Margaret Rarru: 'black is beautiful' by Jess Booth

Margaret Rarru’s Bathi Mul (black dilly bags) on the beach of Milingimbi Island. Photo: Milingimbi Art and Culture.

Margaret Rarru’s Bathi Mul (black dilly bags) on the beach of Milingimbi Island. Photo: Milingimbi Art and Culture.

Margaret Rarru Garrawurra – or Rarru, as she’s known around her home of Milingimbi – reckons she was “a good sized yothu (kid / teenager)” when she first started to weave. Rarru sat down with her Ngama (Mother) and Mukul (aunties) and learnt to make the bathi (dilly bags) that generations of women have produced across Arnhem Land. At the time Rarru was living at the mission on Elcho Island, and was also taught coil basketry by the balanda (white) ladies there. Throughout her career, Rarru has effortlessly incorporated both these techniques into her practice.

Margaret Rarru. Photo: Milingimbi Art and Culture.

Margaret Rarru. Photo: Milingimbi Art and Culture.

These days Rarru lives between Langarra (Howard Island) and Yurrwi (Milingimbi Island), around 400 kilometres east of Darwin. As well as being a masterful weaver, Rarru is also an acclaimed painter. In 2007 she was awarded the bark painting prize at the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, and a number of her paintings are held in the collections of the National Gallery of Victoria and the Queensland Art Gallery.

Rarru is famous in some circles for her Madonna Bra and Madonna Bag series, inspired by Madonna’s 1980s video clips. Photo: Milingimbi Art and Culture.

Rarru is famous in some circles for her Madonna Bra and Madonna Bag series, inspired by Madonna’s 1980s video clips. Photo: Milingimbi Art and Culture.

When Rarru isn’t weaving she’s collecting gunga (pandanus) and balgurr (bark for making string). The gunga is stripped of its prickly edges, peeled in half, dried in the sun and dyed in a pot over a fire with roots, leaves or other natural materials, depending on the colour being created. Once dyed the gunga is dried again before it is ready to be woven. When dyed black, the gunga has a beautiful, warm charcoal tone, which is characteristic of Rarru’s incredible bathi mul (black dilly bags).

A Yothu Bathi (baby basket) by Margaret Rarru. Photo: Milingimbi Art and Culture.

A Yothu Bathi (baby basket) by Margaret Rarru. Photo: Milingimbi Art and Culture.

Rarru has gained international recognition for her bathi mul, created with this natural dyed black gunga. These works “exemplify Rarru's outstanding understanding of form”, says Rosita Holmes, Studio Coordinator at Milingimbi Art and Culture. The bathi mul demonstrate Rarru’s sophisticated and somewhat minimalist design aesthetic, whilst being contemporary manifestations of an enduring weaving practice. Rarru says she loves making bathi mul because “black is beautiful”. We couldn’t agree more.

Robin Galitjbirr and Sonya Djndjarrngu modelling Rarru’s incredible Madonna Bras and Bags! Photo: Milingimbi Art and Culture.

Robin Galitjbirr and Sonya Djndjarrngu modelling Rarru’s incredible Madonna Bras and Bags! Photo: Milingimbi Art and Culture.

Thanks to Rosita Holmes, Chris Durkin and Helen Milminydjarrk for their assistance with this piece.

Margaret Rarru is busy! She is currently exhibiting as part of Walma / Moon Rise at Koskela Gallery, Sydney (29 July – 27 August 2017), will be Milingimbi Art and Culture’s feature artist at this year’s Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair (11-13 August 2017) and has work in upcoming exhibitions at the Embassy of Australia, Washington DC, USA, Wooloongabba Art Gallery, Queensland and the University of NSW Gallery, Sydney.

This post first appeared on The Design Files on 3 August 2017.

On left: Puna Yanima, Antara, ink on paper, 152 x 135cm, courtesy Mimili Maku Arts. (Bathi L-R): Margaret Rarru, Bathi mul, pandanus fibre, bush string and natural dyes, 34 x 21cm; Helen Ganalmirriwuy, Bathi mul, pandanus fibre, bush string and natural dyes, 29 x 17cm; Margaret Rarru, Bathi mul, pandanus fibre, bush string and natural dyes, 30 x 17cm. All works courtesy Milingimbi Art and Culture. Photo: Koskela.

