YOLNGU ART’S U.S. DREAMING
After travelling through thousands of years of history, Australian indigenous art will soon tour major US institutions, writes Amos Aikman
Wukun Wanambi and Yinimala Gumana in New York; and with Kevin Rudd and curator Kade McDonald; opposite,
Evergreens grow around the door of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Djambawa Marawili was leafing through papers when he found a picture of his father. The image accompanied a monumental bark painting that, in 1996, then about nine years earlier, had won him a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award in Australia.
The mid-1990s were important for Marawili: not only was he gathering renown as an artist but he was also preparing to assume the leadership of his Madarrpa clan from his father, Wakuthi Marawili, who died in 2005.
In the two decades to 2015, when Marawili was in the US on an artist’s residency, he had revised his father’s generation’s beliefs about the way clan designs, known as miny’tji, could be used in Yolngu art. He did so as part of a sea rights battle that ultimately won Aboriginal groups control over 80 per cent of the Northern Territory’s coastline beginning with the landmark Blue Mud Bay decision in 2008.
“My father didn’t really explain himself to our people,” Marawili says. “He left a message through patterns and designs, through painting … (and) when I saw that picture, it awakened my mind to the need to stand up for our culture, to share the wisdom and knowledge of that old fella so it can be meaningful to everyone.”
With that realisation, a plan began forming to demonstrate the strength of Yolngu culture through what could be one of the most ambitious overseas shows in years.
The Kluge-Ruhe at the University of Virginia is the only museum in the US devoted to Aboriginal art. At the heart of its collection are barks gathered across several decades, first by literature professor Edward Ruhe and later by media mogul John Kluge, once America’s richest man. Working on a shoestring budget from the 60s onwards, Ruhe amassed pieces by artists such as Narritjin Maymuru, Mithinari Gurruwiwi, Birrikitji Gumana, Gawirrin Gumana and Wandjuk Marika, now acknowledged as masters of their time. In 1996, Kluge commissioned 28 monumental paintings from BukuLarrnggay, the art centre in Yirrkala in northeast Arnhem Land where Marawili and others trade, capturing a snapshot of local artists’ work just as they were attaining international prominence. Those pieces have never been exhibited together because of their size.
Marawili saw his father’s picture while exploring Kluge-Ruhe’s archives with Henry Skerritt, a lanky Australian intellectual who was then doing a PhD and is now the museum’s curator. “I think it was both an amazing and also quite emotional, nostalgic thing for Djambawa, looking at those paintings,” Skerritt says. “He said to me, ‘You need to show that the tradition is continuing.’ ”
Marawili is a barrel-chested man who speaks in a commanding basso. “I saw some of our patterns and designs and realised it was just one part of our story reaching out to America,” he says. “Some of the patterns were really old … today, we have the same designs and patterns and stories, but we have new ways of putting Story of a Wife Kidnapping them out into the public (domain), of using them to tell people that we have our own rights, our own language, our own way of living … we have our own society, our own world, our tribal roles and responsibilities that have been there for century after century, ancestor after ancestor, because we have our own country and we have been living on our country — we were the first people in Australia before the second family group came. I’m talking about whitefellas.”
From their interactions with Macassan, Dutch and possibly Chinese sailors, through early settlement and on to the Yirrkala Church Panels and Yirrkala Bark Petitions, the Barunga Statement, the Yolngu people have sought to project their identity with this force.
“When Djambawa told us what we had to do, we got hopping and we’re doing it,” says Margo Smith, the Kluge-Ruhe’s director. “We really want to understand these works of art the way Yolngu understand them.”
Madayin means law. According to a dictionary, the word can describe the beauty inherent in ritual objects, important ceremonies or people; as an adjective, it conveys connotations of reverence, secrecy and taboo.
Will Stubbs, Buku’s co-ordinator, says there is no English equivalent but the Greek concept arete (like moral virtue) is similar. “If you see a beautiful woman come out of her bedroom, dressed for her prom, and you are her grand- father, you might say ‘madayin’,” he say. “It’s the idea that moral virtue equals excellence, equates with the idea that moral virtue equals law … what you need to understand is that this is a different universe and that, as an outsider looking in, you are not objectively neutral.”
If all goes to plan, madayin also will be the title of a major new touring exhibition bringing Americans as far as possible on to the Yolngu’s spectral plane. Skerritt says there is “a lot more interest (in the US) in Aboriginal art than there is in non-Aboriginal Australian art”. While some smaller US galleries have begun probing the canon more deeply, so far larger institutions have preferred surveys consisting of a few pieces each of various styles. These museums and galleries, Skerritt and others believe, now have an appetite for something “more tailored”.
Stephen Gilchrist, a University of Sydney lecturer who curated Everywhen: The Eternal Present in indigenous Art from Australia at the Harvard Art Museum last year, says it is an exciting time to work in the US as more institutions open their doors. “In Australia, indigenous art is often seen as oppositional to Australian art,” he says. “Outside Australia, straight away it’s international art … that can be quite freeing.”
One difficulty with Australian audiences is that they often need to learn and unlearn to escape their prejudices, Gilchrist says. “Sometimes, it’s just easier with a blank slate. In Australia, a little bit of knowledge can be very dangerous,” he says. “You can actually get to a much deeper place, I think, with international audiences.”
Madayin’s aim is to offer American audiences their first in-depth look at Aboriginal art from a particular region via a series of shows at topshelf metropolitan institutions. Earlier this year,
(c.1968) by Gawirrin Gumana