Obituary: N. Yunupingu (c. 1945–2021)
By Pamela Wong
N. Yunupiŋu, a Yolŋu printmaker and painter from the northeast end of Australia’s Arnhem Land, passed away from an undisclosed cause on October 20.
Yunupiŋu was deaf and did not speak English. For her, art was an important means for expression and communication. She learned to paint by observing the hands of her father, the respected bark painter and sculptor M. Yunupiŋu, as he worked. In late 1995, she became one of the earliest artists to use the printing press at the then newly established Yirrkala Print Space. The Yolŋu people decided that “only people with knowledge, not a machine, may make representations of the law,” according to a wall text in Yunupiŋu’s solo exhibition at Darwin’s Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT). Therefore, Yolŋu artists are not allowed to create sacred designs with the printing press. This rule led artists such as Yunupiŋu to innovate new imageries. She “screen-printed renderings of the animals she carved from softwood” and soon expanded into other printing techniques.
Yunupiŋu spent a decade working as a printmaker before she began to paint in 2007. She communicated her desire to focus on this medium to Will Stubbs, her friend and the coordinator of Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Art Centre, who then invited her to work at the Centre. It was around this time that Sydney gallerist Roslyn Oxley encountered her, and was impressed by her dedication and love of art. Thereafter, she became exclusively represented by Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. In 2008, Yunupiŋu won the Wandjuk Marika Memorial 3D Award, of the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, with Incident at Mutpi (2008), which comprises a bark painting and a video of herself, reflecting on being attacked by a water buffalo in 1975. The work was later acquired by MAGNT. The same year that she received the prize, she started incorporating larrakitj, a wooden memorial pole that the Yolŋu people use as coffins, into her practice, and held her first solo show, “Once Upon A Time,” at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. The exhibition showcased her bark paintings, including Airlift to Darwin Hospital (2008), which depicts her being carried away on a stretcher following the buffalo attack, and Hunting Stingray at Birany Birany (2008), a depiction of a community event.
In 2009, Yunupiŋu’s paintings and larrakitj gradually became more abstract, which could be related to her recurring nightmare of the water buffalo, as she explained. She started to immerse herself in mark-making. Her meditative works from this period feature repetitive lines and geometric shapes, such as circles, surrounded by cross-hatchings in white, red, or pink pigments. Free from the demands of storytelling, her approach challenged the idea that Indigenous art reflects only the artist’s land and history.
Yunupiŋu has been featured in the Biennale of Sydney twice. In 2012, she presented Light Paintings (2010–11), an animation with 110 white-paint-on-acetate slides programmed and projected by Yirrkala’s digital art collective Mulka Project; in 2016, she showcased a forest of larrakitj that marked a space of grieving.
Last year, MAGNT held her first museum survey, “the moment eternal,” which traced the transformation of her practice from the early 2000s to 2020, and featured a 2.4-meter-tall, 3.6-meter-long work with compressed earth pigment and a digital protection of an imaginary coastal landscape. A similar palette is seen in her gray earth-pigment-on-board Gärak – night sky (2021), which won the 2021 Wynne Prize for landscape painting. The work depicts the Indigenous myth of Djulpan, the Seven Sisters who paddled and travelled through the islands near Arafura Sea and Cape Arnhem, eventually arriving in Rocky Bay.
In an email sharing the news of Yunupiŋu’s passing, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery wrote, “She was a unique, sensitive and gentle soul. A beautiful life she created and shared. Her work will continue to give many people so much joy.”
Pamela Wong is ArtAsiaPacific’s assistant editor.
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