The ‘mintji’ or traditional cross-hatching the Yolngu paint with ochres on barks, hollow logs and other artefacts is mesmerisingly beautiful. It also radiates power. It encodes sacred knowledge about the land and sea and documents the Yolngu’s connection to country over 60,000 years. Within three decades of the arrival of white colonists in 1935, the Yolngu had used their art for political gains. They revisited the tactic in the courts, winning crucial land and maritime rights.
In this episode, anthropologist Howard Morphy, who has lived among the Yolngu for over 40 years, and Will Stubbs, veteran manager of the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre, trace the ways art, law and politics are inextricably linked.
Garawan Wanambi’s rosy-hued paintings are made with the ochre, or ‘gapan’ of the land itself – they channel his deep relationship to country. Gunybi Ganambarr, a co-caretaker of Yolngu country around Gangan, NT, uses found materials such as PVC piping as well as traditional media such as hollow logs to create diverse and beautiful art. Yinimala Gumana, ranger and artist, is the former chair of the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre. These three artists take us to the site of a terrible massacre of their people in 1911 – and beyond it, to the art and heart of Yolngu culture today. Though it can cost around $600 to get a ‘bush taxi’ to convey their art to Yirrkala, they will not forgo living on country and upholding its rituals – an option derided as a ‘lifestyle choice’ by one former Australian prime minister.
Will Stubbs was a criminal lawyer from Sydney doing Aboriginal Legal Aid, when he ‘got sung by a Yolngu chick’ from Yirrkala, in North-East Arnhem Land. Their teenage daughter now negotiates the two worlds that, as manager of the Buku-Larrnggay art centre, Will has bridged for over twenty years. He sees himself as a ‘dung beetle’, who picks up the shimmering art the Yolngu ‘deposit’ as the detritus of the ceremonial and spiritual practice that infuses the pure art that is their life.
Luckily, it sells.
NEWSFLASH – this episode won a GOLD award at the New York Radio Festival 2019 in the Culture and Arts Category.
Heart of Artness is a radio documentary and podcast project based on oral history interviews recorded by Siobhan McHugh with Aboriginal artists, art centre staff, volunteers, activists, curators, critics, wheelers and dealers. It examines cross-cultural influences and relationships at three Aboriginal art organisations: Warlukurlangu Art Centre in Yuendemu, NT (approx. 280 km north-west of Alice Springs), Buku-Larranggay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala, NE Arnhem Land (approx. 700km east of Darwin) and proppaNOW, an artists’ collective in Brisbane.
This series is devised and produced by Siobhan McHugh, Associate Professor in Journalism at the University of Wollongong, in association with art historian Ian McLean, Hugh Ramsay Chair of Contemporary Art at the University of Melbourne, and Margo Neale, Senior Indigenous Curator at the National Museum of Australia and Adjunct Professor at the Australian National University. ‘Heart of Artness’ derives from a University of Wollongong research project led by Professor Ian McLean and funded by the Australian Research Council. The core oral history collection is proposed for archiving at the National Library of Australia.
CREDITS: The documentary entitled The Conquistador, the Warlpiri and the Dog Whisperer, was produced for Earshot on ABC Radio National and first broadcast on 14 May 2018. Technical production was by Russell Stapleton and the Executive Producer was Claudia Taranto. The associated podcast series was technically produced by Joshua Craig, Guy Freer and Jason Martin. Production assistance was by Grace Stranger, Chantelle Mayo and Claudia Popowski. Interview transcripts by Quentin Sprague and Lucy Dean.