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Wunungmurra, Djirrirra - 2013.27

Djirrirra Wunungmurra

Yukuwa 2013
earth pigment on bark
81 x 64 cm
Purchased 2013

In recent times there has been a significant shift in content created by women artists from Yirrkala, on the east coast of the Gove Peninsula in north-eastern Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory. The Yolngu people of the Miwatj (or sunrise side of this nation) call Yirrkala and its surrounding country home. They have a long and sustained tradition of cultural practice expressed in mark-making, performance and storytelling. Their culture is made up of many mutually comprehensible language groups.

The title of the work Yukuwa refers to the yam (Vigna vexillate), found in copious quantities throughout north-eastern Arnhem Land, and it is also self-referential, with Yukuwa being one of the names the artist is known by. This beautiful twining vine, with its delicate pale pink, purple and white flowers and the yam it produces, has been a staple of the Yolngu diet for millennia. It is also an important part of ceremony and, given its significance as a multi-faceted resource, it is unsurprising that it is vital subject matter to transmit as an artistic narrative. However, the relationship between the artist painting the yukuwa and the configuration of marks on bark depicting the yam is far more complex than what is immediately visible.

Djirrirra Wunungmurra uses the theme of the yukuwa leaf, with its distinctive trifoliate shape, as the dominant motif in her art. In this work, Djirrirra paints with the traditional medium of ochre, particularly the white ochre gapan, overlaying this background with patterning specific to the artist. The yukuwa tendrils lay almost smothered underneath thick, methodical overlays of the long, delicate leaves. The vine leaves feel as if they want to escape the confines of the bark’s edges, such is the intense movement emanating from the clear centre point.

Djirrirra’s original paintings focused on the Buyku fish-trap imagery – the well-known diamond-shaped patterns – the rights to which had been passed on to her by her father.  Yirrkala’s female artists of this generation, including important figures such as Nonggirrnga Marawili, have shifted their focus from representing their father’s or husband’s clan stories to depicting their own, more personal, non-secular narratives. Djirrirra began to paint the yukuwa motif after tension arose with a family member over her right to paint the Buyku imagery. While the issue has since been resolved, Djirrirra has continued to engage with yukuwa subject matter, its semiotic layers being both personal and ceremonial considerations for the artists.

More broadly, Djirrirra makes a strong and defined statement about her artistic practice and its place within the Yirrkala community, symbolically linked, as it is, with the yukuwa. Customarily, the invitation to a particular Yirritja renewal ceremony is presented as an object in the form of this yam, with strings emanating from it, and its feathered flowers at the end. Embodied in this invitation are the ideas of sustainability and connections with others. It is interesting and poignant that in painting the yukuwa vine Djirrirra relates her strength as a woman and artist in her own right, deeply connected with her community.

Clothilde Bullen is curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Exhibitions and Collections at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. She is a Wardandi Aboriginal woman from the south-west of Western Australia.