Upscaling Aboriginal art to fit large public spaces can be problematic, as the big fish-trap saga at the National Gallery of Australia has amply demonstrated. In this case the work by the late Mrs Yunupingu at the Australian National University does it properly. In the large four-story atrium of the Corbett Lyons designed Hedley Bull Centre, Gulumbu’s Garrurru is a perfect fit for the scale and material qualities of the space. Garrurru invokes the memory and the narrative significance of the annual visits by Macassan traders who visited Arnhem Land up to the early years of the twentieth century. At nine meters high, it’s about twice the size of the original sail on a Macassan prau.
Here’s a snap of the opening ceremony, which gives a better sense of the scale of the work. University dignitaries Professors David Williams and Marnie Hughes-Warrington greet Gulumbu and her daughter Dhalulu Ganambarr Stubbs, and officially launch the work, to the acclaim of the audience assembled for the event. Both Dhalalu and the late Mrs Yunupingu spoke with great emotion about the work and its significance to the Yolngu of North-East Arnhem Land, and their satisfaction with the way in which the work had found its way to the ANU.
When Frances Morphy spoke about the aesthetic significance of the work, she observed that it is the manipulation of scale in the resolution of the work that gives it its aesthetic impact. Not only is its sheer size commanding – responding successfully to the somewhat challenging architectural elements with which it now coexists – but it is the scale effects of the complex motifs within the sail that pulls the viewer in to its other imagery, which is Gulumbu’s own vision of the starry night sky. The representation of the night sky – dazzling in its luminosity in that part of the world – has long been Gulumbu’s renowned signature iconography. The design of the painted low-relief surface of the sail-shaped panel successfully translates the micro-structure of the artists bark-paintings to the grand expressive gestural character of its new medium. It’s like looking back in time, as if through a telescope. As you may read in the wall text below, for the artist the infinite numbers of stars is symbolic of the almost-infinite numbers of the human inhabitants of the planet.
Garrurru has been four years in the making, since Will Stubbs from Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala first visited the ANU to assess the potential of the site. It’s been worth the wait.