Barrupu Yunupingu Gurtha (Ancestral fire)


In 2017, the NGV acquired eight works by the late Barrupu Yunupingu, which represent different conceptualisations of the Gumatj Fire Dreaming, sacred to her identity. Rather than working in ordered sequences of meticulous crosshatching according to the Yolngu bark painting tradition, Barrupu painted with spontaneous energy, constantly varying the ochres and the visual music of each design. The artist’s freedom of gesture is exemplified by these paintings of materiality, spirit and modernity.

Renowned as the ‘fire lady’, Barrupu Yunupingu was a daughter of Gumatj patriarch, Munggurrawuy, the leader of a distinguished lineage and master of the diamond miny’tji (sacred design) that signifies gurtha (ancestral fire). Barrupu’s siblings included Australians of the Year, Galarrwuy and Mandawuy and stellar artists, Gulumbu and Nyapanyapa, yet she was never overshadowed, developing a unique painterly way of representing the Fire Dreaming sacred to the Gumatj people. Barrupu worked for a decade in the print medium before she determined to paint on bark in 2007, being further inspired by the success her full sister, Nyapanyapa, achieved in the 2008 Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards.

From 2008 Barrupu painted almost daily with her sister in the courtyard at the Buku Larrnggay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala, the same place where she had worked as a nurse from 1960−75. Her subsequent paintings of gurtha follow the subject matter and rich ochre palette of her father, but with a twist. Barrupu focused on painting the unruly essence of fire – using diamonds of irregular scale, tonality and density seen in close up – and choosing not to include the figurative elements that often illuminate Mungurrawuy’s beautifully structured works. Barrupu constantly varied the rhythm and timbre of her animated compositions of multiple diamonds, beginning with bold yellow and red verticals, modulating to horizontal cross currents, and subsequently darkening the palette as represented in Gurtha (Ancestral fire), 2010. This monumental work suggests that fire brought to Madarrpa Country by Bäru, the ancestral crocodile, ravaged the land and left only ash, charcoal and embers. In this narrative, white smoke, ash and black charcoal pulsate through the bark, as an enduring memory of the cataclysmic fire that raged out of control on the Gumatj ceremonial ground at Ngalarrwuy and spreading to other sacred sites.

The diamond patterning of Barrupu’s work is anything but abstract; it is a vital and indelible expression of the artist’s identity in the land. It represents fire: the red flames, the white smoke and ash, the black charcoal and the yellow dust. Yirritja moiety clans owning connected parts of the Fire Dreaming share variations of the diamond design that also encodes other levels of meaning. These include guku (bush honey) from the hollow Stringybark tree; the skin, blood, fat and bones of a Gumatj person; and the mud and weeds of a billabong, a home of Bäru, the crocodile, who metamorphosed into fire. Barrupu stares into the heart of the fire, thereby stressing its paramount importance to the Gumatj people. It is said that the Gumatj language, Dhuwalandja, is itself the tongue of flame, which incinerates dishonesty, leaving only the bones of truth.

Judith Ryan AM, Senior Curator, Indigenous Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2017)