Garnkiny to Ganyu

Artists who capture the night
Godinymayin Yijard Rivers Arts and Culture Centre, Katherine
1 May - 13 June 2015

There is an intangible clarity exposed when modern art is displayed in its contemporary context alongside the ancient expressions of Aboriginal artists. And when the space in which it is shown is in the remote Northern Territory, in a modern new Gallery dedicated to ‘two-way learning’ and cultural diversity, the intangible seems so close. With the Stuart Highway separating the Gallery from Warlpiri Camp, one of the most disadvantaged Aboriginal neighbourhoods in Australia with its own harsh history, an ancient culture crushed into a new shape by the modern, the Godinymayin Yijard Rivers Arts and Culture Centre (GYRACC) is a serious space in a complex land where cultures can truly combine. 

‘Garnkiny to Ganyu’ (‘Moon to Star’ in the Gija and Yolngu languages of Northern Australia), curated by Clare Armitage, is essentially a series of landscapes, each of the artists in some way inspired by the enormous mystery of the night skies. The strokes of paint, the angles of the camera, the individual and cultural influences that led to each artist’s expression, form an exhibition that captures the ancient and the now.

The theme of the exhibition is pertinent in this tropical North of Australia. Night skies are breathtaking, unimpeded by smog or salt breeze, and for many of the Aboriginal people living in the region, it remains their infinite ceiling. ‘Garnkiny to Ganyu’ lays bare the wonders of what it would be like to sleep perpetually under this profoundness—what does it mean to live with no walls? To know that for the past 50,000 years your ancestors have been buried along the Katherine River under these same stars? How does the depth of the night sky imbue consciousness? Art for local Aboriginal people was and remains a form of visually expressed language, and the stories coming out in Armitage’s courageous first show juxtapose the modern in the shadows of the ancient.

The exciting new space provided by GYRACC should be contextualised within the history of this place. Not so long ago, art was displayed everywhere around the region by the Jawoyn people. There were laws guiding much of what and where it was displayed, but it was not just the caves that were painted, they just accidentally preserved the oldest works. Art was displayed everywhere—flat rocks facing the sun, trees, riverbed sand—all fertile temporary canvases for people who carried the bare minimum and had no walls on which to hang paintings. 

Aboriginal history has incredibly strong oral traditions that have recorded events from tens of thousands of years ago, like half-forgotten cataclysms, with the use of images and ceremony integral to perpetuity. There are numerous Dreamtime mythologies describing active volcanoes exploding, huge meteorites colliding with the earth, and now-extinct beasts roaming the land. Given that the night sky was the landscape for half of the life of people who lived under it, there is no wonder that much of the imagery in Aboriginal art has either explicit or implied stories of these celestial bodies. This exhibition reminds us of how deep and complex, in its capacity to carry meaning and history, and how vastly under-recognised in mainstream Australia, this Dreamtime tradition actually was and still is. 

In ‘Garnkiny to Ganyu’, the iconic images of Mabel Juli from the Kimberley in Australia’s North West, tell stories of the striking clarity of the moon and its mythical association with life and death, rebirth, fertility, sadness. In the paintings by Kumanjai Kanytjupai Ken from Central Australia, the Milky Way and galaxies above us seem hewn into the landscape in ways that remain a mystery to us, the uninitiated. 

The works by Gulumbu Yunupingu from Arnhem Land vividly portray the variety in Aboriginal artistic expression, when contrasted to the artists of the desert fringes of Katherine and the deep desert of Central Australia. For those Australians living in big modern cities, it is easy to forget how diverse and rich Indigenous culture remains in this country. 

The most striking example of this diversity and the social, cultural and environmental realities that underlie its expression, can be seen in Billy Missi’s figurative works depicting the night sky. For Indigenous Australians living in the Torres Straight, and in other areas where nautical pursuit was an imperative, this is integral to their story-telling and to the messages contained in the works, and is such a different narrative to other works in this exhibition.

Contrasting with these more traditional images are the works by Fiona Hall who recently represented Australia in the Venice Biennale, and the planetary bodies created from moving dust particles by Kate Robertson. 

In her first show, Armitage told me she was nervous that Fiona Morrison’s works of eerie Chinese urban night streetscapes may have been perceived to be incongruous, however I see them as a great contrast. For most people now living on this planet, the night sky is rarely considered, sheltered by ceilings, high rises and street lights, almost irrelevant to modern life. Such a contrast to the reality of living in the Northern Territory and most other barely inhabited parts of this land, where the night sky is still as profoundly beautiful as it was to the ancient Greeks, to the Incas, and to those who first stepped into the Dreamtime.

‘Garnkiny to Ganyu’ was a small show a long way from most Australians, but if you were lucky enough to see it you would know that contemporary art and shared cultural diversity are humming away in the ancient and changing civilisation of the remote Top End of Australia. Art continues to play a pivotal role in the evolution of Australian culture, even more so on the desert fringes.

Mabel Juli, Garnkiny Ngarranggarni, 2013. Natural ochre and pigment on canvas. Courtesy Warmun Art Centre. 

Kate Robertson, Dust landscape #7, 2012. Archival pigment print, 120 x 96cm.