Mr Wanambi, a Yolngu cultural leader from north-east Arnhem Land and an internationally-renowned artist, died this week at the tragically early age of 59. Will Stubbs, the coordinator of the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre and a close friend of the artist for more than 30 years, said Wanambi had been experiencing major health issues, and was in Darwin for treatment, but his death was sudden and unexpected.
A leader of Marrakulu/Dhurili people, Mr Wanambi lived and worked in Yirrkala, the centre for Yolngu art in north-east Arnhemland.
Mr Wanambi’s artwork ‘Bamurruŋu‘ won the Bark Painting Award at the 1998 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAAs). His work, based on Larrakitj in their natural form rather than smoothing down their trunks, is thought to have been among the first of its kind. His larrakitj and barks invariably carried myriads of fish – a local form of mullet.
In a 2016 solo exhibition in Singapore, he explained, “The fish swim up to Bamurrungu, a solitary rock in Trial Bay, where they’re referred to as Marparrarr or milk fish. These were once people of the stone country behind where we have now settled, close to the mouth of the Gurka’wuy River. They turned to Marparrarr on reaching the shore and following the feathered string to Bamurrungu. It stands in the mouth of Trial Bay submerged either completely or partially within its waters. The waters of Gurka’wuy River flow out through Trial Bay past these rocks conflicting and clashing in a turbulent unity with the incoming tidal waters from the deep ocean”.
Fish are never just fish in Yolngu mythology.
And painted fish don’t have to be static. As Joseph Brady, Mulka’s program and technical director explained, “He started taking his fish which he paints out at his ancestral homeland and came up with ways to bring these fish to life”. In 2018, Mr Wanambi won the Wandjuk Marika Memorial 3D Award at the NATSIAAs for his work ‘Destiny‘, an installation of Larrikitj and video projection of the Marparrarr circling his larrikitj. And at the 2019 Tarnanthi Festival in Adelaide, he ended up creating a work that people could walk through and scatter his fish. “And if you stayed still, you would become like his Larrakitj and the fish would swim around you,” Brady remembered.
“With a strong background in film-making, Mr Wanambi harnessed these techniques with archival material to create groundbreaking digital works. He was a visionary. He was doing things in Indigenous art that nobody had done in that field. But also, as a contemporary artist, he was doing things that nobody in the world had done”, Brady concluded.
Back in 2007, Mr Wanambi had been prominent in founding The Mulka Project — a collection of multimedia artists establishing a Yolngu cultural knowledge centre — and was the project’s long-time cultural director at the time of his death.
More recently, Mr Wanambi was part of Australia’s first NFT (non-fungible token) fine art group. Fellow NFT artist, Ishmael Marika, also the Mulka Project’s creative director, spent several years visiting museums and galleries across Australia with Mr Wanambi, collecting thousands of archival photographs and film footage for the Mulka Project. “He was our cultural adviser, he was always the one that would talk to the families, and make sure that we did not get into trouble,” he said.
“As an Indigenous person living a ceremonial life that faces many obstacles,” Stubbs explained, “it was a constant challenge to maintain spiritual health. But he would confront these challenges with kindness and compassion . In the 30 years I have known him, I have never seen him display any anger, despite provocation that came his way”.
Mr Wanambi’s work is in permanent collections across the world, including France’s Musee de Lyon, Germany’s Museum Fünf Kontinente and Museum Kunstwerk, Switzerland’s Fondation Opale, the National Gallery of Australia, Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art and the Holmes a Court Collection. The artist’s ‘Wukiḏi‘ installation, which sits in the foyer of the NT supreme court, commemorates the suspected police murder of Wanambi’s ancestor Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda, the first Indigenous person to have his case heard in the colonials’ legal system.
With Djambawa Marawili, Mr Wanambi had been curating the first major survey of Aboriginal bark paintings to, tour across America. ‘Maḏayin‘, made in a collaboration between Buku Larrnggay and the Kluge/Ruhe Museum in Virginia, will begin its touring in September.
Just a reminder, we have also lost a master painter from the Desert, Kumanjayi JJ Tjapaltjarri, whose last work was selected for the Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW, as I reported last Friday.