‘It keeps me alive’: the politically potent bark pictures by Dhambit Munuŋgurr | Indigenous art


The prolific YolÅ‹u artist Dhambit MunuÅ‹gurr has long waited for Julia Gillard’s attention.

On July 10, 2013, the first female Prime Minister of Australia was supposed to visit the northeastern community of Yirrkala in Arnhem Land. Gillard had made a bark painting in honor of the 50th Munuŋgurr in the hope of being able to present it to her. But a fortnight before the visit, Gillard was overthrown in a raid on the Labor leadership and the victor, Kevin Rudd, traveled to Yirrkala instead. Munuŋgurr is too polite to take sides in public, but the painting stays in her bedroom on Gunyaŋara, the tiny island in the Arafura Sea, about a 25-minute drive away.

Dhambit Mununggurr painting in the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Center in Yirrkala, northeast of Arnhem Land

Now, almost a decade later, the former prime minister has once again inspired the 53-year-old artist – this time as the subject of the large-format work Order, which Gillard shows during her infamous misogyny speech in 2012 in parliament. MunuÅ‹gurr talks about Zoom from her wheelchair at the Buku-LarrÅ‹gay Mulka Center in Yirrkala, where she paints large bark canvases and larrakitj (hollow wooden stakes) three days a week, and explains her admiration for Gillard in a very simple way: “She is a woman, Like me. ”Orden is painted on Stringybark in MunuÅ‹gurr’s signature blue palette, depicting Gillard looming over pale, limp politicians while YolÅ‹u dancers storm parliament, holding arched spears to represent the cloud mass of the rainy season. They dance the songline “bol’Å‹u” or “Thunder Man”, explains MunuÅ‹gurr – an embodiment of the rainy season.

Dhambit Munuŋgurr Order 2021 synthetic polymer paint on Stringybark (Eucalyptus sp.) 201.0 × 100.0 cm Bought with funding from Janet Whiting AM and Phil Lukies, 2021

Will Stubbs, the longtime coordinator at Buku, who moderated and translated my conversation with MunuÅ‹gurr, says that the YolÅ‹u in the painting “support and dance their identity and pastoral activity”. [Gillard] in – they are their bodyguards ”.

Order is hung as part of Bark Ladies: Eleven artists from Yirrkala, a major new Melbourne exhibition showcasing the National Gallery of Victoria’s collection of Stringybark paintings and larrakitj by YolÅ‹u artists working in Buku. If Gillard doesn’t see it, the thousands of gallery visitors who are scheduled to visit Victoria’s premier art institution during its four-month run will certainly be.

2021 was a big year for MunuÅ‹gurr, who started painting at the age of 13 but only achieved national fame a year ago with her NGV Triennial 2020 presentation “Can we all have a happy life”. That year she was a finalist in the Wynne Prize of the Art Gallery of New South Wales; and won the Bark Painting Award at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards for Bees in Gäṉgän in August, a work that references their ancestral histories. (Her artist parents Mutitjpuy MunuÅ‹gurr and Gulumbu Yunupingu both won the NATSIAAs main prize during their lifetime.) In October MunuÅ‹gurr staged a sold out Solo exhibition at the Roslyn Oxley9 gallery in Sydney with 24 of her works, including a diptych entitled Welcoming the Refugees / Scott Morrison and the Treasurer – that shows how YolÅ‹u encountered the two most powerful men in Australia at sea. Her most expensive work sold for $ 60,000; Although she only receives part of it, it is a handsome sum for an artist who paints compulsively but gives most of her work away. “There aren’t many people in northeast Arnhem Land who don’t have a personal Dhambit painting,” says Stubbs.

Dhambit Munuŋgurr and her husband Tony Gintz at the NGV Triennale 2020 presentation
  • Above: Dhambit MunuÅ‹gurr and her husband Tony Gintz at the 2020 NGV Triennale. Photo by Eugene Hyland.
    Bottom left: Greeting the refugees / Scott Morrison and the Treasurer (2021). Image courtesy of the artist and the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.
    Bottom right: Bees at Gäṉgän (2021), which won the Bark Painting Award at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. Image courtesy of the Northern Territory Museum and Art Gallery

Welcoming the Refugees / Scott Morrison and the Treasurers (2021).  Courtesy Dhambit Munuŋgurr and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.
Bees at Gäṉgän, which won the Bark Painting Prize at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards.  Courtesy of the Northern Territory Museum and Art Gallery.

MunuÅ‹gurr comes from a political family. Her artist grandfather Mungurrawuy Yunupingu helped lead the struggle for land rights in the 1960s; her late uncle Mandawuy Yunupingu was the co-founder of Yothu Yindi; her son Gapanbulu Yunupingu played yidaki in the group and is now sometimes at the head of the band. But MunuÅ‹gurr’s artwork mainly explores her deep esoteric knowledge of YolÅ‹u stories. For her, painting is “healing,” she explains. “It keeps me alive.”

In 2005, MunuÅ‹gurr suffered permanent physical disabilities and an acquired brain injury in a near-fatal car accident. During her seven-month hospital stay in Darwin – 700 km west of Yirrkala – her mother and French husband Tony Gintz received special permission to take MunuÅ‹gurr on excursions to the nearby bush for traditional healing sessions. Her mother dug a pit and added coals to create a natural sauna and then coated it with paper bark and medicinal herbs. MunuÅ‹gurr would be placed inside. “I was cooked in an underground oven!” MunuÅ‹gurr yells.

Dhambit Munuŋgurr's husband, Tony Gintz, collects the thread bark that she uses in her work.

Stubbs explains, “Your initial assessment by the doctors was that it would be a vegetable with no viability. Tony and her mother defied this and through these healing processes she was able to return home. And the first moment she could, she painted, and by painting she healed herself. “

The accident hindered the use of her dominant right hand, so Munuŋgurr learned to wield her marwat (a traditional brush made from her own hair) with her left. Her injuries also made it difficult for her to collect and grind the ocher and other earth pigments that Yolŋu artists normally use on their canvases, so the elders, on compassionate grounds, gave her permission to use acrylic paint instead. After years of recreating traditional colors with orange, red, and yellow, Munuŋgurr switched to painting her larger works in the vibrant shades of azure, ultramarine, and turquoise that define them today.

She chose the shade she explained, “Because the earth is blue, the sky is blue and the sea is blue”.

Dhambit Munuŋgurr's blue palette

But her husband, who collects the strands for her work – is on the road with a tomahawk during the rainy season to peel off the outer layer of suitable trees – says: “The work [blue paintings] she does in Buku is only a small part of her total job because when she comes home she spends all of her time painting [in many colours] … One day there will be a surprising exhibition from the other side of Dhambit. “

Stubbs adds, “The container is full because Dhambit doesn’t paint for money, fame or profit – she has to paint. She has to compulsively paint all day, every day. “

MunuÅ‹gurr nods his head: “Every day.”

Before we hang up, MunuÅ‹gurr fixes me through the computer screen and smiles. “I’ll paint you one day,” she says with a grin. “You talk to me.”


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