Ancestral fire
Ancestral fire

Barrupu Yunupingu

1948 - 2012 Ancestral fire 2010
  • ochre on stringybark
84 cm x 157 cm


This work was a finalist in the 2010 Telstra NATSIA Award.

Barrupu's rendering of her Gumatj clans' designs are reminiscent of the earliest north east Amhem Land bark paintings in existence. These ribbons of fire emulate the form of both the fire and the saltwater flow in which it burns at the Gumatj estate of Biranybirany. 

This second season of major painting is characterised by the introduction of a perpendicular stream of fire.

The totemic significance of fire to the Yunupingu family of the Gumatj clan is paramount. It is said that the Gumatj clan language, Dhuwalandja, is itself the tongue of flame. This language, or tongue, like the flame, cuts through all artifice.

It incinerates dishonesty leaving only the bones of the truth.

In the initial interface between Yolnu sacred art and the Western art world an early decision was made on the Yolnu side to use figurative imagery to cover the miny'tji in paintings. This miny'tji is the source and record of the sacred identity of the law and the land portrayed. This convention relaxed slowly following the Saltwater exhibition of the late 90's.

In ancestral times, the leaders of Yirritja moiety clans used fire for the first time during a ceremony at Ngalarwuy in umat; country. This came about as fire brought to the Madarrpa clan country by Bäru the ancestral crocodile, spread north and swept through the ceremonial ground. From this ceremonial ground the fire spread further to other sites.  Various ancestral animals were affected and reacted in different ways. These animals became sacred totems of the Gumatj people and the areas associated with these events became important sites.

The diamond patterning is the miny'tji, motif or sacred clan design, of this clan and this place. It summons the theme of this fire. The Gumatj clan design associated with these events, a diamond design, represents fire; the red flames, the white smoke and ash, the black charcoal and the yellow dust. Clans owning connected parts of this sequence of ancestral events share variations of this diamond design.

There are other levels of meaning including an analysis of the constituent parts of Guku, bush honey which resides in the hollow Stringybark tree; the skin, blood, fat and bone of a Gumat; person; the mud and weeds of a billabong close to this place which is a home of Baru, the crocodile who itself is a Gumati power totem metamorphosed through fire. 

Text: Buku Larrngay Mulka, 2010

More by this artist

Barrupu Yunupingu 1948 - 2012 Gurtha - ancestral fire
  • ochre on stringybark
45 cm x 169 cm

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The Wesfarmers Collection of Australian Art acknowledges all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Traditional Custodians of Country and recognises their continuing connection to land, sea, culture and community. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

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