Garak IV (The Universe) by Gulumbu Yunupingu

Gulumbu Yunupingu

Garak IV (The Universe) , 2004, Natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark, The National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2005.108, © 2019 ADAGP, Paris / ARS, New York; Photo: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra / Bridgeman Images

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Seeing in the Dark

Commentary by

Australian Aboriginal artist Gulumbu Yunupingu (c.1943–2012) instantiated some of the characteristics of a prophet. Yunupingu began to paint in obedience to a command given her in a visionary experience (Eccles 2012). This prophetic painting mission began in the last decade of her life. 

Garak [The Universe] IV does not depict the constellations her people revere as sacred. Instead, it shows those ordinary stars anyone may see against a dark night sky. Yunupingu only painted using natural ochres. The flattened eucalyptus bark panel of Garak IV is covered with meticulously-rendered simple crosses in white, over-painted with a finer brush in black. Influenced by her father’s paintings, a yellow dot is placed centrally in each one, suggesting astral eyes. These stars not only receive our upward gaze, but also return it. As her mother had once told her when a child, sometimes the stars shed tears over us.

White dots on the red ground infill gaps, sometimes jostling the cross-forms. These are the stars our eyes cannot see which are nevertheless present in the universe. Even those stars we can see fade from our vision at daylight. Conversely, our immediate local world vanishes in night-time dark. Different conditions reveal or conceal the same objects.

Seeing differently, so as to reveal the unseen, characterizes the vocations of both prophets and artists. Yunupingu saw in myriad stars a metaphor for myriad people (Perkins 2010: 232). Her astral sea swells and swirls rhythmically, effected by the subtly differing star sizes, densities, rotations, and angles. Her painted distillation of the universe is one where no presence is overlooked. In her hands, it becomes a patterned evocation of inter-connectedness; a vision of unity.

Habakkuk, too, finds inspiration through attending to God’s work. Although the work of divine salvation evokes dread and awe (Habakkuk 3:2–16), Habakkuk is finally calmed, able to anticipate the light of restored order, even in blinding darkness.

Stars appear to us as we prepare to sleep. In that altered state, we may dream. In this different type of seeing, we may participate in the visual readjustments of prophet and artist.

 

References

Eccles, Jeremy. 2012. ‘Artist Saw the Stars Crying, 13 June 2012’, www.smh.com.au, [accessed 24 September 2020]

Perkins, Hetti. 2010. Art + Soul: A Journey into the World of Aboriginal Art (Carlton, Victoria: The Miegunyah Press)

Skerritt, Henry F. (ed.). 2016. Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia, from the Debra and Dennis Scholl Collection (Prestel: Nevada Museum of Art and DelMonico Books)


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