Tolarno Galleries, in partnership with Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre, is delighted to present Yolngu artist Wanapati Yunupingu’s first solo exhibition.
Melbourne, Australia: For his debut solo exhibition with Tolarno Galleries, Yolngu artist Wanapati Yunupingu has transformed an array of found road signs and scrap metal into 24 sculptural works etched freehand with a rotary drill.
Cleverly exploiting the colourways of yellow/black and red/white, Yunupingu has etched over the existing words and symbols a series of sacred designs and narratives relating to his clan, the Gumatj, for whom yellow is a ceremonial hue.
A common feature across all of the works is a lattice-like design of repeating diamonds, which represents gurtha (‘fire’ in Yolngu) and refers to the ancestral story of the “first fire”.
As David Wickens explains in the accompanying catalogue essay:
“[The first fire’s] regenerative sparks continue to birth and rebirth itself – investing its deep knowledge in the land and the sea as it sparks the next generation into life.
“As a member of the Gumatj clan, Wanapati Yunupingu has been nurtured at the hearth of this fire. His father passed down the sacred knowledge of its ceremonial power and visual representation – a legacy treasured by all Yolngu leaders.”
Yunupingu has utilised this dynamic and flexible design to create a series of visually arresting patterns indicative of gurtha, and to delineate the forms of animals, objects and sites the Gumatj hold to be sacred and of special significance.
These include bäru (crocodile), birimbira (lightning snake), wan’kurra (golden bandicoot), wurmarri, gawanalkmirri or gapirri (stingray), ganiny (digging stick) and gulun (billabong).
In so doing, Yunupingu has literally erased from the ubiquitous Western road sign those visual elements he doesn’t need, coopting the rest into a Gumatj worldview with the aid of a highly demanding technique that requires equal parts dexterity, precision and patience.
The exhibition also includes the artist’s second larrakitj, or memorial pole, comprising earth pigments on hollow stringybark. Etching clan designs into the bark with the same rotary drill he uses on metal, Yunupingu seamlessly fuses tradition with innovation to propose new ways of sharing cultural knowledge.
Yunupingu lives in the remote Gumatj homeland of Biranybirany, Northeast Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, a coastal community three hours by road from Yirrkala. He is the son of deceased artist and spiritual leader Miniyawany Yunupingu from whom he inherited rich ceremonial instruction.
Yunupinu was also trained in the art, Law and cultural practices of his clan, Gumatj, and related clans while living between the homeland communities of Waṉḏawuy (his mother’s clan land) and Biranybirany.
The artist only began etching designs onto found metal in 2020, yet
his works are already in the collections of the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of NSW. In fact, two of Yunupingu’s etched metal works are currently on display as part of the inaugural hang of the new Yiribana Gallery in the latter’s SANAA-designed North Building.
Yunupingu is among a number of Yolngu artists who have gravitated towards found road signs and scrap metal as supports on which to etch designs, following in the radical footsteps of senior Yolngu artist Gunybi Ganambarr.
Ganambarr, who is 15 years older than Yunupingu, has been a mentor to the younger artist, and both were included in the 2021 group exhibition Murrniny: A Story of Metal from the East at the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art and Salon Art Projects in Darwin.
Image: Gurtha 2022, mixed media 77 ×53 cm