Drawn to Yirrkala

| February 4, 2014

The Art Gallery of New South Wales is currently showing drawings from the Yirrkala community in Arnhem Land. Amanda Peacock travelled up north to witness the exciting early stages of creating an artwork.

In August last year a small team from the Art Gallery of New South Wales travelled up to the community of Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land to do some filming and interviews in preparation for the exhibition Yirrkala Drawings. Exhibition curator Cara Pinchbeck, film-maker Greg Appel, paper conservator Sarah Bunn and I spent the week based at the Buku-Larrngay Mulka Art Centre, a focal point of the Yirrkala community and the driving force behind this important exhibition.

Showing at the Gallery until 23 February, Yirrkala Drawings presents 81 of the 365 vibrant crayon drawings on paper produced by senior ceremonial leaders at Yirrkala for the anthropologists Ronald and Catherine Berndt in 1947.

These drawings, in a brilliant palette of red, blue, yellow, green and black, depict the complexities of Yolngu life and cultural inheritance. For Yolngu artists, they were a means of educating the anthropologists, and through them the wider community, about Yolngu law, knowledge, connection to country and way of life. During our time in Yirrkala we met some of the sons and daughters of these artists, many of them significant artists themselves.

The first thing that strikes many visitors to the exhibition is the large scale of the drawings. Reproductions can give a sense of their richness of colour and exquisite detail; however, it is not until you stand in the space that you experience their real power and presence. Many of the artists, such as Mawalan and Wandjuk Marika, Munggurrawuy Yunupingu, Narritjin Maymuru and Wonggu Mununggurr, are familiar to us from working with the Gallery’s collection of barks – but it is so exciting to see the way these artists chose to represent this knowledge in a different medium, and to see the confidence and versatility with which they handled this new medium.

One of the unexpected highlights of our trip was a chance to go out with the men from the art centre harvesting ḻarrakitj (hollow logs) for artists to paint. We arrived at the art centre bright and early as requested and were introduced to Bruce Mununggurr, Sebastian Wanambi, Max Gumana and DJ Marika (grandson of exhibition artist Wandjuk Marika).

Greg busied himself attaching a ‘go-pro’ camera to the front of one of the troopies to get some action shots as we travelled through the bush and we set off – bouncing around in the back. It was already hot when we arrived at a likely looking spot. The men fanned out on foot knocking on promising stringybark trees with their axes as they went, listening for the correct hollow sound of a tree whose insides had been eaten out by termites. We hurried along behind with our cameras, swatting ants and other creatures from our feet and legs as we hopped along.

A shout from DJ announced that he had found a tree, and we all gathered. He swung the axe with force and efficiency, and Bruce took over when he tired. It was hard work in the heat. As it came crashing down Bruce explained that they would get four ḻarrakitj today.

Each of the harvested ḻarrakitj was loaded into the back of the troopie and taken back to the art centre to be prepared for painting by artists such as Nyapanyapa Yunipingu, daughter of Munggurrawuy Yunupingu. Nyapanyapa’s ḻarrakitj, along with those by other descendants of the original artists, are exhibited alongside the drawings in the exhibition.

You can learn more about this exhibition here. The short films, including one on harvesting the ḻarrakitj, can be seen here.