I first spotted Gunybi Ganambarr’s powers of innovation at the Melbourne Art Fair a couple of years ago. Out of nowhere, seemingly, a bold black and white bark lit up the Annandale Galleries stall. A year later, he was recognised in the last of the Xstrata Emerging Indigenous Art Awards in Brisbane.

Now Ganambarr fills a whole gallery with a range of startling works that involve “ according to Buku Larrngay’s Art Co-ordinator, Will Stubbs “ nine breakthroughs in what had been thought of as the ‘proper’ Yolngu bark and larrikitj traditions. As Stubbs also explains, though, none of these changes break the strict rules which still surround the artists of North-East Arnhemland in telling the tribe’s stories appropriately.

Yet Ganambirr shapes his barks and larrikitj according to the needs of each work “ adding a third dimension, carving lines into the surface, extending the bark or ceremonial pole with a carved stork head or a double-helix twist. These may flow from the nature of the design, or the nature of his material. Strange colours are also creeping in; symmetrical visual balance is not to be expected. But, through all this novelty, vital things like the diamond shapes of Ganambirr’s sacred clan designs (miny’tji) are still apparent, dietary and totemic creatures appear, and the magical swirl of light on water moves our eyes across each artwork.

Will Stubbs offers a fascinating background to all this innovation in the Annandale Galleries catalogue. He clearly sees Gunybi Ganambirr as an inherently boundary-breaking artist. But he also points out that the invention of the aluminium support and hanging system for barks by Karen Coote at the Australian Museum in Sydney freed all his Buku artists from the need to imagine a frame for their works “ as they had done when a wooden strip was bound to the barks at top and bottom to keep them from warping. This allowed the power of the design to surge off the edge of the surface. The patterns filled the whole, in Stubbs’ words.

In fact, the bark had become a canvas “ and the painter was able to discard all the limitations of ethnography, though not the rules. And for the viewer, the ghetto that people kept in their mind for ‘traditional’ art by tribal people (especially in Europe) as distinct from contemporary sacred art by modern Australians was busted open without anything important to Yolngu law being missed, in Stubbs’ words again.
The catalogue also contains an essay by John McDonald, the SMH critic. He raises for me memories of the big Manangrida show in London a couple of years ago when the Turner Prize wining artist (and Times columnist) Grayson Perry set out to prove that neither spirituality nor hidden meaning can actually take Aboriginal artists past the key gate-keeping tests of aesthetic and intellectual complexity which his ‘contemporary-art tribe’ had established. For his work had an authenticity bestowed by connoisseurs in his tribe!

Come and see Gunybi Ganambarr, Mr Perry. And take a look too at young Dhurrumuwuy Marika “ the latest in that prolific family of artists “ who’s turtle-rich sea foam of the Gulf (his fatherland) is rendered with the heady talent typical of the (inland) Gangan stable of artists, where he grew up. Or the elder Boliny Wanambi “ gentler in her colours as befits a lady, but dynamic and meditative in gallery director Bill Gregory’s apposite words.