial site forty kilometres
from Nhulunbuy in North-East Arnhem Land. Walking along a track towards an outcrop overlooking an escarpment, with the ocean vanishing in the distance, I was entranced by the sight of a cluster of stunning larrakitj (funerary hollow log coffins), of which one, covered in a swathe of shimmering ochre stars, held me transfixed. The shining galaxy depicted on this particular larrakitj led to me to seek out the artist’s identity.

The installation was on loan from a private collection for the duration of the Festival, and each evening at dusk every larrakitj would be covered with a shroud to protect them from the quicksilver tropical elements. Will Stubbs, the co-ordinator at Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre (who is also Yunupingu’s son-in-law), oversaw this task. It was magical observing the light shift from palest pink through lavender and purple tones, with the luminescent moon rising over the sea and the first night stars commencing their trajectory, all accompanied by the sounds of Garma’s Bunggul (ceremonial performance) with the hypnotic resonance of the yidaki (didjeridu) in the near distance.[2]

Yunupingu’s source of inspiration is Garak(the Universe), which in her work appears to represent the Milky Way, an important ancestral story especially for the Yolngu people of North–East Arnhem Land where the artist lives. However, she has said that her art is about far more than this: it incorporates the entire universe, all the stars that can be seen by the naked eye and everything that exists beyond scientific exploration; everything that can be imagined, and all that is beyond the imagination.

Yunupingu’s high degree of skill and innovation in her work made her a clear choice for inclusion in the prestigious Australian Indigenous Art Commission for the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, which opened last year.[3] Working on the Commission necessitated visits by the curatorial team to North-East Arnhem Land, sitting down with Gulumbu in her country and hearing her clan’s customary stories handed down to her by her father, senior Yolngu law man Mungurruwuy Yunupingu[4], then gaining formal approval from her for the adaptation of her work of art into a design embedded into the building fabric in Paris, a hundred times larger than the original.

On one of these visits I was fortunate be with Yunupingu when she collected a raw hollow log, which subsequently became a magnificent larrakitj. I saw her spot the right tree from a moving troopie (troop carrier: the vehicle of choice in Arnhem Land), then watched in amazement as this grandmother, her feet planted firmly on her land, swung an axe with colossal strokes, felling the tree with a minimum of fuss. A bonus was discovering three squawking baby red-wing parrots at the bottom of the hollowed-out trunk, perhaps placed there for protection by their mother as a cyclone had recently swept through the region. Yunupingu’s finished larrakitj is now part of the national collection and is included in Culture Warriors.

At the official Sydney launch of the Commission for the Musée du quai Branly in December 2005, Gulumbu’s eloquent speech brought many to tears as she stressed the importance for her to share her art and culture with the world for future generations to see, long after she is physically gone from this earth, her spirit taking its place with her ancestors in the night sky above.

This is from my heart, to you, to share, for the whole world to understand my culture.

Brenda L. Croft


[1] The Festival brings together over twenty clan groups from the region, as well as Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants and visitors from Australia and an expanding international audience.

[2] The ancient sound of the yidaki (didjeridu) is a call to all people to come together in unity.

[3] Eight artists were selected to participate, funded by both the French and Australian governments and corporate sponsors.

[4] Mungurruwuy (c.1907–1978) was a renowned cultural activist, artist and ceremonial leader, and was one of the main proponents of the Yirrkala Bark Petition. Presented to the Commonwealth Parliament in 1963, this was a landmark example of utilising the power of visual art and culture to exemplify the customary land rights of Yolngu people within the Australian constitutional and legal system.