Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia: Telling the sacred stories of Country in Murrŋiny: a story of metal from the east, Interview with Director, Petrit Abazi

Murrŋiny, title wall in Wanapati Yellow, 2021.

Murrŋiny: a story of metal from the east

Northern Centre for Contemporary ArtDarwin, Northern Territory, Australia

August 7 through September 25, 2021

By MARY GAGLER, November 2021

Murrŋiny: a story of metal from the east is an exhibition that showcases new works by Aboriginal contemporary artists working with found metal objects. In September 2021, works by Gunybi Ganambarr, Barayuwa Munuŋgurr, Wanapati Yunupiŋu, Wukun Wanambi, Binygurr Wirrpanda, Ganpilbil Maymuru, Wurrandan Marawili, and Ishmael Marika were on view at the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art on the custodial land of the Larrakia people in Darwin, Australia. 

Works by these eight artists follow the path set by trailblazer artist Gunybi Ganambarr, whose radical processes of etching Aboriginal designs into discarded industrial metal expanded the realm of the ancestral to include modern-day materials. The sold-out exhibition reveals an appetite for stylistic advancements at the intersection of ancient and contemporary. Having postponed a 2021 trip to this area due to international covid travel restrictions, I am grateful to get some time with Petrit Abazi, the Director at Northern Centre for Contemporary Art.

Mary Gagler: Thank you so much for taking the time to correspond with me about this exhibition. First, can you tell me what led you to visit Buku Larrnggay-Mulka art centre in the community of Yirrkala? 

Petrit Abazi: I visited Buku Larrŋggay-Mulka art centre in August 2020, shortly after moving to Darwin. 

Two friends invited me on the long and bumpy road trip to East Arnhem Land as a holiday. Although the pristine beaches and the lure of an adventure were enticing, a visit to Buku was at the top of my list of things to see. I had known about the art centre for many years. I cut my curatorial teeth in 2008 with a show of Aboriginal Art in Italy which included a sculpture by Djambawa Marawilli. And I had been following the progress of the centre from afar.  

MG: What did you find when you got to Yirrkala? 

PA: I found more than I had bargained for. I knew that the artists of East Arnhem Land had been pushing boundaries in contemporary art practice since time immemorial, but I was not prepared for the religious experience I fell into from the moment I walked into the art centre.

Bunygurr Wirrpanda, Dangultji ga Yalata, found and etched steel, 124 x 121 cm., 2021.

MG: I love that you describe seeing the works as a religious experience.  

I was dazzled and amazed not only by the volume of work — hundreds of pictures were hung salon-style throughout the gallery and museum, or stacked front-to-front and back-to-back — but the remarkable quality and diversity of the paintings, sculptures and objects was breathtaking. In particular, I was attracted to a work by Gunybi Gannambarr, one of the Yolŋu artists of northeast Arnhem Land. A work that was stylistically related to everything around it, but also in the same breath, completely revolutionary and groundbreaking. The artists of this area follow the law that they need to use the land if they are to paint the land. Gunybi managed to convince the Elders that the discarded signs around Country were now part of the land and that they could be repurposed to make art that tells the sacred stories of Country. The result is just stunning. 

MG: How did these eight artists fit with your programming at the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art?

PA: I began working as Director for the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art in April 2021. On my first day, I was presented with a proposal by Buku-Larrnggay and Salon Art Projects for an exhibition of works on metal by eight artists from Yirrkala. Before I even finished reading the end of the one-page proposal, it was an immediate and audible “yes!”. It really was a no-brainer.  

The NCCA was founded in 1989, as a place that fosters experimentation and innovation in contemporary art practices. We have a public program of 5-6 exhibitions annually that present the work of local, interstate, international, Aboriginal and non-indigenous artists.

These Arnhem Land artists are working on metal — a material that was used by the Yolŋu (exchanged in trade with Makassan traders) well before the arrival of Europeans. Murrŋiny refers to the material and the spears from the area, but was also once the name of the Yolŋu people themselves. These artists were referencing their history while breaking with the past by using found metal materials and carving the surfaces with dremels.

It is no surprise that some of these works have found new homes in museums across Australia and in private collections in the USA too.

Gunybi Ganambarr, Garraparra, found and etched aluminum, 90 x 90 cm., 2021.

MG: It strikes me that the metal the artists are using is refuse from settler cultures. Can you speak to this trans-cultural quality of the works?

PA: Indeed, there is a strong dialogue between Yolŋu and Ballanda (European) histories in these works. Modern road signs punctuate the Arnhem Highway, from Katherine all the way up to Yirrkala. These ‘white fella’ symbols and commands have been superimposed onto Aboriginal land. They are scattered incongruously across the natural landscape. 

The artists in this exhibition have taken these signs — disused, bent, rusted and riddled with bullet holes — and have remodelled them as canvases for their own mark-making, telling their own stories and laws. They are not only repurposing abandoned waste materials; they are reaffirming their land rights through art.

MG: In your foreword to the catalog, you reference the Yirrkala Bark Petition and the Yirrkala Church Panels, two highly significant instances of expressing land rights through contemporary Aboriginal art. I like how these works engage that conversation on a material level through discarded municipal signage.

PA: In ‘Garraparra’, 2021, (Artbank Collection), Gunybi Ganmabarr has taken a ‘YOU ARE ON THE ARNHEM LAND ABORIGINAL LAND TRUST. DO YOU HAVE YOUR ACCESS PERMIT?’ sign and covered the surface with interlaced geometric patterning that represents the coastal headland and bay area within Blue Mud Bay — a sacred burial place for the Dhalwaŋu clan. 

Wanapati Yunupingu uses yellow street signs, and tells the Gumatj clan story of fire using his totemic marks, scratching the yellow surface (importantly, a colour associated with his clan) to reveal a shimmering silvery base material. For the exhibition, we took one of these street signs to a paint specialist and to colour-match the yellow to paint two feature walls in the show and aptly dubbed it ‘Wanapati Yellow’.

MG: The interlacing of different timescales seems like a salient feature of works in this show. Elsewhere, you describe how the artists “speak of the material and cultural passage of time.”

PA: Another remarkable example is ‘Yathikpa ga Garraŋali’, 2021 by Wurrandan Marawili. The artist tells the story of the ancestral sacred Bäru (crocodile) that travelled from its nest to the saltwater. Turning the picture to see the reverse, we discover that Marawilli has repurposed a bi-lingual ‘Crocodile Warning’ sign. So, on the front, the artist exalts the ancient and revered creature; while on the reverse, modern messaging warns of the dangers the animal poses to life. 

And of course, there is also the Makassan connection and the trade of metals that was well established before British colonisation. A history that is often forgotten or ignored. This Asian connection further enriches the trans-cultural qualities of these works. The political, cultural and historical interconnections throughout these contemporary works are multi-faced. And if you excuse the pun, the artists, curators and academics have just begun to scratch the surface with this new body of work, a new story of metal from the east.

MG: Thank you. WM

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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