Will Stubbs: Yinimala, you are a young man, can you tell the story of how your life led you to become an artist? What happened?
Well first of all I need to introduce myself. My name is Yinimala Gumana and I am from the Dhalwangu clan. And I am a Yolnu. I grew up in a remote community area in North East Arnhem Land in the way that my people have always lived and educated themselves, and now I am learning something from my community and from my clan.
So, what are your memories of art?
My memory of art is that as soon as I was a little boy ... as soon as I learned something from my parents…my life was affected by what they taught me. Like showing me the way that we can survive, how we can make things better for our life and for our community.
I saw my Dad and my families show me the way that they had lived and shared knowledge through the art, through the ceremony, through the paintings and through the Law. And that is what I learned from my people.
Do you remember growing up in Gangan? Is that where you grew up?
I was born in Gangan, which is my place, my community and the nearby river, in 1982. And yes, I grew up there, in Gangan. All my families, they are all artists. Even my grandfather Birrikitji Gumana was a very, very important lawman. Not just for my clan but for all clans, for the two moieties – Yirritja and Dhuwa.
Can you tell me a little bit about your grandfather?
My grandfather was a professional artist and lawmaker in this region. He was a professor in his leadership and he knew everything that was in each of the two moieties. He knew about all the elements belonging to Yirritja and Dhuwa.
What was the name of that position in Yolnu matha (language)? What was his title?
Grandfather's title or position was what we call Djerrikay or Dhalkarra. Grandfather and his father, and their forefathers and I, we are all Dalkarra (professors). From each generation to the next, to my grandfather’s, to my father’s, to my uncles, we are all Dalkarra family.
And we are humble. We live our life in a humble way to show the world and the people, our respectable way of living.
Maybe a non-Indigenous audience doesn’t understand what a Dalkarra is. So could you explain it a little more?
Dalkarra is what you call a professor in your language. They hold very deep knowledge. That person is a master and trustee for the knowledge of ceremony. An example is when you go to university and you get a degree or diploma; and that is the power of knowledge. And that is what we call a Dalkarra in our society.
You are saying that a lot of your family are Dalkarra. When was it that you understood that this might be something that you would have to do later in life?
As soon as I was in school and as soon as my father and my mother passed away, I began to learn through my father’s brother. He is Dr. Gawirrin Gumana AO. He’s my uncle and I call him my father because he is my father’s brother and I have learnt a lot from him since I was about fourteen years old. And this is how I began to work towards this position and how I came into the art world.
How did your father Gawirrin show you about art?
After school, after hours, in the afternoon or after lunchbreak he always called me to him to show me his artwork. This is how he shared the stories.
I still remember when I first got the very, very fine marwat brush (crosshatching brush made from human hair). With that marwat, when you paint, that is your life. When you put your marwat on the bark you can shape yourself. You can shape your life with that marwat. You can make your life better. You can make your identity better. You can shape your life using that brush.
You mentioned that you learnt to use the marwat with your father Gawirrin, after your father died. When did you start painting for yourself? How did that happen?
I started painting for myself after I went to Sydney for the Olympic opening ceremony in 2000. I was about eighteen. As soon as I came back from that experience I started to learn more about how to paint artworks, how to draw the pictures, how to use the marwat, how to find the colours and all that, how to find and use gapan (white clay pigment).
You were eighteen?
Well I really started painting with my father Gawirrin when I was fourteen years old. When he gave me that marwat. “This is the marwat. You can take it and use it in your life.” This is what he said. “And you can learn from me now, while you are young. Because you know what? Your grandfathers, all your fathers and even myself, we are all artists. This is the power. This is the strength. You can take it and go for it.” That is what he said. So when I was around about eighteen years old I started doing my own artwork, and all my life since.
At the same time you were being given responsibility in ceremony as well, is that right?
Yes, as soon as I was eighteen or nineteen I got the responsibility in ceremony way. At first I learnt through the stories and marwat then I learnt from my old man and later through the experience that I learnt from different sections, different areas, different clans, different designs. Different relationships, like through my mother’s side, through my father’s side, through my maternal grandmother’s side, through my maternal great grandmother’s side, through my sister clans. And then I learnt and I got all the knowledge. When I see the art, I can match the patterns with a person’s identity. I can tell which art belongs to which country, the likan – what we call the designs. Which is which, I can read it because the paintings all tell about the countries. Different ownerships, different responsibilities. The land, the waters, the animals, the trees.
How did you feel getting the responsibility to run the ceremonies so young?