On left: Puna Yanima, Antara, ink on paper, 152 x 135cm, courtesy Mimili Maku Arts. (Bathi L-R): Margaret Rarru, Bathi mul, pandanus fibre, bush string and natural dyes, 34 x 21cm; Helen Ganalmirriwuy, Bathi mul, pandanus fibre, bush string and natural dyes, 29 x 17cm; Margaret Rarru, Bathi mul, pandanus fibre, bush string and natural dyes, 30 x 17cm. All works courtesy Milingimbi Art and Culture. Photo: Koskela.

In profile: Kade McDonald of Hanging Valley by Willie Weston

[L-R] Wukun Wanambi, Kade McDonald and Yinimala Gumana. Image courtesy Amelia Stanwix.

[L-R] Wukun Wanambi, Kade McDonald and Yinimala Gumana. Image courtesy Amelia Stanwix.

Kade McDonald recently returned to Melbourne after nearly six years living and working in Yirrkala, north-east Arnhem Land, where he was coordinator at renowned Indigenous art centre Buku-Larrnggay Mulka. His experiences in the NT gave him an incredible insight into the diversity and vibrancy of contemporary Indigenous art practice. He arrived home galvanised to create a new platform to explore both Indigenous and non-Indigenous contemporary art – “something that would make some noise within the industry”.

Installation view of Sonia Kurarra solo exhibition at No Vacancy, Melbourne, 2016. Image courtesy Hanging Valley, Melbourne.

Installation view of Sonia Kurarra solo exhibition at No Vacancy, Melbourne, 2016. Image courtesy Hanging Valley, Melbourne.

Before taking a leap of faith and moving his partner and two kids, Iggy and Sailor, to a remote community at the top of Australia, Kade ran his own cafe in Northcote, Palomino, and was a partner in Joe’s Shoe Store, also in Northcote, and Piano Piano in Brunswick East. An “odd transition”, as he puts it, but in his earlier days Kade was a founding Director of artist-run initiative Bus Projects, so his curatorial roots run deep.

Works by Wukun Wanambi, Nawurapu Wunungmurra and Sonia Kurarra. Image courtesy Amelia Stanwix.

Works by Wukun Wanambi, Nawurapu Wunungmurra and Sonia Kurarra. Image courtesy Amelia Stanwix.

Fast forward to now, and Kade is the man behind Hanging Valley, a nimble, multi-faceted art incubator and consultancy with no fixed address and a remit to present the work of diverse practitioners in varied formats to “an audience starving for access to great works”.

Kade McDonald with works by [back] Nyarapayi Giles, Sonia Kurarra and [front] Rammey Ramsey and Mabel Juli. Image courtesy Amelia Stanwix.

Kade McDonald with works by [back] Nyarapayi Giles, Sonia Kurarra and [front] Rammey Ramsey and Mabel Juli. Image courtesy Amelia Stanwix.

Selection of unstretched artworks. Image courtesy Amelia Stanwix.

Selection of unstretched artworks. Image courtesy Amelia Stanwix.

“I’m interested in the presentation of good contemporary art regardless of its origins. I wanted to re-connect with my Bus colleagues and with the people and art I had grown to know and appreciate in my time working with communities… I’m really enjoying being that conduit.”

Selection of works from the Hanging Valley stockroom. Image courtesy Amelia Stanwix.

Selection of works from the Hanging Valley stockroom. Image courtesy Amelia Stanwix.

Hanging Valley offers Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists “a unique spread…not only commercial shows but also skills development and major partnerships with institutions across the globe”. It operates as a pop up of sorts – Kade prefers “finding a space to suit the show and the artist and…the viewer experiencing a new location and discovery for every show”. So far he has presented shows at No Vacancy and Chapman & Bailey (Melbourne), Praxis Artspace (Adelaide) and RAFT South (Hobart).

Installation view of Wukun Wanambi's 'Trial Bay' 2016, natural ochre on hollow Eucalyptus Tetradonta. Image courtesy Hanging Valley, Melbourne.

Installation view of Wukun Wanambi's 'Trial Bay' 2016, natural ochre on hollow Eucalyptus Tetradonta. Image courtesy Hanging Valley, Melbourne.

