When Broadsheet calls Will Stubbs via Facetime, he answers from the courtyard of the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Arts Centre (Buku) in north-east Arnhem Land. He’s seated before a backdrop of greenery; bird chirps, miscellaneous insect noises and what could be a ceiling fan provide the soundtrack; and – even through a screen – the humid air appears thick. Located in Yirrkala, a small Aboriginal community approximately a 12-hour drive east of Darwin, Buku seems a world away from the National Gallery of Victoria, but the connection between these two art institutions spans decades.

Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka takes its name from Yolŋu Matha (the language of the Yolŋu people). In English, “buku-larrŋgay” means “the feeling on your face as it is struck by the first rays of the sun”, while “mulka” means “a sacred but public ceremony”. Since its founding, Buku has been a meeting place and community hub for some of Australia’s most respected and prolific artists.

The NGV has been acquiring important works by Yolŋu women artists from Buku, where Will Stubbs is coordinator, for more than 30 years. Select works on bark and ḻarrakitj (painted hollow poles) from this extraordinary collection – plus new, never-before-seen pieces – form Bark Ladies: Eleven Artists from Yirrkala, which runs from December 17, 2021, to April 25, 2022.

After a quick hello, Stubbs hands the phone to world-renowned artist Naminapu Maymuru-White. Stubbs has admin to attend to and, in his words, who better to tell us about Bark Ladies than one of the daring artists behind it.

Nami flips the camera and a spread of white stars and winding rivers against a black background fills the screen. The artwork, painted on recycled packing material, is Nami’s latest project; part one of a two-panel piece to be featured at her upcoming solo show at Sullivan & Strumpf in Sydney. Nami is known for her intricate use of graphic black and white ochre and the highly labour-intensive means of using a skewer stick and marwat (human-hair paintbrush) to map out the Yolŋu concept of Milŋgiyawuy or, as it is known in English, the Milky Way.

When we ask about her inspiration for this particular work, a modest Nami jokingly tells us, “My inspiration is looking forward to getting rid of it and then moving on to the next one.” Then comes the story: “It means that Yirritja people sing the song where the water flows to different other places. They sing and do dancing. Women cry. It connects to the land and out to the open sea.”

Under Yolŋu Law, “land” extends to include sea, and both land and sea are connected in a single cycle of life for which the Yolngu hold their songs, sacred designs and art.

For Bark Ladies, Nami worked with the NGV’s in-house designers to create a stunning centrepiece work titled Riŋggitjmi Gapu, 2021, which covers the floor of the gallery’s Federation Court. Riŋggitjmi gapu as a concept roughly translates to “river of heaven and earth”. For Nami, the Milŋgiyawuy River and Milky Way are one and the same. As visitors walk along Nami’s river of stars and look up at the mirrored ceiling, perspectives of land and sky will be inverted – an impact Nami and the NGV’s curator of Indigenous art, Myles Russell-Cook, hope will deepen visitors’ sense of land, sea and sky being wholly connected.

Here’s how Nami describes it: “When you go to my homeland [Djarrakpi], it’s really quiet, calm nights. You can lie down and see all the stars. It turns to animals; the stars make animals. You can slow down and watch it. It’s healing, it heals you when you see the stars. If you’re sick, you can feel it when you watch it. You can feel the presence of what you see.”

Everything about Bark Ladies – from Nami’s work in Federation Court to the three distinct spaces beyond it – is impeccably considered from both sides of the collaboration, including, first and foremost, Naminapu Maymuru-White and the 10 other artists featured: Nancy Gaymala Yunupiŋu, Gulumbu Yunupiŋu, Barrupu Yunupiŋu, Ms N Yunupiŋu, Eunice Djerrkngu Yunupiŋu, Noŋggirrŋga Marawili, Dhambit Mununggurr, Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda, Malaluba Gumana and Dhuwarrwarr Marika.

“[These] women have been at the forefront of the contemporary movement,” says Russell-Cook.

Bark Ladies: Eleven Artists from Yirrkala runs December 17, 2021 – April 25, 2022 at NGV. See more details.

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