How did I feel? Up here in North East Arnhem Land we always share. It doesn’t matter who we are; little, middle age or a man, single, not single, married, anyone can have the responsibility to run the situation in ceremonial life. It is not unusual for a young person to have this kind of responsibility if they are ready for it.
You spoke about going to the Olympics. Do you remember going to other exhibitions and what effect that had on you?
As soon as I was recognised in the art industry, through Buku-Larrnggay and other galleries, and when I got chosen with others to go to Sydney to show our art – to express ourselves in what we call the Young Guns, were on the major stage. We showed our work in Sydney in 2005. This was the first journey for us to go out and explore and express our artworks to the world.
And did this experience have an effect on the way you made your art?
It affected the way I did my artwork – to see different art from different areas, and elements, and different capacities like the way that they prepare, and how they do and show their artworks. And through those experiences we are thinking about how we can show and make our work differently in our own way. Like into Buwayak the Invisibility movement. Art that you can’t see easily but still it’s the same story belonging to our journey from when our ancestors have been here from 40,000 years; or whenever that was.
Is it a new technique?
Yes. It’s a new technique.
You are close to another artist, Gunybi Ganambarr.
I am close to Gunybi Ganambarr, he is my Djugayi or custodian or caretaker for my clan, and for also his clan. We always share the responsibility.
He has led a group of artists into using other materials. What has the reaction been among Yolnu people towards that?
It’s up to the other person thinking differently to think what they want to or to see the art the way that he wants to. For example my brother-in-law Gunybi found his materials from the community and made art out of it.
It’s up to him?
That’s up to him. It’s up to each artist to think which way he wants to go.
How does your generation use art?
Our generation uses art sometimes to follow what the old people have shown and some follow their own ideas in a different way. We use it to make prints made from materials we can buy or the materials we can find on the ground in the community. In this generation we are doing artwork using both materials.
Some people say that Yolnu sacred art is done just for white people. It is not really meaningful to Yolnu people. They are just doing it for money?
I have heard that some people say that Yolnu art is made just for white people. I don’t want to criticise whoever in the community is doing that. If the person, whoever they are, is an artist from Australia – in the community or in the remote area, or out from the remote area, whoever does art, it is up to that person to think what they think; and say what they have learnt from making art, and from their own identity, or what ancestors have been through their Country and passed on to their generations. It is up to them. But our art is different from their art. You know what? Each country, each dialect and each people across Australia has a different culture and ways of thinking and focusing on art and ceremony in their life. Up here in North East Arnhem Land we have a different life – how we live, how we survive, how we do things, how we make things.
It has been said that before the anthropologist Donald Thomson came Yolnu did not do painting in bark?
Yolnu ceremony has been here for many years since before Captain Cook arrived in Sydney and stabbed the land with his flag. It doesn’t matter that he ‘owned’ the land. Our stories and our everything had already been there. But we have already been there. Ourselves, black people across Australia had already been there.
Do you have anything to say about the idea that Yolnu didn’t do bark paintings before Donald Thomson?
Yolnu have used this technique for many years. People who say that Yolnu did not paint sacred paintings on bark before this do not know about madayin – secret sacred objects.
What is one thought in your mind about being an artist?
If I did not get this opportunity … If I had a weak soul, weak feelings, weak everything, that would mean that I could not be an artist or be in the art world, or run my ceremonies or talk with people individually.
It comes with this ceremony, with this painting, with this story and what I have learnt from my people, from my Elders. It comes from the spirit of the land, which is speaking for us. For everybody really. Wherever you go you can feel the spirit of the land. It can talk to you, and give you something! Whether you can go somewhere or are just sitting by yourself, and doing nothing.
You can feel yourself becoming human.
- ^ Named for the watershed Buwayak/Invisibility exhibition at Annandale Galleries in 2003 featuring Djambawa Marawili, Galuma Maymuru and Wanyubi Marika. It marked the subsidence of the figurative totemic figures into the water of the sacred design rendering them less visible or invisible and was a movement away from the figuration which had been the convention for fifty years.
- ^ Referring to the use of found materials, discarded mining or housing metal, rubber, board or perspex. Innovated first by Gunybi Ganambarr from 2010 onwards and publicly adopted by his peers in the Found exhibition Annandale Galleries 2013.
Card image: Yinimala Gumana, Yinitjuwa, 2011, earth pigments on incised bark. Image courtesy the artist and Buku Larrngay Mulka
Will Stubbs has been manager at the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka centre at Yirrkala for 15 years, before which he was a criminal lawyer. He is married to Dhalulu Ganambarr, a noted Yolngu scholar.