Installation view of Middle Distance, curated by Kade McDonald and Marie Falcinella, praxis ARTSPACE, Adelaide, 2015. Image courtesy Hanging Valley, Melbourne.

Installation view of Middle Distance, curated by Kade McDonald and Marie Falcinella, praxis ARTSPACE, Adelaide, 2015. Image courtesy Hanging Valley, Melbourne.

Kade had a very full calendar in 2016 – “possibly too full” – so this year he’s focusing on producing fewer, more significant shows. He’s just returned from the USA with Wukun Wanambi and Yinimala Gumana, two talented curators and artists from Yirrkala. Together they are embarking upon a “monumental touring exhibition” showcasing seven decades of Yirrkala bark painting, in collaboration with the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia. Kade, Wukun and Yinimala spent a month researching the collections of The Smithsonian (Washington DC) and the American Museum of Natural History (New York), assessing and selecting works dating back to the 1940s. “The project, titled Madayin, will consume a huge part of my life for the next few years!” Madayin will tour the USA from 2020.

Wukun Wanambi and Yinimala Gumana, two talented curators and artists from Yirrkala. Image courtesy Amelia Stanwix.

Wukun Wanambi and Yinimala Gumana, two talented curators and artists from Yirrkala. Image courtesy Amelia Stanwix.

Wukun Wanambi. Image courtesy Amelia Stanwix.

Wukun Wanambi. Image courtesy Amelia Stanwix.

Look out for upcoming Hanging Valley ventures – Kade has few on the boil in the US and NZ and is working on a residency / exchange project with Durrmu Arts in Peppimenarti, NT. Hanging Valley is certainly one to watch.

This post first appeared on The Design Files on 15 June 2017.

Installation view of Sonia Kurarra solo exhibition at No Vacancy, Melbourne, 2016. Image courtesy Hanging Valley, Melbourne.

Installation view of Sonia Kurarra solo exhibition at No Vacancy, Melbourne, 2016. Image courtesy Hanging Valley, Melbourne.

The Ampilatwatja Collection in Garland magazine by Willie Weston

This article came about through a serendipitous meeting between the author Michelle Montgomery and Jess and Laetitia of Willie Weston. Over the summer of 2016-17 Willie Weston exhibited as part of At Home: Modern Australian Design at Old Government House in Sydney, NSW. At Home was curated by ex-Editor in Chief of Vogue Living, David Clark, and juxtaposed the Georgian interiors of Old Government House with pieces of contemporary Australian design spanning furniture, objects and textiles. Wille Weston was honoured to be included in the textiles display - two designs from the Ampilatwatja Collection, Sugarbag Dreaming in 'Desert Rose' and Singing Bush Medicine 'High Noon' were exhibited alongside the work of Australia's most creative boutique textile houses.

At the opening, Jess and Laetitia met Michelle, who has a longstanding interest and background in art history and textile design. Discussion around the beauty, provenance and cultural integrity of the designs led to Michelle proposing an article about the two designs for Garland magazine. We are very pleased to be able to share Michelle's piece here on The Landscape.

This article first appeared in Issue 6 of Garland magazine.

Rosie Ngwarraye Ross’ Sugarbag Dreaming in ‘Desert Rose' from the Ampilatwatja Collection.

Rosie Ngwarraye Ross’ Sugarbag Dreaming in ‘Desert Rose' from the Ampilatwatja Collection.

Return to the source: Women’s work thrives in Utopia

By Michelle Montgomery

Like most quests, mine began relatively simply; I had visited the contemporary Australian design exhibition At Home at Old Government House in Parramatta. While there, I fell in love with two whimsical textiles that spoke to me of the mapping of faraway places and I wanted to know more.

Before my story begins, I would like to acknowledge the Gadigal people whose traditional lands I live on and offer my respect to the Elders past and present.

Textile company Willie Weston’s work sits harmoniously alongside Indigenous Australian stories of Jukurrpa (the creation or dream-time), which tell of the endless thread linking present, primordial past and future. This work with Indigenous art centres, creating furnishing fabrics for the domestic and commercial interiors markets, is the culmination of a series of disparate, yet inalienable moments in time.

Willie Weston x Koskela Indoor / Outdoor beanbag featuring Rosie Ngwarraye Ross’ Sugarbag Dreaming in ‘Desert Rose’. Photo: Koskela.

