The Passing of an Australian Icon
Gulumbu Yunupingu passed away on May 10th in North East Arnhem Land. While she will be remembered as an award winning artist for her bark paintings and her majestic memorial poles - her work is part of the largest international commission of contemporary indigenous art from Australia at the Musee du quai Branly Paris - her achievements are many and her contribution to Australia has been exceptional.
The older sister of Galarrwuy and? Mandawuy Yunupingu, both Australians of the year, Ms Yunupingu was a power behind the scenes: an elder stateswoman, a leader and teacher. She was a linguist, one of four translators of the Bible into the Gumatj language over 26 years, and a qualified health worker and healer with a deep knowledge of bush medicine and plant uses. She was a philosopher and progressive thinker who dedicated her life to maintaining indigenous culture, while helping young people bridge two cultures.
I first met Ms Yunupingu when I was Director of the Australian Children's Television Foundation and committed to producing a feature film about young indigenous Australians. Stephen Johnson had built a film company in the Territory where he had shot the Yothu Yindi music video clips. Together we developed a script with writer Chris Anastassiades called Yolngu Boy and we needed permission from Galarrwuy Yunupingu, the leader of the Gumatj clan nation, to work on a collaboration in Arnhem Land. I had tried unsuccessfully for two years to contact Galarrwuy. For our plans to succeed I had to meet him. We were advised to seek out Galarrwuy's elder sister Gulumbu to see if she might help our cause. We sought out her daughter who took us to see her mother who was involved in a funeral.
The ceremony was a striking scene on the red earth under the eucalypts. Ms Yunupingu, her body painted with grey clay agreed she would come camping with us to Birany Birany, on a remote bay some distance away.
We stocked up on flour, steaks and sleeping bags and I sat with Ms Yunupingu as we drove, but we were both shy so spoke little. When we arrived we settled on the beach, lit a fire, barbecued the steak and talked about the film we wanted to make until late in the evening. The film would tell the story of young people caught between two worlds and the choices they were facing.
Ms Yunupingu and I slept side by side on the beach that night. There were stars across the sky but it was still a black night and I had no idea what was out there. Next morning Gulumbu went to the edge of the water about eight metres from where we had been sleeping and beckoned me. There was the imprint from a very large crocodile which had sat watching as we slept. She decided to take me hunting. Carrying a hessian bag and a stick she beckoned me to follow her into the water close to where we had seen the crocodile imprint.? Terrified I exclaimed, ?What about the crocodiles?' She smiled and shook her head. I took a deep breath and in I went up to my thighs.
Visible on the sand underwater were dozens of crabs. Gulumbu collected a number then invited me to follow her into the mangroves where the stalks were covered in oysters. She gathered enough food for a feast then cooked the tastiest meal. We sat on the ground beside a large midden under the shade. The heat was intense: I was filthy, covered in salt, sunscreen, mosquito repellent and sweat and I enjoyed the meal of my life - damper, crab and oysters.
When we returned to Yirrkala with no explanation we were called to a meeting with Galarrwuy Yunupingu. It had taken two years but he confirmed the film would be made with his cooperation. Then we sat on the ground with a group of women and Stephen told the story of the script. ?They laughed a lot and at the end Gulumbu pulled me towards her to kiss me. I knew she trusted me.
Our contractual problems were difficult and ongoing, but in the background was a positive force. On one occasion the director, my co-producer and I were called to take part in a cleansing ceremony where Ms Yunupingu directed us to huddle over and breathe in eucalyptus and other smells steaming from a pit in the ground. I took away the feeling this was meant to rid us of animosities towards those causing problems.
Filming took place throughout 2000 and Yolngu Boy first screened on the Yirrkala football oval to the people in the community who had been involved directly or indirectly. The audience began to laugh ?point and scream out with recognition and delight as each actor they knew came up on the screen. They loved seeing themselves and seeing their home. We had done what we promised to do in the community and if that were to be the film's only achievement it was a powerful one.?
Ms Yunupingu came with three other artists and her brother Galarrwuy to the launch in Melbourne in 2001. When she was leaving she hugged me and sobbed. She knew as I knew that the boys who took part in the film had gone through an experience that they had clearly enjoyed and they had made their community proud. The film was well received by those who saw it. Peter Thompson, the film critic on Channel 9's Sunday program, said he wished he could compel every Australian to see it.
Ms Yunupingu's art career took off after the filming of Yolngu Boy when she won first prize in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards with her piece entitled Garak- the Universe depicting the stars in the sky. She has stated that her art is about the universe, and about every clan and people of all colours in all corners of the world who can look up and see the stars.
When I look at Ms Yunupingu's work I think of our night on the bay in Arnhem Land under the stars. What a contribution she made to Australia.
Patricia Edgar was Founding Director of the Australian Children's Television Foundation and the Producer of the feature film Yolngu Boy