Among the myriad folk who orbit remote Aboriginal art centres:
Jeremy Cloake is a New Zealander of Maori/Irish heritage. He’s also an expert on playing the yidaki, the Yolgnu name for didgeridoo. He spends months every year at Yirrkala, working in the art centre in diverse roles.
Dallas Gold was a chef before he studied art. He’s met collectors who are ‘hooked on Aboriginal art’. As a dealer, he shares their passion, ‘pushing art’ to the outside world. His gallery, RAFT, showcases difference.
Joseph Brady is a multi-media artist from Melbourne. Now he and his family live in the remote Aboriginal community at Yirrkala, where he is the program director at the Mulka Project, the museum and digital production part of the art centre. Joseph makes audio and visual recordings of Yolngu ceremonies, or Bungul, such as initiations and funerals. The recordings are archived to preserve culture, but they are also popular viewing with family members: “The drama and highlights of ceremony are well worth re-visiting… the same way you might re-watch a wedding video.”
The ‘mintji’ or traditional cross-hatching the Yolgnu 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 Yolgnu’s connection to country over 60,000 years. Within three decades of the arrival of white colonists in 1935, the Yolgnu 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 Yolgnu 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 Yolgnu 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 Yolgnu ‘deposit’ as the detritus of the ceremonial and spiritual practice that infuses the pure art that is their life.
Luckily, it sells.