The eldest of her six sons, Witiyana Marika, posted a message on social media earlier this week: “This day is the saddest day of my family’s life. The mother of the Rirratjiŋu nation has passed away. She was the only one. The mother of our Rirratjiŋu nation”.
Mrs D Yunupingu had a meteoric art career that began only in December 2019 when she moved on from motherhood, healing and weaving to painting mermaids! Not a traditional subject matter for the Yolŋu artists of far eastern Arnhemland, but not unrelated to her late sister, Nyapanyapa Yunupingu’s art, for she also began a wonderful art career by telling us the biographical story of the water buffalo that had gored her as a child.
Here’s Mrs D Yunupingu quoted in the 2021 Tarnanthi Festival exhibition catalogue, explaining the mermaids:
“At the time I was conceived in my mother’s belly and my spirit was the Mermaid, white-skinned from the ocean and with scales, my father (tried to) spear my spirit being. It shows here on my leg – this black marking. Speared me thinking I was a big fish. The fish dived deeper in a cave underneath the sea and there was lots and lots of blood. My father felt sorry for that fish. He cupped a handful and smelt that it was human blood. He came home empty handed, fell asleep and dreamt…..
“Father, why did you try to spear me? It was I not a fish”.
“Are you my precious?”, he asked.
He woke up and saw my mother preparing yams, and asked her, “I just had a dream – are you with child?”.
“Yes, I am with child”, my mother said. And so it was this time when they all boarded two canoes, with all my mothers, and headed for Yirrkala”.
I’m not quite sure, but Mrs D Yunupingu may have been born en route at Inglis Island in June 1945, just after the War had departed northern Australia. But she waited 74 years before feeling free to express her mermaidness on bark, often using the delicate colours of discarded print cartridges rather than traditional ochres. By April 2021, she had presented her first-ever solo exhibition, ‘I am a Mermaid‘ at the Alcaston Gallery in Melbourne, and it was a sellout.
That year and this, she’s been a finalist in the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA) in Darwin, and became the second Indigenous artist to be selected with a portrait on bark – ‘Me and My Sisters’ – for the Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. She said of the painting: “We sisters are like stars. We don’t want to lose each other. And that’s why we are called stars. Because we are one. We share our love with our kids and bring them together. We are not separate. This is how family life goes on in Yolŋu way, Yolŋu culture, in Yolŋu attitude, Yolŋu everything”.
2021 was a huge year for her as she was also featured in ‘Bark Ladies: Eleven Artists from Yirrkala‘ at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.
As the daughter of the mighty Mungurrawuy Yunupingu and the widow of community leader Roy Marika, she had a passion for the Yolŋu community, often demonstrated in her love of language. She also learnt weaving from her mother and adored singing from the age of 6 when she joined the local Methodist Choir. Later, her sister Gulumbu would translate the hymns into Yolŋu Matha, and that became her preferred singing language. With her brother Mandawuy as the lead singer of Yothu Yindi and her grandson, Gurrumul, there was plenty of music in the family.