Gapu Murnuk exhibition Q & A with Chris Durkin

Why did you choose to bring this exhibit to fruition?
Milingimbi Art and Culture has a long history of art making that saw it as Australia’s premier collecting and research location in the 1950’s and 60’s. A mission was founded here in 1923, and quickly became a focal point for cross-cultural contact and research. Many large institutions in Australia and overseas hold a significant amount of cultural material from Milingimbi. Yolngu identity  is underpinned by cultural practice to which making of objects and painting of clan designs  is key. The rhythm of community life in Milingimbi is set by its ceremonies that continue to be practiced and prepared regularly.

The Makarrata: bringing the past into the future event held in Milingimbi in August 2016 was a step towards rectifying the imbalance between collectors and community. Milingimbi people wish to have continued access to their cultural heritage stored in large collections nationally  and overseas, and to this end invited collecting institutions to the community to initiate a discussion and make specific requests in order to progress the communities agenda. The Makarrata event prompted the Kluge Ruhe to invite Milingimbi Art and Culture to participate in their  Indigenous Arts Fellows program at the University of Virginia. This invitation was made with the intention of enabling community governance and input into the Kluge Ruhe collection and relating documentation. This will also be an opportunity for senior artists Raymond Bulambula and his wife to be inspired by the artwork of their ancestors.

The Centre at Milingimbi has been focussed on keeping old mindji or designs and object making techniques in circulation and part of daily life while encouraging the making of new, fresh works and it is a natural progression for us to exhibit  recent artwork to the Australian Embassy, Washington to share the continuum of deep knowledge and artistic vision of the Milingimbi community with an international audience. The opportunity to present the work in a gallery setting while being present to speak to it is very important to us.

Community life in Milingimbi focuses on art-making. Can you talk a bit more about that?
Artistic practice inhabits a core place in Yolngu society; it is not a peripheral, hobbyist pursuit as sometimes perceived by the non-Indigenous world. It is central to governance and title, county and ceremony, unity and identity. The abundance of ceremonial designs and traditional art making techniques are the fabric that binds Yolngu relationships. Language, ceremony, country and visual art are inseparable as expressions of Yolngu identity.

It seems like many Australians in Washington D.C. have been committed to bringing indigenous art to Washington. Do you have any comment on the importance of showing all different types of cultures?
Firstly, It is important to us that we are not viewed through a purely anthropological lense. The work we produce has to stand up on its own merits. Though in saying this, it is also important to contemporary cultural practitioners from Milingimbi that they are viewed as more than painters or artists. Their works are steeped in living traditions that require constant ceremonial practice, the maintenance of an encyclopaedic knowledge base and the deft navigation of two worlds. The reality is that Australian Aboriginal artists are undeniably the strongest and most relevant voices in the nation’s visual arts. Each artwork stands on its own whilst also telling the story of its relationship to its neighbours and a whole network of knowledge that includes every inch of Australian land and sea. They express identity of the artists, their ancestors and future generations  on a deeply meaningful level as well as standing up as contemporary works.

Can you talk a bit about the type of art patrons will expect to see at the exhibit?
Part of our curatorial vision for this exhibition was to share the diversity of art making that is happening in Milingimbi right now. This includes works by master weavers made using Milingimbi’s infamous Gungu Mul (dyed black pandanus), carved sculptures representing Mokoy spirits, Larrakitj (hollow log coffins) and ochre works on both bark and paper. We hope to see a variety of people show interest in the work and come to see the exhibit. We believe the work will be appealing to a variety of audiences. The show may also be viewed via our website from the 27th September via and updates will be posted on our facebook page Milingimbi Art and Culture.

I sincerely hope that those that have the opportunity to visit this exhibition take the time to understand the relationships between the artworks and story that they tell together; about the life and people of Milingimbi.

Do you have a favourite piece of art in the exhibit? If so, why do you enjoy it so much?
I really can’t answer that with a singular favourite. The black weavings by Rarru and Ganalmirriwuy and their Larrakitj make me very happy to look at as the artists are extremely committed and continue to surprise me with new techniques and designs. I suspect that they weave in their sleep. I really love the work of Dangi who has a beautiful loose hand and that of Lirririnyin who is the daughter of Binyinyuwuy and has only started painting in the last few months after being inspired by the Art Gallery of NSW’s exhibition  ‘Milingimbi, Taking Memories Back’. I work closely every day with Raymond Bulambula who will be travelling to the US and will be at the opening, his ‘Gapu Murnuk’ paintings are really inspired, whilst remaining true to his cultural obligations he has embraced innovation in his practice . Raymond’s brother Walpay has an intimate understanding of natural materials and continues to develop ambitious works using only natural materials, some of them requiring very labor intensive refinement processes. It is hard to be purely visual when I work so closely with people.

What’s next for the Milingimbi Art and Culture?
We will continue to develop our painting work, using the next wet season to make a large body of works on bark and are looking at some other ideas to pursue with the dedicated weavers (these ladies are at the art centre every at 8am everyday – hungry to create). We are all about ensuring that old knowledge is continually refreshed and practiced. We are really pleased that Rarru and Ganalmirriwuy will have the opportunity to develop a body of work for the Asia Pacific Triennial at the QAGOMA (Queensland Art Gallery Of Modern Art) next year.

What do you think Americans can learn from Milingimbi?
I think our audience can learn on many different levels from our work. They can choose to view them as purely visual objects and/or explore the astounding depth of knowledge and continuous cultural practice they contain. For us, it is very important that non Indigenous people see that Yolngu are sharing a living culture, that they are multi lingual, that their world view is contemporary and relevant. That they are acknowledged as custodians of deep, specialised knowledge. I think we can all acknowledge the importance of respectful two way learning.

Can you talk about your next project you have after this exhibit at the Australian Embassy or are you just focusing on this for now?
Using natural materials keeps us very grounded and attached to seasonal harvest cycles. It will be Wet Season time when we return to Milingimbi and very hot and humid. This is a good time to harvest bark while the rain is flowing up the tree and loosening the bark skin. We will be continuing our daily weaving program and developing new works for next year. Details of specific projects and day to day life at the art centre can be accessed on our website and Facebook page.