doing it properly

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.

1 comment so far ↓

#1 Ruark on 03.30.12 at 3:26 pm

I am fascinated by the Yolngu concern with the stars, and the human and animal presence related to the night skies. On a recent visit to N.E.Arnhem Land I carried a small cache of publications with me. In a sense I was returning with various existing stories and others that introduced contemporary aspects of creative life from the countries to the north. Reading one of the small publications, ‘The Milky Way’ story by Narritjan Maymuru, (transcribed by Ted Egan), I was moved by the following passage, “Moonaminya and Yikawanga looked down at the earth. They saw their people still hunting by the river. Every time the people caught a fish or an animal Moonaminya and Yikawanga made a star. As people on earth died their bodies were placed in log coffins, and their spirits were taken to the skyto become stars. Soon Moonaminya and Yikawanga had a river of stars – they names it Milmooya after their own river on earth. People on earth looked up at the river of stars. It was so bright some people called it the Milky Way.” It is fine example of the cyclical nature of life and spirit and the night skies in Aboriginal writing. These kinds of transforming narratives that can be found in Yolngu literature, enlightens us to how allegory and symbols are alive and are being told today in the N.E.Arnhem Land bark paintings. Their transmission to art galleries and western audiences the world over is evidence that this other Australian contemporary art is passing on to future generations.

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