The Miwatj Yolŋu exhibition at Bundanon is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view this collection of masterworks, which engage with colonial experience and the modern world. By Claire G. Coleman.
I arrived at Bundanon at 8pm on a Friday, after a flight from Melbourne and a drive that was supposed to take two-and-a-half hours but was instead four hours of traffic jams and rain. I could not have imagined, in the dark, cold and rain, what I was in for the next day. When I collapsed into bed to sleep, I didn’t know that I was about to be infused with light and fire.
Bundanon sits in a deep valley that gives the place its name (Bundanon means “deep valley” in Dharawal language), on Dharawal and Dhurga Country near Nowra, on the south coast of New South Wales on part of the land donated to the people of Australia by renowned wadjela artist Arthur Boyd. Next to the newly built, award-winning The Bridge, a hotel that rests across the valley between two hilltops like a trestle bridge, you will find the Bundanon Art Museum.
The concrete and glass gallery building, embedded into the hillside like a bunker from a science fiction movie, is significantly bigger than it looks from the outside. More than half of this impressive edifice is underground, which controls the climate to an extent and provides some protection against fire. For the most part only one wall, a lot of it glass, is visible. The space inside is a high-walled white box – a near perfect purpose-built gallery that until February next year will be filled with Yolŋu light.
Bundanon’s 2023 summer show is Miwatj Yolŋu (Sunrise People) – an extraordinary and powerful exhibition of works from the east/sunrise side of Yolŋu Country, mostly lent from private collections. I have seen many shows of north-east Yolŋu art, from commercial exhibitions through to displays at the largest capital city institutions, and I agree with Bundanon chief executive Rachel Kent, who says to me: “I believe these are some of the greatest artists in the country, but I would also say in the world.”
This can be said of north-east Arnhem Land in general, but this show is especially spectacular. At its core are some of the last and most impressive works from two recently passed senior women artists. Yolŋu works from the sunrise side of the Country are in dialogue with each other, many meeting for the first time and communicating with the place.
I have seen many of these works before, in other shows and sometimes in places the public would never have access to, but many of them have never been on display together. It seems likely this show will never be hung again, that there will probably not be another exhibition that brings all these works together.
Less than a month since she returned to the Dreaming, a large collection of the works of Ms N. Marawili dominates the exhibition – perhaps the largest collection of this legendary old woman’s heart-stealing works since her solo show, From my Heart and Mind, at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2018. This display features many of her late epic bark paintings. Her charged works, most of them of her ancestral country of Baratjala in Arnhem Land, show her Country, the place where the lightning snake spits lightning at the sky, and her father, the lightning snake himself.
The works of the legendary Ms Marawili are among the most powerful art produced anywhere. Seeing so many of her works together steals our breath, electrifies the world. Her work is power itself: she paints the salt water and the lightning, somehow producing pure light using natural pigments and, in her later works, magenta ink recycled from laser printer cartridges.
“I hope, in some way, this exhibition will be something that honours her and will be a tribute to her; she is the backbone of this exhibition,” says Kent. I cannot think of a stronger way to honour the artist. It feels like a chapel, like a temple. Whatever the intention, seeing these works is a spiritual experience; particularly in conversation with the stars, the Seven Sisters, painted by the other, also recently passed, senior artist in this exhibition, Ms N. Yunupiŋu.
Seeing Marawili’s and Yunupiŋu’s works together borders on overwhelming: their lightning burns across the room and through the mind, bouncing off stars and into your soul.
These artworks are joined by more art from the sunrise side, where artists paint water, lightning and the stars. Because they are from the east of Yolŋu Country, they sit in dialogue with the land on which Bundanon sits, by a tidal stretch of the Shoalhaven River on the east coast of the continent. They are connected, always, to their homeland by light, by the sea Country, by the sky Country. Thus they are connected through the art, sky and water of those two old women. “There are parallels,” Kent says. “Yolŋu in east Arnhem Land are saltwater people; likewise here on the south coast of New South Wales.”
Works from the Mulka project, an auto-ethnographic collection of video, audio and multimedia from the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Art Centre, capture Yolŋu life and – in the case of Mayaŋ by Ruby Djikarra Alderton – the disappearing world: the destruction of Yolŋu lands and water and the loss of culture since mining came to that Country. Most, if not all, of the artists in this exhibition live in Yirrkala and surrounding outstations, painting at Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka, one of the most remote art centres but also one of the most important in Australia.
The exhibition also includes spectacular works from Dhambit Munuŋgurr, Gaypalani Waṉambi, Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda, Muluymuluy Wirrpanda, Djirrirra Wunuŋmurra, Djakaŋu Yunupiŋu, Wanapati Yunupiŋu, Ishmael Marika, Patrina Munuŋgurr and Gutiŋarra Yunupiŋu. It’s Yolŋu Country from which so much that is important to contemporary Indigenous culture has come: land rights activism, the bark petition, Yothu Yindi (from a nearby island) and some of the most significant art ever produced on this continent. In the past few years Yolŋu artists from the sunrise side have dominated the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA), winning in most categories, and collecting the Telstra Art Award, the most significant Indigenous art prize in the country, many times.
This is right up my alley, the sort of work I live for: Indigenous art that engages with the colonial experience and the modern world, works that make us consider that perhaps the way the colony is building the modern colonised world is creating more loss than benefit. You need to consider, when you look at these works, what the coloniser and the colony lost when you/they chose genocide and destruction over communication and mutual learning.
It is not often a review can be summarised as “you have to see this” but in this case it’s the only thing I can really think of to encapsulate my experience. I doubt these works – perhaps the greatest paintings produced in Australia – will be in the same room in conversation ever again. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience: there is no expectation this exhibition will ever be hung again, the two most-featured artists are no longer with us and these works come from a number of private collections.
So find your way to Bundanon where an already stunning destination has been activated and energised with Yolŋu light and lightning. Go there and expect to be kidnapped, expect your soul to be taken, expect to never be the same again. There’s a chance you will have the most profound and altering art experience of your life at Miwatj Yolŋu – and that’s worth travelling for.
Miwatj Yolŋu (Sunrise People) is on at Bundanon until February 11.
EXHIBITION Deep Inside My Heart
National Gallery of Australia, Ngambri and Ngunnawal Country/Canberra, November 25–May 19
INSTALLATION Salote Tawale: I remember you
Carriageworks, Gadigal Country/Sydney, until January 28
THEATRE I ME SHE HIM
Bluestone Church Arts Space and the Bowery Theatre, Naarm/Melbourne, November 22–December 2
OPERA The Marriage of Figaro
Adelaide Festival Centre, Kaurna Yarta, until November 25
CULTURE Highlands Bushfest
Bothwell, Tasmania, November 25-26
CLASSICAL QSO Micro-Masterpieces
Concert Hall, Meanjin/Brisbane, until November 18
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 18, 2023 as "Light and fire".
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