Willie Weston x Koskela Indoor / Outdoor beanbag featuring Rosie Ngwarraye Ross’ Sugarbag Dreaming in ‘Desert Rose’. Photo: Koskela.

Located 270 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs in Central Australia, Utopia encompasses a series of desert outstations spread over 10,000 square kilometres. The arrival of pastoralists in the 1920s displaced the Indigenous people from their country and ceremonial places and they gathered instead around the newcomer’s homesteads. The homesteads provided a source of work and food, but not much more. 

When legislation banning exploitative employment practices was introduced in the late 1960s, many Indigenous workers lost their jobs as a consequence. Both State and Federal Governments sponsored skills-based programs in the 1970s with the aim of bringing financial independence to the people of the desert.

The introduction of craft initiatives brought batik lessons to the women of Utopia, who enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to express their spiritual connection to country and tell their ancestral stories in a new way. The Alyawarr people’s belief is that the perpetuation of ceremonial practices ensures the ongoing health and vitality of their country. The women worked outdoors in their sacred meeting places, integrating batik into their communal rituals. 

Singing and dancing as they worked, they deftly transposed the coded visual language of ceremonial body painting and mark-making on sand to silk and cotton. The immediacy of the process and its ease of integration into the women’s rituals engendered their designs with a hybrid vivacity that was unique to Utopia—a point of difference that was troubling for the prevailing cultural hegemony and a stumbling block for those who attempted to market the women’s work.

Throughout the 1970-80s, the area’s art coordinators had only intermittent success marketing the textiles to urban gallerists. The art system viewed fabric as gendered and functional and therefore craft, and there were issues associated with its display and degradation. 

The introduction of a new technique and media as a conduit for the sharing of ancestral stories also prompted resistance. The work was not considered to be authentic because batik had been introduced to the community. This resistance to an evolution of means of production and representation effectively assigned Aboriginal culture to a pre-colonial past, the implication being that it must be held in temporal stasis and had little contemporary relevance in the systems that defined “art” and ”culture.” 

Colleen Ngwarraye Morton’s Singing Bush Medicine in ‘High Noon’ from the Ampilatwatja Collection.

Colleen Ngwarraye Morton’s Singing Bush Medicine in ‘High Noon’ from the Ampilatwatja Collection.

Although attempts to market the fabrics were for the most part in vain, it did nothing to inhibit the women. Their overriding imperative was ceremonial continuity, and they carried on regardless. This combination of a lack of market-led constraints and the fluid integration of batik into ceremonial practices led to the genesis of a rhythmic, figurative style that was undeniably imbued with the spirit of the land and people it sprang from. 

Batik opened up new creative pathways for many of the women. In the late 1980s, at the request of art advisor Rodney Gooch, who was under pressure to cover costs, they transitioned from fabric to the production of larger works in acrylic on canvas. The fluidity and ease of application of the acrylic paint lent itself readily to the gestural mark-making of the Utopia school. 

When the idiosyncratic style borne out of batik was combined with the use of media traditionally associated with “works of art”, the women suddenly began to receive recognition in fine art realms. Many of the original batik group went on to exhibit their paintings at biennales and in international touring exhibitions. Colleen Ngwarraye Morton, whose painting Singing Bush Medicine is part of Willie Weston’s Ampilatwatja (pronounced Um-bludder-watch) Collection, was one of them.

Singing Bush Medicine depicts a women’s ceremony celebrating Arreth, or “strong bush medicine.” More powerful than other medicines, Arreth works well on sores, cuts and scabies, or is taken as a drink to ease the symptoms of the flu. This knowledge was passed down Morton’s matrilineal line and is specific to her grandfather’s country.

The ceremony’s participants are painted up in ochre and they then sing to country and sing the medicine into existence. Singing to country offers respect to the ancestors, those who passed down the knowledge of medicinal plants, the land they grow on and the stories specific to that place. 

Caroline Hunter, Manager of the Indigenous-owned and operated art centre, Artists of Ampilatwatja, describes singing to country as “sound vibrations from singing in tune with the vibrational frequency of nature itself, like two of the same.” The women’s singing of seeds, plants and trees into existence is considered fundamental to the vibrational shaping of the universe, as well as a means of ensuring its continuity. It is in this way that people and place are one.

