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14 May 21

Can we all have a happy life?


The colour blue is dominant in the work of Yolŋu artist Dhambit Munuŋggurr, who first discovered the hue in 2005, when she was left wheelchair bound after a car accident. Her installation for the NGV Triennial Can we all have a happy life?, 2019–20, is generously supported by Orloff Family Charitable Trust.

Perhaps more so than any other colour, blue has fascinated artists, giving it a unique place in the art world. In all human material culture the colour blue is loaded with meaning. During the Renaissance in Italy, painters coveted lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone traded to Europe from Siberia, China, Tibet, Iran and Afghanistan. So desirable and so rare was the blue pigment that many painters reserved it for only the most sacred of subjects – the robes of the Virgin Mary.

In the natural world, the colour blue is relatively rare. There are notable exceptions; for example, across south-eastern Australia where I come from, superb adult male fairy wrens use their brilliant blue plumage to attract females, and male satin bowerbirds build elaborate structures that they then decorate with collections of blue objects as a way to attract their mate. And yet despite being relatively rare in living nature, the two largest expanses of colour visible to the human eye – the ocean and the sky – are both blue.

Great master painters have long pushed the boundaries of both customary and contemporary art and Yolngu art is similarly driven by both tradition and innovation. When it comes to Yolngu art at Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre (Buku), it is customary that artists who paint Country and the stories it holds use materials collected from Country. Buku is located in Yirrkala, a small Aboriginal community in North East Arnhem Land. Here, over-whelmingly artists gather ochres and other pigments drawn from the land that are then processed, mixed with a synthetic fixative and applied with a marwat (human hair brush) to single sheets of stringybark (Eucalyptus tetrodonta). The landscape where Dhambit comes from is a mixture of vivid red earth, stained from bauxite, crystal clear blue waters of the coast, and deep greens found within the mangroves and along the escarpment country.

In many ways, Dhambit Munuŋggurr’s journey towards discovering the colour blue began in 2005, when she was left wheelchair bound after a car accident. Through a combination of traditional Yolngu healing and Western medicine, Munuŋggurr’s condition has slowly improved, and her passion for painting has continued to grow. The car accident left Munuŋggurr with limited mobility, forcing her to paint with her non-preferred hand, and Munuŋggurr was given special permission to paint with store-bought acrylic paint, which she finds easier to manipulate. In 2019, Munuŋggurr replaced the palette of black, red ochre, yellow ochre and green acrylic that she had been using on smaller-scale barks and larrakitj with the colour blue on barks of increasing scale, thereby transforming Yolngu art. When asked in 2020 why she chose blue, Dhambit replied ‘because the earth is blue, and the sky is blue, and the sea is blue’.

Dhambit Munuŋggurr’s paintings offer a window into a world made up of her memories. These blueprints of Yolngu knowledge represent the artist’s singular vision and aesthetic, by telling contemporary stories of culture, history and the future. Each of Munuŋggurr’s works is imbued with the artist’s deep knowledge of Yolngu law, learnt from both her father and her mother. There is a spontaneous, gestural energy that gains texture from the irregular surface of the stringybark. Through the support of Orloff Family Charitable Trust, for her installation as part of the NGV Triennial, Munuŋggurr has produced fifteen large-scale bark paintings and nine larrakitj (hollow poles), which coalesce as a singular installation poetically titled Can we all have a happy life?, 2019–20. There is immense joy and happiness in Munuggurr’s work, and the title reflects her extraordinarily positive outlook on life.

Each individual work tells a story embedded in Yolngu narrative that has been transformed by the introduction of Mununggurr’s unique visual language. Through the installation, we gain insight into the mind and memories of one of Buku’s most daring artists. Can we all have a happy life?, 2019–20, is a testament to the power of art to transform that which is customary, reinforcing how Indigenous art is an ever-evolving continuum of creative expression.

This piece was originally commissioned for and published in NGV Magazine Issue 27 Mar–Apr 2021.