The prolific Yolŋu artist Dhambit Munuŋgurr has been waiting a long time to get Julia Gillard’s attention.
On 10 July 2013 Australia’s first female prime minister was scheduled to visit the north-east Arnhem Land community of Yirrkala to mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the bark petitions, which sparked the Indigenous land rights movement. Munuŋgurr had prepared a bark painting in Gillard’s honour, hoping to present it to her. But a fortnight before the visit Gillard was toppled in a Labor leadership spill and the victor, Kevin Rudd, made the journey to Yirrkala instead. Munuŋgurr is too polite to publicly take sides but, suffice to say, the painting remains in her bedroom on Gunyaŋara, the tiny island in the Arafura Sea some 25 minutes’ journey away.
Now, almost a decade on, the former female prime minister has again inspired the 53-year-old artist – this time as the subject of a large-scale work, Order, which depicts Gillard in parliament during her infamous 2012 misogyny speech. Speaking over Zoom from her wheelchair at the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala, where she can be found painting large bark canvases and larrakitj (hollow log poles) three days a week, Munuŋgurr explains her admiration for Gillard quite simply: “She is a woman, like me.” Painted on stringybark in Munuŋgurr’s signature blue palette, Order features Gillard towering over pale, limp-faced politicians as Yolŋu dancers storm the parliament, holding arched spears aloft in representation of the cloud mass of the wet season. They are dancing the songline of “bol’ŋu” or “thunderman”, Munuŋgurr explains – an embodiment of the wet season.
Will Stubbs, the longtime coordinator at Buku who is facilitating and translating my conversation with Munuŋgurr, says the Yolŋu in the painting are “supporting and dancing their identity and shepherding [Gillard] in – they’re her bodyguards”.
Order will be hung as part of Bark Ladies: Eleven Artists from Yirrkala, a major new Melbourne exhibition that showcases the National Gallery of Victoria’s collection of stringybark paintings and larrakitj by female Yolŋu artists who work at Buku. Even if Gillard doesn’t see it, the thousands of gallery-goers who are expected to pass through Victoria’s premier art institution over its four-month run certainly will.
2021 has been a big year for Munuŋgurr, who began painting at 13 but only came to national prominence a year ago with her 2020 NGV Triennial presentation “Can we all have a happy life”. This year she was a finalist in the Wynne prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales; and in August won the bark painting award at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards for Bees at Gäṉgän, a work which references her ancestral stories. (Her artist parents Mutitjpuy Munuŋgurr and Gulumbu Yunupingu both won the top prize at the NATSIAAs during their lifetimes.) In October, Munuŋgurr staged a sold-out solo exhibition at the Roslyn Oxley9 gallery in Sydney featuring 24 of her works, including a diptych titled Welcoming the Refugees / Scott Morrison and the Treasurer – depicting Yolŋu pushing the two most powerful men in Australia out to sea. Her most expensive work sold for $60,000; although she only receives a portion of that amount, it is a handsome sum for an artist who paints compulsively but gives most of her work away. “There’s not many people in north-east Arnhem Land who haven’t got a personal Dhambit painting,” Stubbs says.
Munuŋgurr comes from a political family. Her artist grandfather Mungurrawuy Yunupingu helped spearhead the land rights struggle in the 1960s; her late uncle Mandawuy Yunupingu was the joint founder of Yothu Yindi; her son Gapanbulu Yunupingu played yidaki in the group and now sometimes fronts the band. But Munuŋgurr’s artwork mostly explores her deep esoteric knowledge of Yolŋu stories. Painting for her is “healing”, she explains. “It keeps me alive.”
In 2005 a near-fatal car accident left Munuŋgurr with permanent physical disabilities and an acquired brain injury. During the seven months she spent in hospital in Darwin – 700km west of Yirrkala – her mother and French husband Tony Gintz received special permission to take Munuŋgurr on excursions to the nearby bush for traditional healing sessions. Her mother would dig a pit and add coals to create a natural sauna and then overlay it with paperbark and healing plants. Munuŋgurr would be placed inside. “I was cooked in an underground oven!” Munuŋgurr hoots.
Stubbs elaborates: “Her initial assessment by the doctors was that she would be a vegetable with no capacity to live any life. Tony and her mother defied that and through those healing processes she was able to return home. And the first moment she was able to, she painted, and through painting she has healed herself.”
The accident impeded the use of her dominant right hand, so Munuŋgurr learned to wield her marwat (a traditional paintbrush made from her own hair) with her left. Her injuries also made it difficult for her to collect and grind the ochres and other earth pigments that Yolŋu artists customarily use on their canvases, so the elders gave her permission on compassionate grounds to use acrylic paint instead. After years of recreating traditional colours with orange, red and yellow paints, Munuŋgurr switched in 2019 to painting her larger works in the vivid shades of azure, ultramarine and turquoise that have come to define her.
She chose the hue, she has explained, “because the earth is blue, the sky is blue and the sea is blue”.
But her husband, who collects the sheets of stringybark for her work – venturing out during the wet season with a tomahawk to peel the outer layer off suitable trees – says: “The work [blue paintings] she does in Buku is only a small part of her whole body of work, because when she comes back home, she spends all her time painting [in many colours] … One day there’s going to be a surprising exhibition of the other side of Dhambit.”
Stubbs adds: “There’s a shipping container full, because Dhambit is not painting for money, fame or profit – she needs to paint. She has to paint compulsively all day, every day.”
Munuŋgurr nods her head: “Every day.”
Before we hang up, Munuŋgurr fixes her gaze on me through the computer screen and smiles. “I’ll paint you one day,” she says, grinning. “You, talking to me.”