Rosie Ngwarraye Ross’ Sugarbag Dreaming in ‘Desert Rose' from the Ampilatwatja Collection.

Rosie Ngwarraye Ross’ Sugarbag Dreaming in ‘Desert Rose' from the Ampilatwatja Collection.

In addition to shared cultural beliefs and connection to country, Rosie Ngwarraye Ross, whose Sugarbag Dreaming also features in Willie Weston’s Ampilatwatja Collection, shares a familial link with the Utopia batik group. Her mother was one of its members and the jukurrpa stories of wildflowers and bush medicine that Ross brings to life with her paintings are part of her family’s spiritual lineage. Sugarbag references both the honey collected from native bees and the nectar from the flowers of the tarrkarr trees. Sugarbag Dreaming tells the story of Ross and her family’s food gathering ritual.

The peak and subsequent decline of the primary and secondary Indigenous art markets in 2007 saw the artists of Utopia return to cloth. Both Singing Bush Medicine and Sugarbag Dreaming were originally paintings on canvas, adapted by Willie Weston in consultation with the Artists of Ampilatwatja for use as textile designs. Colour palettes hold no currency in these Jukurrpa stories, enabling an aesthetic ease of movement between the realms of domestic and commercial interiors and the central Australian desert.

Once the artists have approved their work’s adaptation and colour ways, the designs are digitally printed on a range of indoor and outdoor fabrics to order. Artists are paid for every metre produced, enabling them to maintain an ongoing income. Drawing on their respective experience as Indigenous and contemporary art curators, Jessica Booth and Laetitia Prunetti market the artists in the manner of reputable art galleries, providing non-profit Indigenous-owned art centres with additional income for their artists.

Four decades on from the embrace of a seemingly innocuous craft by a small community in outback Australia, my story ends where it began, with women working together and the fabric of the dreamtime taking centre stage.

I would like to thank Jessica Booth and Laetitia Prunetti of Willie Weston, and Caroline Hunter and Matt Goff of Artists of Ampilatwatja for their help in bringing this story to fruition.

further reading

The art of the art advisor: Rodney Gooch and the invention of Aboriginal art at Utopia. Philip Batty. Art Monthly Australia #221 July 2009

Person and Place: Making Meaning of the Art of Australian Indigenous Women. Diane Bell. Feminist Studies Vol. 28, No. 1 (Spring, 2002), pp. 95-127.

Across the desert: Aboriginal batik from Central Australia. Judith Ryan. National Gallery of Victoria. 2008.

about the author

Michelle Montgomery recently completed a Bachelor of Art Theory at UNSW Art & Design. Combining image theory with her previous studies in art history and textile design, her passion is the history and theory of textiles and adornment. She is currently an Honours student at the University of Sydney and her research relates to the construction of identity and tribe via dress in a globalised world. Facebook: Fashion is History.

 

Nyapanyapa Yunupingu: mayilimiriw by Willie Weston

Installation view of 'Nyapanyapa Yunupingu', 24 January - 18 February 2017, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. 

Installation view of 'Nyapanyapa Yunupingu', 24 January - 18 February 2017, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. 

Nyapanyapa Yunupingu is an artist of great originality, irreverence and dynamism. She is a Yolngu woman from Yirrkala, near Nhulunbuy in North-East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory.

Portrait of Nyapanyapa Yunupingu. Courtesy the artist and Buku-Larrnggay Mulka, Yirrkala. Photo: Kai Brethauer.

Portrait of Nyapanyapa Yunupingu. Courtesy the artist and Buku-Larrnggay Mulka, Yirrkala. Photo: Kai Brethauer.

Working through Buku Larrnggay Mulka art centre in Yirrkala, Nyapanyapa creates fresh and innovative paintings, prints and carvings. She uses both traditional materials indigenous to her home – natural ochres and the bark of stringybark trees – and manmade materials such as paint pens and acetate. She is driven to make art:

“I miss it when the bark is too dry to harvest or I can’t find carving wood or make a print. It is the way I was brought up. If I cannot paint I have to go and get fish or oysters or yams. I cannot sit and do nothing.”

