Gunybi Ganambarr

The winner of last year's National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA) in Darwin tells us in his own words – both Yolŋu and English* – about how his elders led him to his art, and how the Yolŋu worldview shapes not only his own creative life but the everyday life of his people.

Ŋarra myself first, when I was a first little boy and I was really fat, really dhumbuḻ, short, a really fat one. And I’m … and I always ritjan teased everybody ŋarra ritjan’thun, ŋalapalminha, wo miyalknha, wuḻguman. I teased old people and women and even old ladies. Yeah. One day and I start acting with Miḻma, Yinimalawu Yinimala’s Daddy, was there watching, and Mulkun. And we was acting comedy picture balanya, that sort of thing, comedy picture. Ah well, ŋarra, I was acting.

Ŋarra man ga wangany ŋarraku miyalk yurru dirramu. I was a man and I had a girlfriend but it was really another boy. Acting. Fun, for fun. After that I went to Yaŋunbi, with my father with my clan and I stay there ninha, for a long time.

And I got a call through the wälitj, radio, not a phone but a radio. And the Old Man talked to me … ‘Way! Nhe lili marrtji go! Wayin ŋarraku buma, guya. Hey there. You need to come back home. You need to hunt for me and bring me meat and fish.’
‘Yo. Ma. Nhatha? Ŋarra marrtjina. Yes, all right. When do you want me? I will come right now.’

I was single at that time. When I got there, Gäṉgän, then I got married, ŋarra, and they give me Rom, the Law. Like I was operating the manikay, sacred song cycles of ceremony, yiḏaki djäma, playing yiḏaki for the song men. Everywhere. They took me to America. Every Festival. Like visiting Groote Eyelandt, whanaka nha? Where was it? Alice Springs. What’s that other place called? Nunha bala, wiripu, over there the other one?

Old Man, Dr Gawirriṉ Gumana AO, he rang me and dragged me back from Yäŋunbi to Gäṉgän and I started living there and they give me miyalk, my wife, and I was staying there forever and doing his job – Djäma malanynha – all of the sacred tasks. ‘This is my wisdom. I’ll hand it over to you. Take it! Sit with us and live this life.’

And I was thinking it is not a lie that I was by learning but something true and real which I was learning for the Yolŋu side of deep significance. On the background nha Yolŋu side. The foundations of the deep identity of the world.

One day they took me to bathala stage. The big stage. Ŋärra! Parliament! On the raypiny nhe, the freshwater side you know? Freshwater, my mother Dhaḻwaŋu clan of the Yirritja moiety. Wärrkthun ŋarra, I was working for ŋunhala namuna? I don’t know how long? I did make maybe nhamuna märrma Ŋärra? Maybe two full lengthy restricted sacred governance ceremonies sequestered from my people.

And that’s where they saw me. The moṉuk. The Saltwater people. And they said ‘OK. He is gonna work for us!’ The Maḏarrpa clan. ‘OK! You’re gonna work for me!’ So … a bit of balance. Fresh one ga gapu, the sacred freshwater of the river systems and then the ocean. Ŋayi balancingnha. He was balancing me. Djambawa’s father, Wakuthi Marawili.

When the old daystja … because they … they’ve got mari bathala in the old days. Back then was a time of dangerous interclan conflict. When all my ŋathimala, my mother’s fathers, Birrikitji, and my maternal grandfather Buwatpuy and Djambawa’s father were in deep dispute. Gäṉgän against Yilpara!

During, after that, and through all that, they picked me. ‘Who is going to consult, solving the problems and all that between these two great clans? Who is going to bring the two nations together?’ And I am there. And I brought all of them into one. The Maḏarrpa and Dhaḻwaŋu.

All that time I was thinking under pressure and I was learning at the same time from each of their knowledge and their wisdom. I was a teenager! And I was yaka bawala, bawala ŋarra, bawa’yunha ŋarrra, but I was something. I wasn’t trembling or going crazy with the stress. I was cool. I could handle it. Looking the truth ga lies. Seeing through the angry accusations and threats to find the truth.

And I was schooled through this in my Yolŋu education. I was schooled through them and the powerful conflict between these two important philosophies. And I saw the full extent of the education available to me and I grabbed the painting malany. I was immediately attracted to the law of sacred design, the practice of representing the deep foundations and which we are a part of. ‘Ga! Give it to me!’ And now I do these designs and share them with the world.

Straight after Ŋärra, these secret tribunals then I went to Yilpara. And I heard yolŋumala to nhawi ŋarranha. Waŋana. Miny’tjiŋur ŋarrtjuna, buku-ŋalayun, bitjana. People were whispering that I was too young and lacking authority to handle these sacred designs. Ŋarra beyana. So I had to say ‘Yaka! No! I have the right to stand here. To balancing nhumanha, monuk ga raypiny. To search for and find a balance between you two peoples from the ocean and the river systems. To bring your knowledge and wisdom to the fore and bring it in here to the centre so we can balance each other. Monuk ga raypiny. Saltwater people and Freshwater people.

