Visual Art

A retrospective of Nyapanyapa Yunupiŋu’s work at Darwin’s Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory demonstrates the range of her luminous art. By Tristen Harwood.

the moment eternal

An installation view of Nyapanyapa Yunupiŋu’s the moment eternal.
An installation view of Nyapanyapa Yunupiŋu’s the moment eternal.
Credit: Courtesy of MAGNT. Photographer: Merinda Campbell.

What little sunlight seeps into the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) is transitory, cut off by the automatic entry doors, then eclipsed by dim interior lighting. Here, the luminosity is all in the works. the moment eternal spans Yirrkala-based, Gumatj contemporary artist Nyapanyapa Yunupiŋu’s lambent practice.

This exhibition, a survey of Nyapanyapa’s work, parses the different stylistic periods of her prolific career. It includes an extensive collection of barks, prints, works on paper, larrakitj and animations, curated across the ground-level gallery’s three flowing spaces. Her deeply intuitive work, punctuated with repetitive motifs and gestural crosshatching, perforates the darkness of the gallery space. Nyapanyapa paints constellations of memory, line by line and mark by mark capturing the indispensable and diffuse moments of experience.

Incident at Mutpi 1975 (2008), a bark painting that won the Wandjuk Marika Memorial 3D Award in the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA) in 2008, is the first artwork you see upon entering the gallery. Here it functions as a percipient introduction to the artist. As the title indicates, the event depicted in the painting took place long before it was rendered in ochre.

Nyapanyapa was severely wounded by a water buffalo that attacked her one day when she was out collecting larrani (red bush apples). All the figures and marks in the painting flow from her memory of the event. Figures loosely outlined in white ochre – fish, dogs, emus, the buffalo, a larrani tree and the artist herself (smiling) – are aligned across the stringybark. Considering the event’s harrowing nature, the scene is surprisingly calm. It isn’t a straightforward representation of the past, but a distillation of memory that isn’t bound to a specific time or space.

As with all Nyapanyapa’s 2008 paintings in the exhibition, Incident at Mutpi 1975’s background comprises a fragmented progression of earth tones – red, gold, white and black – with a surface embroidery made with marks that curve and swell to the shape of the artist’s marwat, a brush made of human hairs bound to a short twig. Orientation constantly shifts across the painted plane. Nyapanyapa’s distinctive patches of crosshatching change direction in correspondence with the recurrent adjustments of her body as she paints.

Installed beside the painting is a supplementary documentary film, Gatapaŋawuy Dhäwu (Buffalo Story). The video explicates Nyapanyapa’s use of personal narrative, a practice that was anomalous in Yolŋu painting at the time. In the video Nyapanyapa sits in front of the painting, laconically recalling the incident from her past. Paired together, the painting and video raise questions about the differentiation between personal and collective histories. At what point does an individual’s past that is told, heard, retold and recorded become collective memory?

“The incident” is further enmeshed in the mythology of Nyapanyapa’s artistic career. On the night of the NATSIAA award ceremony, the buffalo reappeared to Nyapanyapa in her dreams. The psychic impact of this encounter prompted her to stop painting the buffalo.

A formative year in Nyapanyapa’s career, 2008 saw her first solo exhibition, NyapanyapaOnce Upon a Time at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. After travelling to the Sydney exhibition opening the artist created a series of paintings from memory responding to the visit, including Sydney Harbour Bridge (2008). A discrete depiction of Sydney’s monumental landmark, the painting diverges from her work, which tends towards the enigmatic co-ordination of things, imaginative instants.

Here Nyapanyapa represents the bridge from the perspective of a painter whose artistic treatment of her surroundings renders a democratising equivalence of forms, a sense that Will Stubbs, the co-ordinator of Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre, calls “objects of knowledge, moments of things that happened”.

Mawalan Marika, who was a prominent Yirrkala-based artist and contemporary of Nyapanyapa’s father, Muŋgurrawuy Yunupiŋu (1905-79), also produced paintings about his own 1963 Sydney trip. His painting, Sydney from the Air (1963), represents an expansive celestial view of Sydney’s topography. In this work, the land isn’t so much represented as it is integrated into and enacted through a Yolŋu world view – “from the air”.

