Nyapanyapa Yunupingu

Nyapanyapa Yunupingu worked as a printmaker for ten years before beginning to paint in 2007. Since then her work has been recognised with prizes, acquisitions and exhibitions all over the world. Intrinsic to her practice is her innovative media and highly individual painterly expression that she describes as ‘mayilimiriw’ – meaningless.

Nyapanyapa Yunupingu (born c.1945) has been compared with Aboriginal artists Emily Kame Kngwarreye (1910-1996) and Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori (c.1924-2015). Given a late start as a painter, her work appears to move seamlessly between what traditional Aboriginal bark painting looks like and contemporary abstraction. Yet these mooted parallels fall flat when Yunupingu asserts that her work is mayilimiriw – meaningless – in contrast to the paintings of Kngwarreye and Gabori, which are expressions of their relationships with country.

Yunupingu’s interest lies in the paint, its rhythms, form, line and colour. She sidesteps cultural expectations about Yolngu women by choosing not to engage with ancestral narratives. When approached about an interview with Yunupingu, Will Stubbs, her friend and Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Art Centre coordinator explains, ‘Nyapanyapa’s best form of communication is her art. This is because she is deaf, doesn’t speak English, is otherwise not that verbal, doesn’t belong to a culture which believes it is necessary to talk at length about art unless in regard to its sacred character, doesn’t paint sacred art, does not have a sense of herself as an individual as distinct from her kinship group, does not have a sense of herself as an important artist, and does not have an interest in talking about herself.’

What she does have, in spades, is power in her work. In about 2007, Yunupingu spoke to Stubbs about painting and he asked her to work at the art centre. Shortly afterward, Sydney gallerist Roslyn Oxley was visiting Yirrkala where she saw Nyapanyapa sitting on the floor with her brush and paint. She was captivated by Nyapanyapa and her passionate commitment. Oxley has been her solo dealer ever since.

In 2008 Yunupingu won the Wandjuk Marika three-dimensional art prize within the NATSIAA Awards with Incident at Mutpi (2008). This bark painting had an accompanying video recounting when, as a young woman, she was attacked and seriously injured by a water buffalo. Stubbs recalls, ‘That moment kicked it all off.’ This work was acquired for the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory collection. Around it, Luke Scholes, curator of Aboriginal Art and Material Culture, will curate a retrospective that encompasses the breadth of Yunupingu’s practice, to open in Darwin in 2020.

Since 2008 Yunupingu’s paintings have evolved in their unconventional nature, innovation of media, and their continued focus on form rather than meaning. In a video made for the Art Gallery of NSW (2013) Yunupingu relates, ‘I do beautiful neat paintings and work … I didn’t do trees, rocks or anything else … I only made designs … The painting I did was my own and I haven’t made mistakes, none.’

She is the daughter of well-known Yolngu artist Munggurrawuy Yunupingu (1907–1979), yet she recalls, ‘My father didn’t teach me. I learnt it myself. He painted as I watched his hands … I saw my father’s hands painting … As he did this he said, ‘You will do this in the future my daughter’.’

Yunupingu’s work since then has included Larrakitj poles, drawings and technologically evolved prints, concerned with the act of painting, her own life and daily activities. She said, ‘My lines aren’t tangled and messy, not at all.’ While these artworks avoid the clan stories and designs that are part of her inheritance, she remains within a universal system that Stubbs describes as ‘the geometry of Gurrutu’.

Stubb explains, ‘This system connects everything in the universe in a significant way, like a schematic electronic diagram. It is hard to explain to those in an Anglo-Australian world of capitalism and disconnection; Yolngu don’t see the world that way. Gurrutu is a staggeringly massive, wholistic system of identity and connection which informs every thought and conversation in Yolngu philosophy.’

The innate response visible in Yunupingu’s work may represent a glimmer of recognition or understanding, with her marks resonating widely, as Stubbs notes, ‘within and beyond Australia. This is the conundrum.’

Yunupingu’s first exhibition with Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in 2008, ‘Once Upon A Time’, included bark paintings and Larrakitj poles, with images that traversed her experiences, from Airlift to Darwin Hospital (2008), about the water buffalo attack in 1975, to community events like Hunting Stingray at Birany Birany (2008). These early works on bark looked as unusual as was their inspiration, with sketchy figures infilled with finely painted marwat (cross-hatching) and sections of colour.

Visiting Sydney for a few days for this exhibition meant that her next exhibition in 2010, ‘In Sydney Again’, included gems such asSydney Harbour Bridge (2008) with the bridge sketched in white and floating on areas of ochre-coloured cross-hatching. It covered a breathtaking amount of territory, with the emergence of the use of white in her paintings.

In about 2009 figurative elements disappeared from Yunupingu’s works. Scholes says this may have been the result of a nightmare she had about that water buffalo. ‘She began to explore the medium of natural pigments on a beautiful subtle surface like bark. It began a period of mark-making which is confounding and confronting, for her Yolngu community as well. These paintings are more meditative, like action painting, more about the act of painting than what is being produced.’ Carefully constructed cross-hatching over the primed bark remains in this work that she dubbed mayilimiriw.

For the Eighteenth Biennale of Sydney (2012), Yunupingu made a series of 110 Light Paintings (in white paint pen on clear acetates), computerised through Yirrkala’s Mulka Project (which uses technology as an archiving tool for culture). These images were projected and changed (using computer algorithms) every time they were screened.

Her innovation of media results from her work habit but is also, Scholes suggests, a logistical necessity in a remote community. ‘If they run out of bark, artists are driven to work in different mediums. Sometimes it is innovation through necessity.’

More recent exhibitions have increasingly featured stars within abstractions in white ochre, which emerged initially in her 2014 exhibition, ‘My Sister’s Ceremony’ (which also referred to the passing of her artist sister Gulumbu Yunupingu, 1943–2012. Both Gulumbu and their father painted stars that refer to the Seven Sisters story). In Nyapanyapa Yunupingu’s most recent 2019 exhibition, ‘Ganyu’, the stars appear joyous, scattering across the sky like bursts of light, at their most powerful when they are simple renditions of white on the bark, like rain on a parched landscape.

Nyapanyapa Yunupingu’s own star continues to soar as recognition comes apace. Her work is now in every major public collection in Australia and many overseas. She was featured in the Twentieth Biennale of Sydney (2016), and the Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Nyapanyapa took the water buffalo incident and her story into another art form.

For the 2020 survey exhibition in Darwin, Yunupingu will create her largest painting yet with a digital component to be featured on a work, double-sided, on the MDF panels that comprised the stage for the Bangarra production at Yirrkala. Scholes says, ‘The painting and its digital component will come together in this work. While MDF panels are not a typical medium, they have been danced with Nyapanyapa’s story and are available and appropriate for her to use as a medium. The digital work and the painting will have some kind of correlation. I think people will be startled by her ability to innovate. Nyapanyapa is somewhat unbound by cultural strictures – this is what makes her work so exciting.’

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 47, 2019

Nyapanyapa Yunupiŋu
28 January – 27 February 2021
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

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