Sometimes people were giving me a hard time. But I was always talking with them. And some Yolŋu people they know me. They recognised my authority. And some Yolŋu they don’t know me. They can’t bayaŋu ŋäma, recognition through the way I speak. Some people refused to acknowledge my right to hold this very important position in the negotiations and the Law. Telling those dhawu walalaŋu. Publicly representing and the stories for these two powerful nations as a fully authorised trustee.

So, anyway when I start … then I came to the building. I was in Ŋärra, secret sacred governance ceremonies at the same time as starting building. Bala, and then over to building for twelve years. After twelve years, I turned around, and came back to Ŋärra. Back to the Ŋärra, Yolŋu Government. And then Ŋärra, a role in the sacred governance of the people through Yolŋu Law and back once more to the outside world. It means I have to take all that from Ŋärra, secret chamber of sacred reflection and use it with the skills I found from learning the building. To bring it out into the world, that foundational wisdom. And all of that experience into my work. And I have already shown this in my artwork.

Building, about twelve years back then, I was doing it with the contract mob. Around the outstations. Twenty five homeland centres of North East Arnhem. We started from Bremer, Bremer Island, Bawaka, Yäŋunbi, Yuḏuyuḏu, Buymarr, Garrthalala, Gurrmurru, Wändawuy, Djarrakpi, Dhukarr-yarrup (Barraratjpi), Rurruŋala, Gäṉgän, Yilpara. That’s how I travelled when I was with the builders. Putting up all the new houses. Shower. Laundry. And I was at that time, I was operating all the big machinery. Bathala – the big ones. Digging all the trenches. Ŋarra, me and Yimikan and Garawan and Boṉḏotu and wangany, one dear departed who we’ve lost. And the Ŋapaki, non-Indigenous workers were Mick, Mick Bird and his two sons, David and Andrew. Lätju mala. Great people. Ga and Paul Bird, wäwamirriŋu, his brother working for Laynha at that time. We were working for Laynhapuy Homelands Resource Centre as a builders group at that time. Used to be my dad was working too in the early days in Yolŋu Business Enterprises. They were making all the bricks and they were building all that big stuff. I saw them when I was a little boy. Building the Gove District Hospital, the bathala big hospital in Nhulunbuy. And then I took all their knowledge. From them to me. And then I mixed it. I saw a difference. There is an old one and a new one. Bala ŋarra mulkunha new style nha. From there I found myself holding a new style. It is like I am building my art.

I remember the first time. I went hunting. And I saw that botj tree standing there. Nha ŋayi English gu yäku? What is it called in English? Ironwood. And I saw that tree. Half burnt. Half alive. ‘Way! Hey! Can I make something from this botj? Am I going to make something from it?’ And I talked to myself, nha bayin, like that. ‘OK! Ma! Go for it! Do that!’ Shape it up, grinder. Get the machine, sander. (Clap) Electric. Go! Come on! Straight away! Djämanha. Work it. Shapingya. Finding the shape. It’s Wurran – the cormorant! Out of the botj! Something different nha. A new way. It’s from the nhawiŋur, from the wood. From the bark and the larrakitj, milma marrtjina. It is changing. Change, change, change, change. From the Ironwood to the PVC pipe. From the PVC pipe to the rubber. From the rubber to the insulation. From insulation to the steel. Using the walls of my house made of Colorbond steel. The old water tank made of galvanised steel. Everything!

Some people they criticise me. Some people they are happy following me in what they do with their own ideas. Some. But some people they are criticising me. I am not really marrakaḏitj, angry about that. But I have to turn around and tell them that I have that authority. I have a solid foundation. I need to talk with them and say ‘Be cool. Cool. You’ve got skill there that you are hiding from yourself. Something like ŋarraku my skills. Your skills. Everybody has got skills to do something. But you? You are hiding them from yourself.’ But not without the elders! You must go through the elders. They will lapmarraŋu nhuŋu, open your own personal gate for you to come in through.

In the future I can already see young people, a young generation with a different mind, a different attitude, different skills. Luckily I can see them with computers sitting right in front of me, look. It’s a different intelligence. In the future that’s what I see.

And for my future? Maybe I will pass it on to them. So maybe in the future they can do it in their own way. Not my way. But my vision is exactly the same way as the old man’s vision. And they must go through that path but in their own way. Different, different, different, different, different, yes. But in that path we will always be bringing the Yolŋu worldview and our understandings of reality into oneness. So we are going to be unified and strong as one.

* Will Stubbs transcribed this statement (in Yolŋu matha and English) by Gunybi Ganambarr at Yirrkala in September 2018.
This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 45, 2019


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