Prolific artist Yolŋu Dhambit Munuŋgurr has been waiting for Julia Gillard’s attention for a long time.
On July 10, 2013, Australia’s first female Prime Minister was due to visit the community of Yirrkala in northeast Arnhem Land to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the anti-barking petitions, which sparked the indigenous land rights movement. Munuŋgurr had prepared a bark painting in honor of Gillard, hoping to present it to him. But a fortnight before the visit, Gillard was toppled in a spill from Labor leaders and the winner, Kevin Rudd, traveled to Yirrkala instead. Munuŋgurr is too polite to publicly take sides, but suffice it to say that the painting remains in her room in Gunyaŋara, the small island in the Arafura Sea about 25 minutes away.
Now, nearly a decade later, the former female prime minister once again inspired the 53-year-old artist – this time as the subject of a large-scale work, Order, which portrays Gillard in parliament during her infamous 2012 misogyny speech. Speaking on Zoom from her wheelchair at the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Center in Yirrkala, where she is found painting large bark canvases and larrakitj (hollow poles ) three days a week, Munuŋgurr explains his admiration for Gillard quite simply: “She’s a woman, like me. Painted on stringy bark in Munuŋgurr’s signature blue palette, Order features Gillard towering over pale, limp politicians as Yolŋu dancers storm parliament, holding spears arched in the air in representation of the cloud mass. of the rainy season. They dance to the song of “bol’ŋu” or “man of thunder,” says Munuŋgurr – an embodiment of the rainy season.
Will Stubbs, the longtime coordinator at Buku who facilitates and translates my conversation with Munuŋgurr, says that the Yolŋu in the painting “support and dance their identity and lead [Gillard] in – they are his bodyguards ”.
The commission will be on hold as part of Bark Ladies: Eleven Artists from Yirrkala, a major new exhibition in Melbourne that features the National Gallery of Victoria’s collection of stringy bark and larrakitj paintings by female Yolŋu artists working at Buku. Even if Gillard doesn’t see it, the thousands of gallery owners who are expected to pass through Victoria’s premier art institution in its four months certainly will.
2021 has been a big year for Munuŋgurr, who started painting at 13 but only achieved national notoriety a year ago with his triennial NGV 2020 presentation “Can we all have a happy life?” This year, she was a finalist for the Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales; and in August, she won the Bark Painting Award at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards for Bees in Gäṉgän, a work that references her ancestral stories. (His artist parents Mutitjpuy Munuŋgurr and Gulumbu Yunupingu both won first prize at NATSIAAs during their lifetime.) In October, Munuŋgurr held a sold-out solo exhibition at the Roslyn Oxley9 gallery in Sydney showcasing 24 of his works, including one diptych titled Welcoming Refugees / Scott Morrison and the Treasurer – depicting Yolŋu pushing Australia’s two most powerful men off shore. His most expensive work sold for $ 60,000; although she only receives part of that amount, it is a nice sum for an artist who paints compulsively but gives away most of her work. “There aren’t many people in northeast Arnhem Land who don’t have a personal painting of Dhambit,” Stubbs says.
Munuŋgurr comes from a political family. His artist grandfather Mungurrawuy Yunupingu helped lead the struggle for land rights in the 1960s; his late uncle Mandawuy Yunupingu was the co-founder of Yothu Yindi; his son Gapanbulu Yunupingu used to play yidaki in the group and now sometimes leads the group. But Munuŋgurr’s work primarily explores his deep esoteric knowledge of Yolŋu stories. Painting for her is “to heal”, she explains. “It keeps me alive.”
In 2005, a near-fatal car accident left Munuŋgurr with permanent physical disabilities and acquired brain injury. During the seven months she spent in Darwin Hospital – 700 km west of Yirrkala – her mother and French husband Tony Gintz were given special permission to take Munuŋgurr on a field trip to the nearby bush for trips. traditional healing sessions. His mother would dig a pit and add charcoal to create a natural sauna, then cover it with paper bark and medicinal plants. Munuŋgurr would be placed inside. “I was baked in an underground oven! Munuŋgurr hoots.
Stubbs clarifies: “Her initial assessment by the doctors was that she would be a vegetable without the capacity to live. Tony and his mother challenged this and through these healing processes she was able to return home. And the first moment she could do it, she painted, and with the paint she healed herself.
The accident prevented the use of his dominant right hand, so Munuŋgurr learned to wield his marwat (a traditional brush made from his own hair) with his left. His injuries also made it difficult for him to collect and grind the ochres and other earth pigments that Yolŋu artists usually use on their canvases. After years of recreating traditional colors with orange, red and yellow paints, Munuŋgurr switched in 2019 to painting her larger works in the vivid shades of azure, ultramarine and turquoise that have come to define her.
She chose the shade, she explained, “because the earth is blue, the sky is blue and the sea is blue”.
But her husband, who collects the leaves of stringy bark for his work – venturing out in the rainy season with a tomahawk to peel the outer layer of suitable trees – says, “The work [blue paintings] that she does in Buku is only a small part of all her work, because when she comes home she spends all her time painting [in many colours] … Someday there will be a surprising exhibition on the other side of Dhambit.
Stubbs adds, “There’s a full shipping container, because Dhambit doesn’t paint for money, fame, or profit – she needs to paint. She has to paint compulsively all day, every day.
Munuŋgurr nods: “Every day.”
Before hanging up, Munuŋgurr fixes his gaze on me through the computer screen and smiles. “I’ll paint you someday,” she said, smiling. “You are speaking to me.”