Gunybi Ganambarr, Garraparra (Larrakitj), 2015, wood with natural pigments and sand. Installation view, 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art

Gunybi Ganambarr: Giving the trees a rest

Gunybi Ganambarr, Nganmarra, 2015
Gunybi Ganambarr, Nganmarra, 2015, etched and polished water tank metal with paint. Purchased 2015 in memory of David Barnett throuhg the Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art Foundation

Gunybi Ganambarr recently exhibited his work in the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at Brisbane’s Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, representing 80 visual and performance artists from 36 countries (including PNG, Fiji, Vanuatu, India, South Korea, Mongolia and Australia) who shared their cultural, social and political views. Following the conceptual leaps taken in APT5 by elder statesman and celebrated artist Djambawa Marawili (his mentor and father-in-law) Gunybi has thrilled APT8 audiences with his revolutionary sculptural works. 

Gunybi lives mostly on his mother’s country at Gangan homeland outside Yirrkala, a rich source of inspiration for him. He was chosen early in his life as a ceremonial yidaki player and brings the deep spirituality, focus and endurance required for this role to his visual art practice. Early in his career, Gunybi used stringybark and wood. In a departure from Yolngu conventions, Gunybi now repurposes discarded materials found on the land for his art. He re-examines the age-old tenet set by his elders –  “if you paint the land you must use the land” – to include these cast-offs, uncovering forms and surfaces on offer from such unlikely materials as heavy galvanised iron, corrugated Colorbond and dense black industrial-strength rubber.

Gunybi Ganambarr, Ngaymil, installation view APT8
Gunybi Ganambarr, Ngaymil Font, 2012, cut-out sheet metal, Ross Bonthorne Collection; Ngaymil, 2015, incised conveyor-belt rubber, courtesy the artist and Buku Larrngay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala. Installation view, 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art

Gunybi is deeply thoughtful and always open to new ideas. He explains his instinct to innovate as “Ngarraku mulkurr” (coming from his mind) and has the confidence to push creative boundaries. His facility for using tools, developed during the twelve years he worked as a builder on housing for the homelands and an extraordinary instinct for drawing out the aesthetic possibilities inherent in materials, enables him to realise what he imagines. In recycling the detritus of industry and development Gunybi is also driven by a personal ethos of protecting the natural environment, concerned that if natural species are lost, the songs and narratives attaching to them are also disrupted. Besides, 
as he says, it “gives the trees a rest”  a chance to regenerate. 

Gunybi’s installation in the Gallery of Modern Art was dominated by three monumental larrakidj (memorial poles), which became contemporary sculptures in his hands. He selected logs with extreme knots and deformities, covered their undulating surfaces with dynamic rarrk patterning and emphasised their sculptural presence by positioning the narrowest circumference at the base. 

In Nganmarra (2015) Gunybi used sheets of iron he unbolted from a disused water tank, etching Ngaymil clan designs into its surface through skilful use of an angle grinder. With its sacred abstractions polished to a smooth, reflective surface, he has transformed this unlikely material into an object of great beauty. In contrast, the untreated, galvanised reverse side carries the initials of a close group of young girls who left their mark in red paint in 1996  a nostalgic memory of happy times at Gangan when they were all together.

Responding to the erosion of his people’s hard-won rights over the last half-century and in particular to a fractured history with the local mining enterprise, Gunybi’s art becomes both political statement and healing process. In Ngaymil he gouged ancestral narratives deep into the surface of a massive three-metre length of conveyor belt rubber and in Buyku (2015) painted natural pigments and sand from his land onto the rubber surface. While acknowledging the role these conveyor belts played in transporting endless tonnes of his “mother earth” to be processed for bauxite, he also reiterates his cultural connections to his country.

On the opening weekend of APT8, and with Yinimala Gumana on yidaki, Gunybi Ganambarr sang his works into the Gallery space, giving his audience further opportunity for a rich cultural experience.

Gunybi Ganambarr, Ngaymil 2015 Incised conveyor belt rubber
Gunybi Ganambarr, Ngaymil, 2015, incised conveyor belt rubber. Purchased 2016 in memory of David Barnett through the Queensland Art Gallery l Gallery of Modern Art Foundation.


Diane Moon has been Curator, Indigenous Fibre Art at QAGOMA since 2003. Diane has worked continuously in Indigenous art since living in Ramingining, Arnhem Land, 1983–84 and with Maningrida Arts and Culture 1985–95. She has a Masters of Applied Science from the University of Western Sydney and received a Churchill Fellowship in 2002 to research Indigenous Australian fibre collections in international museums.