Journey of the Stars.
It is a bittersweet task to write for this exhibition which shows the last works of this special artist who died surrounded by family on 20th October 2021.
There is a conflict between the Yolŋu protocols of spiritual hygiene (which require us to do nothing which will interfere with the progress of her eternal spirit through the aquifers of her lineage) and the natural desire to ensure that her brilliance not be forgotten.
Her extended funeral ceremony lasted three weeks at her remote homeland of Dhanaya on the shores of Port Bradshaw. During this time hundreds of people relocated to the ceremony and danced through the many facets of her spiritual identity.
We can be confident that these rituals have ensured the continuation of her soul’s journey into the next dimension, but until we are sure that she has been welcomed back to the bosom of her clan’s artesian wellspring it is safer not to speak her name out loud. This might distract her from the path which guarantees resurrection in a new vessel.
The use of the word ‘journey’ in the title reflects in several dimensions. The stars which she painted in life are drawn from the epic song poetry of the Gumatj clan who chart the pathway of the Seven Sisters (Djulpan) constellation across the sky but also from Singapore through the Indonesian archipelago all the way to Yirrkala and back.
The history of her personal linear journey through life is just as dramatic. An (often silent) witness to the entrenchment of the missionaries in the 1950s, the space scientists at Dhupuma in the 1960s, and the advent of a massive open cut Bauxite mine in the 1970s. But also to the Yolŋu reactions to these impositions in the Bark Petition, The Gove Land Rights Case, the Homeland Movement, bilingual ‘bothways’ education, Yothu Yindi and The Blue Mud Bay case to name a few.
As a young wife of a senior Djapu man she was part of the establishment of the homeland of Garrthalala. Upon his death she moved to stay with her sisters which was her pattern for the rest of her life. Very late in life, the coincidence of a visit from Roslyn Oxley to Yirrkala brought her to the attention of the art centre staff who were then able to appreciate her unrecognised gift for mark making.
A slew of sell out shows and awards followed which brought her to national and international attention. In the last year of her life, she won the Wynne Prize and the year before she was able to see her retrospective exhibition and catalogue, curated by Luke Scholes, open at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.
What was so striking and endearing about all of this recognition was that she paid it no heed. Her life and self-image were completely unaffected by the fuss. She loved to paint and was obsessive about it. Even on trips away we needed to cater for her to be able to make her marks as there was little in city life that was of interest to her. The activity of painting these fine fractal lines, with a slim brush made from the straight hair of a young girl tied to a stick with ‘cordney’ (cotton), was purely internal and self-sustaining.
Her loss drained the Centre of an essential element. The unbridled, selfless warmth of the affection and joy with which she greeted all comers had become something which we unconsciously depended on. We only appreciated the extent of that dependence when it was removed. It was who she was. Not a fabled art star but a loving innocent, pure of heart and mind. In love with life itself and the joy of creation.
And so, we are bound to share this last offering from her in the generous spirit with which it was made. In some ways the end of her journey as an artist. But her infinite eternal spiritual journey through the waters and the stars continues.
–Will Stubbs, 2022