Interview with Luke Scholes, curator of the moment eternal: Nyapanyapa Yunupingu

Nyapanyapa Yunupiŋu, Dharpa - wild apples 2009. Print size: 25 x 49 cm Paper size: 40 x 60 cm. Purchased 2009 Telstra Collection, Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.

the moment eternal: Nyapanyapa Yunupingu

The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (Australia)

Through October 25, 2020

Aboriginal art continues to gain popularity among collectors, with new exhibitions at Sotheby’s New York and Gagosian Hong Kong in 2020. And yet, recognition of individual artists through survey museum shows are strangely lacking. I asked curator Luke Scholes some questions over video chat to get at the meat of his latest museum show spotlighting Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, a midcareer artist with a personal mythology and signification of materials that would make Joseph Beuys weep.

MARY GAGLER:  How did you begin curating this exhibition? What were your first thoughts?

LUKE SCHOLES: Well, to start, this is the first major exhibition of an individual Aboriginal artist at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, which is confounding and surprising and disappointing and exciting all at the same time. I felt it was really important that it spotlight a woman, because women are really the backbone of contemporary Aboriginal art practice at the moment. And I wanted it to be someone who challenged our preconceptions about what Aboriginal art is and what it can be.  

I was present in Darwin in 2008 when Nyapanyapa won the prestigious Wandjuk Marika Memorial Prize for Incident at Mutpi 1975, a painting on bark and accompanying video work that was so unexpected and exciting. She also has had these really distinct passages of creation with varying materials and I thought that was really interesting to try and unpack in a survey.

the moment eternal: Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Installation view, Courtesy of MAGNT/Merinda Campbell.

MG: Does each new material change her visual language? 

LS: Ultimately, with each material she is working towards a very mysterious outcome. I write in my catalog essay about sitting down and trying to ask her the questions I felt duty-bound to ask her and it seemed [incongruous] to her, like ‘hang on, you want to stop me from painting to talk about painting? You are kind of missing the point here.’ Actually, a big barrier between people and Aboriginal art is that the audience too often think that there is something to decode before they can appreciate a work. If you accept that what Nyapanyapa is painting is meaningless and that you are relieved of that effort to decode anything, then she opens people up to having this really emotional response to her work. In curating the show, I have tried to be as hands-off as I possibly can be, to provide people with enough insight to engage with the work but engage with the work in the spirit in which it is presented by the artist.  

MG: What are the themes in the exhibition?

LS: Among Nyapanyapa’s contemporaries, the dominant themes are all stories about the travels and actions of ancestral beings and their knowledge and experience of the ancestral past rather than personal histories. There are very few people who would make a painting of their father following in the footsteps of the ancestors. The very well-recorded story of her being gored by a wild buffalo whilst collecting wild apples is expressed across a whole series of paintings that I tried to bring together for this exhibition [starting with Incident at Mutpi 1975, and explored further in the imaginative Wendy in Wonderland paintings. “Wendy” is Nyapanyapa’s English-speaking name]. In the series of works, you have the focus on Nyapanyapa and her relatives collecting apples, the focus on the buffalo itself, the focus on the incident, the focus on the aftermath and being flown into a Darwin hospital on a plane. After painting these, she had a nightmare about the buffalo and then says ‘I am never going to paint that again,’ and she doesn’t. Instead, she paints the trees, and then she paints the leaves of the trees, and then the leaves of the trees slowly recede into this beautiful mark-making. You can see the intent and motivation and that it is very personal. Within the canon of Australian art, what Nyapanyapa is doing is rare and singular and it challenges the stories we tell ourselves about what contemporary Aboriginal artists are doing. Aboriginal art is changing and so too the discourse needs to change.

the moment eternal: Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Installation view, Courtesy of MAGNT/Merinda Campbell. 

MG: How do these changes relate formally to the tradition of Aboriginal art making? 

LS: What I think she is doing is about the application of paint on the body and the application of paint onto rocks and surfaces. That is what Aboriginal kids grow up seeing. The application of designs onto surfaces to imbue them with meaning is something that Aboriginal kids grow up and see and then learn about and then they receive responsibility or authorization to do it themselves. Because Nyapanyapa was never given authority from her father to paint sacred clan designs, she and a number of her sisters were forced to do something different. And painting for a market- whether it be for missionaries or the emerging art market- has itself become a new kind of cultural activity. For Nyapanyapa, that process of grinding earth pigments, working with a brush and applying that to surfaces that she saw her father doing in the 50’s, that itself is a cultural activity for her. So, even though she is not recreating sacred designs, that moment that earth pigment hits a surface engages her with her cultural present and her personal history. 

MG: She gets further and further from depicting her personal history formally and distances herself from the trauma…

LS: And that loss of figuration you see her moving into a period that is about her love of painting. She loves the physical act of painting. And it comes back to the title of the show, the moment eternal. It is about making a mark and not knowing what the next mark is going to be. It is about living in the moment, and that moment always being new and fresh and not plotting and planning a composition. Compositionally, in Ganyu, the stars are these incredible armlets and starbursts that imbue the surface with activity.  It is an homage to her sister Ms. G Yunupingu and also a telling of the stars story known as Djulpan, which their father had painted. She has found her way to telling cultural stories but with this very remote application of personalized iconography. She eventually found her way to do cultural storytelling about those seven sisters stars in a way that was divorced enough from the sacred that it is still safe for her to tell.

the moment eternal: Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Installation view, Courtesy of MAGNT/Merinda Campbell.

MG: I like that there is a harmony between your curating and how she is presenting herself through the work. What is next for you?

LS:  Yeah, and as a nonindigenous curator of Aboriginal art, the last thing I want to be doing is making representations of another person’s cultural practice that maybe I am not entitled to represent. And that is something I am perpetually aware of and careful around. There are so many stories to tell. And for me, what it’s about now is an Aboriginal person taking my job and making these decisions about what’s next and who’s next. I think the time has come in Australia for Aboriginal people to be telling these stories and making the decisions. And that’s what’s next for me: to try and prepare this institution to take on hopefully a Northern Territory-based Indigenous curator to tell the stories they want to tell. WM 

This exhibition can be viewed online:



Mary Gagler

Mary Gagler is a Baltimore-based arts professional and independent researcher. She is a recent graduate of the art history and museum studies graduate program at The City College of New York. She has presented original research on Australian Aboriginal art at the College Art Association annual conference, the Courtauld Institute of Art, and elsewhere. Her curatorial projects have been featured at SPRING/BREAK Art Show and Chashama among others.

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