In the 1970s Nyapanyapa was nearly killed by a charging water buffalo. Drawn to depicting this seminal event from her own personal history, in 2008 Nyapanyapa made a “dramatic departure” from the traditional artistic conventions of North-East Arnhem Land and began to express a “subjective, individualistic and linear narrative construction…totally out of step with all previous Yolngu art”, says Will Stubbs, Coordinator of Buku Larrnggay Mulka. Yolngu artists typically inherit a visual language – designs based on ancestral stories and kinship systems – and their level of cultural initiation determines their right to express those designs and stories in their art. (This is a fascinating and complex subject – interested readers can learn more here and here.)

Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Dharpa, 2016, painting on board, 122 x 122 cm. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. 

Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Dharpa, 2016, painting on board, 122 x 122 cm. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. 

Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Ganyu, 2016, painting on board, 167 x 122 cm. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Ganyu, 2016, painting on board, 167 x 122 cm. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

Aerial view of North-East Arnhem Land. Photo: Peter Eve.

Aerial view of North-East Arnhem Land. Photo: Peter Eve.

Installation view of Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Light Painting, 2010, 18th Biennale of Sydney, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. 

Installation view of Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Light Painting, 2010, 18th Biennale of Sydney, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. 

Nyapanyapa’s bold approach was met with great excitement within the art world. One of her first works depicting the buffalo incident, a bark painting and accompanying video work, won the 3D Award in the 2008 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. She held her first solo exhibition with Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery that same year. Since then, Nyapanyapa has earned a reputation for her experimental use of non-traditional materials. In 2012 she exhibited Light Painting (2011) at the Biennale of Sydney, a projection composed of 110 drawings in white paint pen on clear acetates. The drawings were scanned into an algorithmic computer program that randomly selects and overlays the acetates with varying levels of opacity. Each time the work is viewed the layering – and ultimately the work itself – is different.

Nyapanyapa’s works are often entitled mayilimiriw, which translates as ‘meaningless’. This title acknowledges her work’s lack of sacred meaning in the context of long-held painting traditions of North-East Arnhem Land. However, as evocations of her elemental relationship to the land and sea, her personal memories and her daily lived experience, Nyapanyapa’s works are far from meaningless. They are some of the most exciting contemporary art being made in Australia right now.

Installation view of 'Nyapanyapa Yunupingu', 24 January - 18 February 2017, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. 

Installation view of 'Nyapanyapa Yunupingu', 24 January - 18 February 2017, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. 

Early works by Nyapanyapa Yunupingu are part of Balnhdhurr – A Lasting Impression, a touring exhibition currently showing at the University of Newcastle (12 April – 15 July 2017). She is also part of a major US touring exhibition, Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia, showing at institutions across the USA from 2016-2019. And, Nyapanyapa was recently announced as a Finalist in the 2017 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award – winners will be announced in August.

This post first appeared on The Design Files on 18 May 2017.

Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Untitled, 2016, bark painting, 126 x 71 cm. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. 

Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Untitled, 2016, bark painting, 126 x 71 cm. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. 

Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Lines, 2016, bark painting, 192 x 59 cm. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. 

Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Lines, 2016, bark painting, 192 x 59 cm. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. 

Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Untitled, 2016, bark painting, 122 x 64 cm. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. 

Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Untitled, 2016, bark painting, 122 x 64 cm. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. 

Installation view of 'Nyapanyapa Yunupingu', 24 January - 18 February 2017, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. 

Installation view of 'Nyapanyapa Yunupingu', 24 January - 18 February 2017, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. 

Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Dharpa / Circles, 2016, bark painting, 164 x 101 cm. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. 

Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Dharpa / Circles, 2016, bark painting, 164 x 101 cm. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. 

Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Dharpa, 2016, bark painting, 137 x 59 cm. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. 

Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Dharpa, 2016, bark painting, 137 x 59 cm. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. 

Installation view of 'Nyapanyapa Yunupingu', 24 January - 18 February 2017, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. 

Installation view of 'Nyapanyapa Yunupingu', 24 January - 18 February 2017, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney. 

Bugai Whyoulter: in profile by Willie Weston

Bugai Whyoulter painting at the Martumili Artists art shed, Kunawarritji. Photo – Martumili Artists.

Bugai Whyoulter painting at the Martumili Artists art shed, Kunawarritji. Photo – Martumili Artists.

For a long time, Bugai Whyoulter wove baskets. She watched other women paint, but remained an observer. Later, she explained that “she had been uncertain how to begin”.

