Senior Gumatj woman artist, Nyapanyapa Yunupingu is the daughter of Munggurrawuy Yunupingu and Bunay Wanambi and the full sister of the late Barrupu Yunupingu. A compulsive maker of multiple gestural marks on any available surface, Nyapanyapa Yunupingu is a major contemporary artist who has transformed popular understanding of Yolngu art. Nyapanyapa has broken free of replicating preordained miny’tji (sacred designs) and ordered sequences of crosshatching that encode meaning. She creates works of intuitive asymmetry, tonal nuance, materiality and gestural freedom that bypass narrative and defy Yolngu precedent.
After working for more than a decade in the print medium, Nyapanyapa made the transition to painting on bark. After having created a series of tiny figurative barks during 2007 to 2008, Nyapanyapa began to compose rhythmical paintings layered with spontaneous lines and textured markings that other Yolngu jokingly described as ‘mayilimiriw’ which translates as ‘meaningless’). Fractured gradations of four colours of crosshatching, seen in the backgrounds of her earliest figurative barks, provided a starting point for Nyapanyapa’s paintings from 2009 to today. She is an artist who is driven to make art on any available surface. During the dry season when stringybark is scarce she relishes the opportunity to draw with felt tipped pen on acetate or to cover the backs of discarded prints to form composite paintings of immense scale. The unexpected movements of her marwat (brush) on stringybark inspired Will Stubbs, Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre Manager, to liken her work to ‘spontaneous zen’, for ‘each brush stroke has no memory of the previous one and no anticipation of the one to come’.
Nyapanyapa’s powerful installation Gäna (Self), 2009–18, is a testament to her intuitive and adventurous approach to painting. Sixteen irregularly shaped barks and nine slender, twisting larrakitj (hollow logs) are organic surfaces from the artist’s Country. The larrakitj, customarily used as bone containers for mourning ceremonies, resonate with this association and yet come alive in a contemporary art space, perpetually changing in accord with the pulse of the artist’s hand. Rather than being meticulously painted with a linear structure of miny’tji, determined by Yolngu clan law, Nyapanyapa applies delicate circles, white striping and contrasting tonality of the hatched underlayer to their curved surfaces. The nine individual sculptures encrusted with white or sepia ochre bend or curve in defiance of mechanical repetition of shape, tonality or motif.
The crooked sheets of bark with uneven surfaces give Nyapanyapa further scope to vary the textured circles, vertical and horizontal lines, stippled hatching and schematic plant forms that oscillate in different tonalities throughout the installation. The barks range from a minimal, all-white stippled composition to representations of the apple orchard where the artist was gored by a buffalo, a terrifying experience that also registers in the circles that recur in her practice. The gestural thrusts of horizontal and vertical lines over a lace-like hatching of markings form strong accents against which the ethereal barks float. These variations in mark-making signify points of transition in the artist’s oeuvre.
Judith Ryan AM, Senior Curator, Indigenous Art, National Gallery of Victoria