1943 - 2012
Gulumbu Yunupingu had already lived a full and busy life before becoming an artist of international standing. Parent, teacher, health worker, translator and compassionate friend to many in her community, she attributed the beginning of her painting career (at the age of 56), to a dream/vision she had while camping out under the stars. The voice was strong, she recalls: “Do this!” The stories she paints, on bark and on larrakitj (ceremonial poles), hark back to her childhood years when her parents told her the traditional Ancestral stories of her Yolgnu heritage. She inherited the right to paint them from her father, the clan leader and artist, Munggurraway Yunupingu (one of the original presenters of the bark petition). Gulumbu Yunupingu states that her art is about the entire universe, stars that can be seen by the naked eye as well as everything beyond and before. She believes that the night sky can bring people of all places and times together, in harmony: “There is healing for people,” she said, “when they see beauty.” Yunupingu builds her night sky with sweeping series of infinitesimal lines and dots, patterns inspired and developed from Arnhem Land’s traditional rarrk designs. Her shimmering surface, created through the complexity of crossed and overlapping shapes, reflects the Ancestral presences that Yolgnu artists have always sought to achieve through their characteristic fine patterning. Conversely, the layers of stars, their tonal gradations and differing areas of density also draw the eye beyond, capturing a sense of atmospheric depth. The magic and majesty of the endless universe appears to the viewer as something familiar but also something we can never fully comprehend. Particular constellations relate to figures from the Dreamtime, such as the Seven Sisters of the Pleiades travelling across the sky in their canoe or the brothers of the Orion constellation. The stories relate to the seasons and changes in the hunting and gathering of bush foods. Sometimes Yunupingu’s stars can be seen to have an eye at their centre. Yunupingu tells the story of being a little girl and her mother telling her that the moisture she felt settling on her at night, even when no clouds were visible, was possibly tears from the stars. After winning the NATSIAA art award (2004), Yunupingu was chosen to create the re-opening exhibit for the Quai Branly Museum in Paris (2006). The thousand of stars painted on the museum ceiling, in white, black, red and yellow ochres, are illuminated at night so passers by can view them through the large front windows of the museum. As a young girl, Yunupingu attended the community mission school before marrying and having children. She married Yirrkala artist, Mutitjpuy Munuggurr, also a NATSIAA winner (1990). The Yunupingu clan are highly esteemed and have been influential in promoting Yolgnu culture, (her brother is the singer in Yothu Yindi) but the family is no stranger to tragedy, with three of Yunupingu’s four children suffering accident and injury. It was this perhaps that tapped Yunupingu into the universality of human feeling which has always managed to touch a chord when she was asked to give a speech at an art event. She gently stressed the importance of understanding and compassion and often brought the audience to tears. Yunupingu had great faith in her fellow artists. She felt there was no danger of the wisdom of her tradition being lost as the elders pass away. The young ones will always pick up the threads and make it their own, building on the knowledge, designs and techniques from the past and weaving in their own interpretations and perspectives, much as she herself had always done. She died in 2012, serenaded with sacred songs and surrounded by her family and community. Her short but intense art career saw her work exhibited around the world and collected by Australia’s state and national galleries.
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