It is time to celebrate the Yolngu artist, Gunybi Ganambarr. His selection amongst the ten remote artists who are defined as the cream, of the crop at this moment in history in the Second National Indigenous Art Triennial at the NGA in Canberra is but the start. For in Sydney a solo show reveals just how far he’s moved on since the artworks were selected for the Triennial in 2010 “ now being made on a dizzy variety of materials including black rubber conveyor belt rubber from a mine, laminated board, PVC pipe and aircell roof insulation panels!

No wonder John McDonald “ Sydney Morning Herald art critic “ can claim in an Annandale Galleries catalogue essay that It would be laughable to classify Gunybi as simply an Aboriginal artist. He is one of those rare figures whose work speaks to all times and all places.

The Op Art of Bridget Riley certainly springs to mind; the art revolutions of Carl Andre and Andy Warhol are mentioned by McDonald (and dismissed as ridiculously trivial by comparison); and Gallery Director Bill Gregory has even found links to Matisse’s employment of the square and circle in combination.

These are all meaningless comparisons to the artist himself. For Gunybi, the complexity of the story and his personal links to it are all-important. I look forward to experimenting on both sides, he told me today; The Yolngu stories and the Balanda (White) materials “ like that black mine conveyor belt. The Balanda brought that machinery in, but they’re gone now. We can reuse it “ especially as the trees that give us bark in the right season are dying too fast. The Yolngu have always managed the land. And how political is the use of mining detritus in a community where opposition to the mines at Gove has been unrelenting.

The catalogue points to the essential Yolngu precept that if you paint the land you must use the land. This means that none of their prints “ reproduced mechanically “ can incorporate their precious clan designs “ miny’tji. And this makes some people concerned that Gunybi is breaking the strict hieratic rules by using unnatural materials for his sacred stories. But it seems that if a material has been found on the land rather than in a shop, then Gunybi conforms.

And his 12 years experience of house-building at the remote Gangan outstation where he was taken in by the quasi-Bodhisattva elder, Gawirrin Gumana when his father died, now stands him in very good stead when it comes to incising bark or PVC to add a 3D feel, gluing felt inside a pipe to delineate negative space, or welding an old tank stand to legs to make for a substantial piece of outdoor art, incised with thrilling brolgas over his clan patterns.
Not that his first use of sand stuck to his barks to add dimension and texture was wholly successful. He brought a fine Baraltja (Lightning Snake) into the Buku Larrnggay art centre and proudly showed off his innovation. Coordinator Will Stubbs questioned how well it would stick. It’s set already, insisted the artist, pushing his thumb into the new surface. It went right in. It will set, was the confident riposte “ and it has…..leaving what will undoubtedly be interpreted by art historians as a navel in the snake’s belly.

Also at the Blue Mud Bay community is Djambawa Marawilli “ an innovative artist himself, and clearly the father of Gunybi’s diamond rarrking as well as being the master of a conceptual level of thinking that could entertain the Western notion of Metamorphosis in his extraordinary series of barks showing the totemic crocodile morphing abstraction.

While the Annandale show of Gunybi Ganambarr’s work opens tonight and continues until 9 June, the NGA Triennial opens tomorrow and runs until 22 July.


Artist: Djambawa Marawilli, Gunybi Ganambarr, Gawirrin Gumana

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Tags: annadale galleries , gunybi ganambarr , Indigenous Art Triennial , John McDonald , National Gallery ,

Gallery: National Gallery of Australia ,