Jeremy Eccles | 12.08.09

“My art is a story about the universe – about the stars”, says Gulumbu Yunupingu artlessly. The eldest member of the important Yunupingu clan, on whose land in the far North East corner of Arnhemland the annual Garma Festival has been held for the past 10 years, is both artless and wise – and the hottest of the Yolgnu artists in this Festival’s Gapan Gallery – her print showing the universe sold out its edition of 30 within minutes of the ceremonial opening.

Gulumbu’s usual contribution to Garma is to run the Dilthan Yolgnunha healing sessions in which women can receive traditional herbs, baths and succour for their ills. This year a beneficiary was Desert woman, Daisy Ward whose great need was created by the death of her artist brother in back of a West Australian police van 18 months ago – so far unreconciled.

But this year the topic of the Key Forum – a three-day gathering of the many indigenous worlds to talk through a key issue – was the potential for ‘The Indigenous Creative Industries’. And Gulumbu was keen to have her say along with many local and national Aboriginal artists, politicians and facilitators, academics and the odd journalist.

Much was said – but Gulumbu’s contribution was such a simple summation, I’ll leave most of the words to her:

“I do one up line and one across. And it means people – us, people on the Earth. I use four colours of ochre – the four colours of the people on the land…Yolgnu, white, yellow, whatever.

And in that painting I talk about the link between the land, the sea, the sky and the people. But I don’t count those colours, just think about the people and the land – the land we look after while we live – and our spirit in the sky when we die.

When we look up in the nighttime, we see how beautiful the stars are. And the stars look down on the people, the land, the environment, the animals in the rainforest.

I was chosen by my Yolgnu leaders to look after the ladies. We women are special – we bring children into the world, we bring healing, we help people to be one – one blood, linking nations and races.

People should listen to my paintings – dig in, they’re full of stories such as The Seven Sisters, who got a canoe – just one – to paddle, to gather, all together, for women all over the world. There are two canoes in the sky – the other is for brothers, following their sisters.

That is important (and open to many wonderful interpretations!).

And the paintings I do of such stories on stringy-bark and larrikitj (poles) go every year to Darwin (for the Telstra prize – which Gulumbu has won twice). Maybe I win or lose this year. But it’s more important that those paintings go all around the world – they’re for you. My present for Paris (where Gulumbu’s art features in the Musee du quai Branly) is for the people of Paris, not just my family or myself; a bridge from Australia to Paris.

It’s a link from the land to the people through my art”.

Those same links were also emphasized in Gulumbu’s brother Mandawuy Yunupingu’s speech. The man who sprang to fame with the band, Yothu Yindi - and the Garma Festival is organized by the Yothu Yindi Foundation – is also a local cultural leader of the Yolgnu, who welcomed us to our deliberations by saying:

“Our past is what makes us tick. We must dig out the Yolgnu experience from the past to pass on to Australia today. And song, dance the painting is the vehicle for us to do that”.

What better way of underling the essential links between land and culture than that use of the word ‘dig’ by both Yunupingu siblings to describe the relationship.

For a key factor that had brought senior artists to Garma from all over the North – the 86 year old Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek, Freddy Timms, Richard Jambawuy, Gawirrin Gumana and Djambawa Marawili; and from the Desert – Rosalie Kunoth-Monks and Sammy Lyons, was their fear that government policy to fund only a limited number of townships will drive them from the country that is absolutely essential for their art – their remote homelands.

Hopefully the Environment and the Arts Minister Peter Garrett went away from this year’s Garma Festival realizing that his oddly conjuncted Department is actually an indigenous concept; and it’s worth fighting for!

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