These days, Bugai is a master of colour, gesture and subtlety; an intuitive communicator of ancestral stories. She works through Martumili Artists, an Indigenous-owned and operated art centre based in Newman (Parnpajinya), in the Pilbara region of northern Western Australia. Martumili Artists supports Martu artists living and working across thousands of square kilometres, and hailing from numerous language groups: Manyjilyjarra, Kartujarra, Putijarra, Warnman and Martu Wangka.

Bugai Whyoulter in Martumili studio, Newman. Photo - Martumili Artists.

Bugai Whyoulter in Martumili studio, Newman. Photo - Martumili Artists.

Bugai was born c. 1940 at Pukayiyirna, now called Balfour Downs Station. For much of her, life, she was of the pujiman (traditional, nomadic) generation. She grew up walking and hunting the areas of Jigalong, Nullagine, Punmu and Kunawarritji. As a girl, Bugai travelled the Canning Stock Route – an almost 2000-kilometre-long track that traverses the Great Sandy, the Little Sandy and the Gibson Deserts. She continued to live nomadically until the 1960s, when she settled at Jigalong Mission with her family.

Bugai now lives and works in Kunawarritji in the Great Sandy Desert, some 1500 kilometres from Newman and Martumili HQ. Kunawarritji is a place where ancestral stories and colonial histories intersect, and is also a key subject of Bugai’s work.

Kunawarritji (Well 33 on the Canning Stock Rote). Photo – Martumili Artists.

Kunawarritji (Well 33 on the Canning Stock Rote). Photo – Martumili Artists.

Bugai’s approach to painting is very intuitive. She starts with a limited palette and works incrementally across the canvas. Her works are layered and often delicate, with subtle colour changes representing landmarks, waterways, and desert flora. Her gestural style “is thought to stem from Martu practices of drawing in the sand” to communicate ancestral stories, says Martumili Artists Coordinator, Amy Mukherjee. Bugai’s ability to transfer an intimate knowledge of her land onto the two-dimensional surface appears effortless, and has earned her a significant reputation – her work is held in the collections of the Queensland Art Gallery, the National Gallery of Victoria and the National Museum of Australia.

Bugai Whyoulter, Wantili Claypan 2015, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 91cm. Photo – Paul Johnstone Gallery.

Bugai Whyoulter, Wantili Claypan 2015, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 91cm. Photo – Paul Johnstone Gallery.

Bugai Whyoulter, Untitled 2015, acrylic on canvas, 91 x 61cm. Photo – Paul Johnstone Gallery.

Bugai Whyoulter, Untitled 2015, acrylic on canvas, 91 x 61cm. Photo – Paul Johnstone Gallery.

Bugai Whyoulter, Wantili 2016, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 91cm. Photo – Martumili Artists.

Bugai Whyoulter, Wantili 2016, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 91cm. Photo – Martumili Artists.

Bugai first began painting in 2007 under the guidance of her relatives Nora Nungabar and Nora Wompi: “Nungabar and Wompi really know how to paint; I watched them and learned from them”. These three women have created a number of stunning collaborative works together, including Kunawarritji Ngurra, pictured above and currently on show at Martumili Artists as part of an exhibition exploring the hunting practices of the Martu people: Yarrkalpinti Warrarnpa - Hunting Grounds.

Bugai Whyoulter, Nora Wompi and Nora Nungabar, Kunawarritji Ngurra 2013, acrylic on canvas, 183 x 183cm. Photo – Martumili Artists.

Bugai Whyoulter, Nora Wompi and Nora Nungabar, Kunawarritji Ngurra 2013, acrylic on canvas, 183 x 183cm. Photo – Martumili Artists.

For obvious reasons, Bugai’s work is highly sought after. She currently has works in an exhibition at FORM (Perth) called Flight: Aboriginal perspectives from the sky and in Women of Martu at Suzanne O’Connell Gallery (Brisbane) from 1 - 29 April. Bugai’s work is also available through Paul Johnstone Gallery (Darwin), McCulloch and McCulloch (Melbourne) and Aboriginal Contemporary (Sydney).

This post first appeared on The Design Files on 6 April 2017.

Burning country, Kunawarritji. Photo – Martumili Artists.

Burning country, Kunawarritji. Photo – Martumili Artists.