AT’s Quentin Long has recently returned from a weeklong journey through the Top End, taking in the works of Indigenous artists at remote communities. Here he shares just a small part of his experience in the far northeast of Arnhem Land.
“There is no word in Yolngu for thankyou. It’s not necessary because if I ask, you must give. It’s how we survive,” says Will Stubbs, who, among other things, is the co-ordinator at Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre at Yirrkala in northeast Arnhem Land. He’s in the middle of a two-hour monologue that is melting my mind. The intensity of information about a culture so removed from mine is turning my synapses to mush. It is impossible to absorb all the concepts. This one I didn’t miss. Or the way he talks of the culture both as an insider and outsider. The duality is understandable.
Will has been in the Yirrkala community for 15 years – he married a local Yolngu woman – now he is the single best person to interpret the cultural context of the art. It still stretches my melon to breaking point and it’s only midday.
“Fire can irrevocably scar and change the land. Black Saturday scarred that land and it is self-evident in it, if you can see it. People who are from fire cannot be trifled with because fire strips away all. Fire is like anger. When it burns out of control it can be damaging. Just like anger.”
Will takes me to the top gallery of Yirrkala, a mall room of about 25m2, where the work is given more space and appreciation is easier. One of Yirrkala’s most exciting emerging talents is Gunybi Ganambarr. Gunybi is being fêted by many as a leader and future master (if he isn’t one already). “He kills me,” Will says. “I think he gets such a kick out of making me nervous that it drives him to constantly innovate.”
His latest tactic to drive Will to the edge of nervous distraction is to coat a PVC pipe in the wood shavings from a carving to recreate a hollow log. Then he works the intricate designs and motifs of the ceremonial poles. It’s a kind of prank for Gunybi.
Next to Gunybi’s non-PVC poles are works with red and black diamond-like motifs. The works are beautiful and, with Will’s commentary, become mesmerising. “Fire can irrevocably scar and change the land. Black Saturday scarred that land and it is self-evident in it, if you can see it. People who are from fire cannot be trifled with because fire strips away all. Fire is like anger. When it burns out of control it can be damaging. Just like anger.”
I liked the work when I first saw it. With this insight from Will, I now love it.
The artist, who happens to be Barrupu Yunupingu, sister of Mandawuy Yunupingu, lead singer of Yothu Yindi, is doing her work outside the gallery, sitting in the space between the buildings. She largely ignores me as I sit watching the rhythmic strokes as she applies more fire to the crocodile skin. It’s comforting to me. I’m not sure she cares.
Will continues to describe the nature of the piece. Fire is also a comforting domestic hearth. Fire is also transformational. After a human body is burnt the limbs are shorter and come to resemble the crocodile. Hence the moiety fire is connected to the crocodile. And the work looks like fingers of fire reaching into the sky and crocodile skin at the same time. At this point my brain explodes . . .
And there will be more from Quentin’s extraordinary voyage to exclusive Indigenous art tours in the June/July issue of Australian Traveller magazine, on sale May 26. Subscribe now to pre-order your copy.