Sad news from Yirrkala, where the Buku Larrnggay Art Centre has announced the death of Mrs N Yunpingu, and is closed for Sorry Business.

Last year, the very distinctive artist had the first ever solo exhibition at the Darwin’s Museum and Art Gallery of the NT, and I was asked to write about it for Art Almanac magazine. It’s the most complete tribute I can offer her now:

“This is what spontaneity looks like; I’m afraid artists raised within the industrial system can never unlearn their way to that. The difference is that Nyapanyapa paints without anxiety about outcome”.

Will Stubbs is the award-winning director of the Buku Larrnggay Art Centre at Yirrkala in the far north-east of Arnhemland where Mrs N Yunupingu lives and works. It’s her spontaneity in which (Stubbs again) “every mark (she makes) has no idea what the next mark will be” that has lead the Museum and Art Gallery of the NT (MAGNT) to give her its first ever solo show by an Aboriginal artist.

In explaining this breakthrough, MAGNT’s Curator of Aboriginal Art and Material Culture, Luke Scholes recalls seeing one of Mrs N Yunupingu’s first major works at the 2008 Telstra NATSIA Awards when her bark painting of an episode from her youth in which she was gored by a water buffalo was augmented by a film in which she told this story dramatically: “I couldn’t help thinking both the bark and the film were so revolutionary”. And this was partly because her community’s Yolngu practice demanded that bark painting had to have “some kind of function”. But this was just her personal story.

Despite which, it won an Award! “And since then”, Scholes continues, “ she’s never sat still. Her dramatic visual evolution really deserved being seen in one place to observe the development; she reveals that First Nations artists can evolve just like non-Indigenous artists”. Oddly, the show’s excellent catalogue reveals that her fellow-Yolngu are “bemused by her success. Her paintings don’t communicate anything to Yolngu – only balanda – whitefellars”.

And that’s virtually confirmed by the fact that Sydney gallery maven, Roslyn Oxley also saw the Award-winning bark and film combination, and recognised an “elemental wildness” that saw her adding Mrs N Yunupingu’s name to her star-studded lists and showing her solo ever since.

But from this viewer’s point of view, it was works like the ‘White Paintings’, a suite of barks that was selected for the Second National Gallery Indigenous Triennial that caught the eye. For, as I commented on this website at the time, “She’s set out to create an Abstract Expressionist vision – on that most realistic of media, bark – by scratching a profusion of white lines on to her eucalypt canvas, with just a hint of the old discipline and zing of rarrking. Art Centre Director Will Stubbs has then compounded the picture by entitling her works, ‘White Painting’. Come in Robert Rauschenberg!”.

The actual words Abstract Expressionism don’t get mentioned in the catalogue, though – for Mrs N Yunupingu would have no idea what they might mean. But when Will Stubbs can describe “each mark falling from the mind to the surface unhindered”, many a New York Abstract Expressionist might wish to identify – if only they hadn’t been raised in the industrial system! But Mrs N Yunupingu herself would prefer to identify with the strange word ‘everywhen’, which is emerging as the euphemism rather than Dreamtime for the Indigenous belief in past, present and future all coexisting. It’s certainly the idea behind the exhibition’s title, ‘the moment eternal’.

And why not when Albert Einstein seemed to express the same idea in a letter: “The distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion”!

As with Will Stubbs’s addition of the Rauschenbergian title, ‘White Painting‘ above, his capacity to take advantage of Mrs N Yunupingu’s uniqueness was shown at the 2010 Sydney Biennale in her ‘Light Painting’. When the seasons in Arnhemland deny artists a supply of bark, “an artist who has to make art” (Luke Scholes’s description) finds other materials. In no time, Mrs N Yunupingu had produced 110 sheets of acetate marked with her expressive white lines. What on earth to do with them? Stubbs organised digitisation at the dynamic Mulka Centre in Yirrkala, obtained an algorithm which would select three at a time randomly to overlap, and produced an artwork that was more transfixingly original than anything else in the Biennale that year.

Who is this woman – described in the catalogue as “a near-deaf childless widow”? Yunupingu, of course, is a very familiar name – with Manduwuy and Galarrwuy both related male leaders and bearers of that name. Sisters include Gulumbu and Barrupu, leaders and artists. Their father was Munggurrawuy a huge clan leader with many wives, also one of the painters of the Yirrkala Church Panels and a signatory to the Aboriginal Bark Petition to Parliament when miners threatened his Country. Mrs N Yunupingu was briefly Djiriny’s 13th wife, but was a widow at 22 – helping her sisters bring up their children. She also herded cattle and goats – “an uncomplaining humble subsistence lifestyle”, as Stubbs put it in an American catalogue.

But she was also drawn to make art – initially making “small, imperfect, razor-inscribed softwood carvings of birds”. Linocuts followed – also incised. Then, by 2007, after a period in which “her wacky and boldly coloured screeprints had become a hit,” she turned to bark. And Stubbs suggested her encounter with the buffalo as a subject.

The rest is history – a series of barks and prints featuring wacky, two-legged giant striped creatures with what looked like antennae on their heads – the horns that caused her injury when she was gored as a child. .

But an imperishable memory for me is of her tiny figure sitting inconspicuously on the floor in the darkened room in another Biennale where the Art Gallery of NSW was showing a mighty collection of her bone coffin larrakitj. While viewers marvelled at the effort that must have gone into this production, she appeared quite disassociated from her art. Certainly no John Olsen or Tim Storrier! “She’s disinterested in her work’s reception beyond the studio”, Stubbs explains.