Dhambit Mununggurr

Dhambit Mununggurr doesn’t paint in the usual style of the Yolngu people. Then again Dhambit Mununggurr doesn’t really paint like anyone. For one thing her palette, with its startling ultramarines, is a long leap from the ochres one is used to seeing applied to barks. A part of this is inadvertent, the result of a devastating accident. But faced with physical adversity, Mununggurr has embraced the potentials hidden within her forced adaptation by creating a maelstrom of rich variations on age-old narratives that run through the history of the Yolngu people. Stars seem to jostle with spirits while spear-wielding warriors battle with monsters surging from the abyss of the Arafura Sea.

All too few white Australians are aware of the cornucopia of cultural complexities that flourish in the Top End of their country. Despite the best efforts of Anglo settlers and maniacal missionaries to eradicate the languages, beliefs and natural creativity of such peoples as the Yolngu, who hail from north-eastern Arnhem Land, the culture(s) have managed to not only survive, but in recent times even thrive.

To understand the work of Dhambit Mununggurr it is worth some attemptat placing her within this cultural milieu.

Mununggurr was born in 1968 and both her parents had won first prizes at Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA). Her father, the late Mutitjpuy Mununggurr (1932-1993) contributed to the renowned Yirrkala Church Panels. Mununggurr’s mother, the late Gulumbu Yunupingu (1945–2012), won the award in 2004 with Garak, her representation of the universe.

Mununggurr’s late brother, together with her uncle Mandawuy Yunupingu, were amongst the founders of the Yolngu music group Yothu Yindi. Her brother was a world renowned Yidaki (didgeridoo) master. Mununggurr’s son Gapanbulu Yunupingu is now a Yidaki player and singer in Yothu Yindi.

In 2004, Dhambit Mununggurr was the first Yolngu woman to graduate as a tour guide of her country in Yirrkala, and from a young age she had aspirations to follow in her father’s footsteps as an artist. Her appreciation for the natural landscape, including local flora and fauna, was evident in her artistic practice, using acrylic on bark painted with a Marwat (traditional Yolngu hair brush).

Hit by a truck in 2005, Mununggurr was left wheelchair-bound. Combining traditional healing practices with Western medical treatment, her condition slowly improved and she returned to painting in 2010, as well as having started an intensive rehabilitation program in January 2011 at Epworth Rehabilitation in Melbourne, with her goal being to one day walk again. But she could no longer paint with her right hand as before.

One outcome of this horrendous period proved to be a boon. Indeed, Mununggurr’s ‘blue barks’ are spookily original and she became adept as a left-handed painter. While her earlier works relied upon more traditional ochres and structures, her post-accident works carry an ethereal, floating presence. While still based upon ancient Yolngu stories and legends, Mununggurr is creating works that utterly belie expectations. There are clear hints of traditional Yolngu narratives, but depicted in ways original and unique, her blue palette throwing our usual expectations into utter disarray. Like her family in general, Dhambit Mununggurr is taking Yolngu culture into regions new and undiscovered.

In 2011, Mununggurr had her first solo exhibition at Alcaston Gallery in Melbourne, entitled ‘Mirdawarr Dhulan’. The exhibition name came from Mununggurr’s experience driving through the remnants of a burnt-out forest where she noticed the green shoots sprouting from the old burned trees. Mirdawarr refers to ‘the land after fire.’ In 2015 Alcaston Gallery presented ‘GAYBADA – My Father Was an Artist’, a curated selection of vibrant bark paintings and larrakitj inspired by Mununggurr’s father, the driving force behind her art.

A number of events have arisen to allow at least some understanding of Yolngu culture to rise into the peripheral vision of Western awareness. Among these are the rise and rise of the rock band Yothu Yindi who, hailing from Arnhem Land, managed to break through all stigmas to achieve mainstream success. And then there was the 2006 film Ten Canoes directed by Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr. The title and the essential concept of the film arose from discussions between de Heer and actor David Gulpilil about a photograph of ten canoeists skimming across the Arafura Swamp attributed to anthropologist Donald Thomson in 1936. Ten Canoes was filmed in its entirety in indigenous language and it was a hit.

And then there is the Garma Festival. The Yolngu annually hold the Garma Festival of Traditional Cultures to celebrate their own and others’ culture, and non-Yolngu are more than welcome. In 1990, Mandawuy Yunupingu, also former principal of the Yirrkala Community Education Centre, was among the Yolngu leaders who formed the Yothu Yindi Foundation with the aim of establishing a ‘bush university’ – the Garma Cultural Studies Institute, in order to enhance the education of Yolngu people and to share Yolngu knowledge systems with people from around the world. And then there is the renowned NATSIAA where the Yolngu have often been winners.

Thus Dhambit Mununggurr’s unusual and powerful individualism in her art practice segues with a recent tradition for the Yolngu peoples – that of breaking ground on all levels. After her debilitating accident, the NATSIAA curators agreed that, as she was no longer able to grind the ochres used for traditional bark painting, she could choose the colouration and medium at her creative whim, thus blue acrylic on bark – unheard of before now but truly powerful and an indication of how Yolngu and other indigenous groups are reinventing themselves as cultural trailblazers.

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 53, 2020.

NVG Triennial
19 December 2020 – 18 April 2021
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne


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