The family of Mrs N. Yunupiŋu pay tribute to the innovative Yolŋu artist, a generous and unpretentious woman whose work touched and inspired many from her Yirrkala community and across the world. These are edited texts written before Mrs N. passed away.
My sister overcomes dangerous things. She is a winner.
By Eunice Djerrkŋu Marika, as told to Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs
One of Mrs N.’s childhood names, her nickname, is Gargark, used mostly by brothers and sisters in the family because she would just wander off on her own, by herself. If she wanted to do this or that, then there was no stopping [her], she would just do it. Whether it was to go collect honey, then nothing would stop her. She would find it and eat it all by herself. Her other name is Barkuma … it’s from the animal like a possum [northern quoll]. We would call out for her but she would never answer back. She would look or check out every tree for honey very carefully. Sometimes we had to sit and wait for her to come back, only when she’s good and ready. And when she did return it was with something she had hunted and gathered like yams, ganguri, and lots of them too. And she would share whatever she got to everyone that was there waiting … her heart was really beautiful then.
She is kind and gives to everyone – maypal, ganguri, etc., djinydjalma, yunuŋaḻi, namura, dhän’pala [bush foods] – just gives them out to sisters, us sisters, and to our children.
Her idea of getting herself lost in her surrounding is because she is getting something like food/seafood, honey, slowly with no rush. That buffalo incident happened because she was too busy looking down and not around her. She was too busy looking for other things.
When Mrs N. was young my older sisters used to tell me that she was what they called yalŋgi or floppy and our mothers would bathe her with butjiriŋaniŋ, yawulurrŋaniŋ [medicinal herbs] or even covered her in a ground sauna and then would massage, pull, and stretch parts of her body. Sometimes she was covered all the way up to her chest and the rest, especially her legs, was in the warm sand. Then she started walking a bit better.
Mrs N. is a very humble woman. Calm, her mind is djambatj – everything is collected carefully in a calm way. We rush; Mrs N. never rushes. And she will stay there until her bag or container is full. No never, never rushes – never; unlike us, the other sisters. That is what she is, that is her way of thinking, that is her rom (law).
The little things...
By Will Stubbs, Coordinator, Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre
I was sitting under a casuarina tree at Ḏaliwuy Bay with young Indigenous curator Glenn Iseger-Pilkington waxing lyrical about Mrs N. Yunupiŋu and her art. It was 2011 and Glenn was curating her and Gunybi Ganambarr in the Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards of that year. He had come up to meet the artists and was trying to get an understanding of Mrs N. and her art.
It was one of those groundhog days at Yirrkala. Get in the ‘Troopy’, drive around town five times to pick up and deposit items and people that may or may not be going hunting that day. Have a bumpy run through the strobing stringybark forest before suddenly emerging at a crescent of clear blue sea framed in dead-white sand.
Pile out and everyone heads their own way once a fire has been lit, a camp raked and set, and the mats laid down. Men with spears wade into the mangroves, women with welding hammers and buckets attack the maypal (shellfish). What is in season is on. The tide is king. Kids are frolicking and making imaginary worlds. A big pannikin holds the tea and morsels come back regularly to be expertly cooked on coals.
Damper gets rolled out and then tucked in under the hot sand from where the fire has been shifted. Lashed with condensed milk and washed down with black tea. Crunchy orange heads of hermit crabs. Smoked mangrove oysters cut from one long aerial root open on the fire, 50 at a time. Giant trevally baked in a ground oven with granite chips and termite mound covered over with paperbark and sand, butchered according to Law.
Mountains of dhän’pala (fist-sized clams) appear by the sackful. A fire warden turns these and tends with a deft stick, hardly breaking her conversation. Gossip and unspoken digs at absent miscreants. Sly smiles and loud guffaws at the gaps in the words as we download the things that shouldn’t be said about the people whose lives we share too intimately in a communal system. Scare the kids out of the water with an imaginary crocodile in rhythm with the beast.
The smell of smoke and sound of snores as the afternoon progresses.
And like the misfit outsider I will always be, I am accepted. But I still try to earn that acceptance, which I never can. So I grab my spear and Glenn and I head off into the mangroves to do our bit. Glenn probably realises that he has backed the wrong horse here but as always is open minded and generous enough to follow.
Cut to two and a half hours later and we stagger back. Chafed, sunburnt, dehydrated, sunstruck and with a grand total of two measly mud crabs. We have thrown and missed at hundreds of targets real and imagined with no success.
We are greeted with the usual warmth and a cup of tea, with oysters and damper. Drop the crabs by the fire and slump on the mat. Next to us is Mrs N. and I see that she has a cut-down, two-litre Coke bottle full of baby mud crabs, and it hits me.
‘That’s it!’ I cried. We have just walked for miles in search of an imagined bounty. We were thinking of what we could or would catch. And we were literally walking over these self-same crabs, which were running around within metres of where we had started. We couldn’t see them.
Meanwhile Mrs N. had barely strayed from her base and had effortlessly harvested the equivalent protein. Because of one thing. She could see what was there. The things that others couldn’t. The things that were invisible to those blinded by hoped-for things or wished-for things or planned-for things. She could see the little things.
Mrs N. is in tune with the little things. The real. The actual. She sees clearly the insignificant. She dwells in a world of insignificance. She sustains herself from it. She is herself ‘insignificant’.
As a Yolŋu artist who paints birrka’mirri, or anything paintings, rather than declaiming Yolŋu Law through sacred design. As a tiny old woman who is basically deaf. As the little one with a quiet and gentle personality in a family of superhuman, loud overachievers. As the childless 13th wife of elder statesman Djiriny, who had 14 wives but only 11 children. As a Yolŋu woman who doesn’t speak English in a world where all resources have slowly accreted to those who do, and who insist that all negotiations take place in that language.
Mrs N.’s sisters are amongst the brightest, strongest, loudest, biggest and best people I have ever met. Two of her brothers – Galarrwuy and the late singer M. Yunupiŋu – of course, have been named Australians of the Year. She is never the one to step forward. In this family of leaders, she has always followed.
Her rise to ascendancy in the art world is a seeming contradiction to all of this. It is a conundrum that an essay like this is meant to solve. The explanation is begged.
In the years of being a bystander to that phenomenon, I really haven’t cracked the code. Except perhaps in that moment of insight down by the beach.
As trite as it sounds, that endlessly recurring day is the physical truth of the Yolŋu appreciation of time.
Albert Einstein wrote: ‘The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion’. He understands that ‘each moment fully exists without reference to past and future’.
As does Mrs N. Each stroke of her brush has no idea what came before it and no concept of what may come next. Amongst physicists this understanding of time is known as eternalism. It is also known as B-series, block universe or static time. But for Yolŋu it is just time. A tense in which the past, present and future contemporaneously occur.
Mrs N. is not English. To try to wrangle with who she is and where these paintings emerge from we cannot approach from where we are sitting. We are going to have to get up and shift our view. Move left, right, up or down. Look behind us, put our head on its side, get up a ladder, squint.
How can someone paint so many lines so patiently without any apparent plan, or anxiety about the outcome, which results in works that appeal to such a wide range of humans when the subject matter is either insignificant or non-existent? Well, just maybe because they are experiencing time differently to us. And could it be that this is what these paintings are expressing?
The Yolŋu and Mrs N.’s father famously resisted the theft of their land in the Yirrkala Bark Petitions and the Gove Land Rights Case. They were unsuccessful. So, for 45 years, 24 hours a day, the top five metres of their country has been scraped off and sent overseas to be turned from bauxite into aluminium. The cost of the bauxite ore (less than $100 per metric tonne) in the process of making aluminium is completely insignificant in comparison to the cost of power to smelt it. Old engineers thus wryly describe aluminium as ‘congealed electricity’.
In a sense, an ugly but weirdly accurate way to see a work from Mrs N. is as congealed humility. Or congealed patience. Or even congealed timelessness.
Returning to our seat under the mawurraki, the gaywaŋi. The djomula’. The casuarina tree. Whistling tree, the she-oak, Casuarina cunninghamiana. A tree that sits within the poetry of the songspirals of the Yirritja moiety in that tense of the past/present/future.
It is dropping its leaves. Or rather, needles. Look down. They are long thin marks on the white sand. About the size of one of Mrs N.’s brushstrokes made from ground ochre with a brush made from the straight hair of some young girl. Look at the way the needles fall down upon each other. Falling where they land in cross-hatch patterns. A random fractal complexity. A carpet of mindless patterned occurrences that somehow soothes our instinctive need to be in the presence of such organic designs. A collection of little things.
Could a human be so much a part of that rhythm of things that she could channel it into art that approximated the same genius? Is that what satisfies us about being with Mrs N.’s art when it is so devoid of important meaning or statement? Only a fool would ask. And the exercise of trying to explain Mrs N. beyond feeling the art itself is the opposite of what her art is about.
These texts are from the moment eternal: Nyapanyapa Yunupiŋu catalogue from the eponymous 2020 exhibition at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, reprinted with permission and © 2020 Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.