Perspective in Nyapanyapa’s Sydney paintings is more personal. While Marika portrays a Yolŋu reading of the land, Nyapanyapa imaginatively depicts a specific architectural feature of the city; it’s what you might see if you could zoom right in on Sydney from the Air. It’s a moment being recalled; she’s at street level, or on a boat in the harbour, and the bridge is just over there, alluvium in the distant present of memory.

Nyapanyapa’s father, Muŋgurrawuy, was a Gumatj clan leader and bark painter who contributed to the renowned Yirrkala Church Panels. He painted ancestral and clan stories on bark, using miny’tji – deeply meaningful designs – and figuration to depict Yirritja moiety ancestors. Muŋgurrawuy never authorised Nyapanyapa to paint these ancestral designs or clan stories, which cannot be reproduced without the correct permission or kinship roles. But she observed him painting. “I learnt from watching him,” she says. “He was always working.” In this sense, both in technique and imagery, Nyapanyapa paints personal moments through the memory of her father’s hands.

In the next section of the exhibition a series of paintings from 2009-10 are collectively referred to as mayilimiriw, a Yolŋu Matha (Yolŋu tongue) term that roughly translates to “meaningless”. In these paintings Nyapanyapa’s palette is warmer, confidently subdued. Her distinctive crosshatching is still present, but figuration and narrative are absent.

One such work, Pink and white painting #2 (2010), uses milky pink and brown tones that wash over a large, irregularly shaped bark. There is deeper attention to the substrate itself: rhythmic lines trace furrows in the stringybark’s surface, accentuating a flared bottom-left corner that extends away from the wall on which it hangs. Lines cascade in all directions, one setting off the next – between chance and certainty. Intuition is the principle of the composition.

Speaking of these paintings, Nyapanyapa says: “I didn’t do trees, rocks or anything else at all. I didn’t put the rocks onto the paintings. I only made designs.” It is not “meaning”, but definition – the dull adumbration of meaning – that this type of painting evades.

In the final gallery space, Ganyu (2019), a large-scale painting on MDF panel, hangs from the ceiling, a compelling conclusion to the survey. It’s balanced by a collection of Nyapanyapa’s prints from 2003–19 on the gallery’s back wall, creating a sense of circularity in the exhibition by reconnecting to the formative printmaking of her early career.

In Ganyu, large spiderlike stars are dispersed across a frenetic background of black, white and grey crosshatching painted on a repurposed fibreboard in place of bark. The painting refers to the Djulpan, the Seven Sisters star cluster, a prominent ancestral story in Yolŋu cosmology. As the eponymous exhibition publication explains:

“The Djulpan represent Yolŋu women […] women embody the law of Djulpan, when collecting water chestnut, native cashew, native currajong, waterlily bulbs and many other kinds of food, fruit and seafood; Yolŋu women are the Djulpan.”

Nyapanyapa engages the Djulpan at a personal level with her own star motif, which she paints here, memorialising her dead sisters, renowned artists Gulumbu, Barrupu and Djawundayngu Yunupiŋu.

Multiple serpentine lines are measures of the artist’s arm, painted in gestural strokes of white. Sometimes translucent ochre extends from the centre point of each star. Distant stars dotted in the night sky, sparks and echoes left by ancestors; transmissions of memory transported to the scale of the body.

The large MDF panel was originally used for a stage set in Bangarra Dance Theatre’s performance of Nyapanyapa at Yirrkala in 2018. The material is inscribed with the collective retelling of Nyapanyapa’s story, including the incident at Mutpi, by the Bangarra dancers.

Nyapanyapa takes up the recent development in Yolŋu art in which repurposed materials such as MDF and aluminium panels are painted in place of bark. Other examples include Lightning (2017) painted by Noŋgirrŋa Marawili and Gunybi Ganambarr’s etching Buyku (2018), both of which use discarded aluminium panels found on Country as a substrate. Shared past events expand and dissolve into Ganyu, which becomes a manifestation of the artist’s own relation to Djulpan.

Poetic and intuitive, the paintings included in the moment eternal intertwine dissimilation and reprise. Each line follows the next, echoing the rise and fall of the artist’s hand. Across this grouping of luminous paintings, it’s as though every mark – simultaneously present in earth pigments – is called to life at once. There is no temporal distance between the events depicted in Nyapanyapa’s work: it brings to light the synchronicity of moments held in memory.


the moment eternal: Nyapanyapa Yunupiŋu is at MAGNT Darwin until October 25.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 26, 2020 as "Constellations of memory".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription