Arnhem Land’s new art makes waves in its first exhibition

With the help of an angle grinder, artist Yolngu Gunybi Ganambarr dismantled an old water tank in his secluded home in Arnhem Land and reassembled it into striking engraved works of art – something that critics qualify as “revolutionary”.

Mr. Ganambarr comes from the Gangan community of Arnhem Land, which has a rich artistic history, and began carving bark and wood artwork before moving on to something new.

“I started on the bark – paper bark and stringy bark – and now I’m continuing in a new style,” he said.

He said he remembered the power he felt using tools after working as a builder on construction sites.

This 2020 engraving by Gunybi Ganambarr titled Milnurr is one of dozens of metal works of art on display.(

Provided: Fiona Morrison


This prompted him to start engraving on found pieces of metal and, in his own words, to leave the “old style” behind.

“It’s still your stories and your identity,” he said.

“But it’s different because of the new world, the new technique, the new technology.”

Murrŋiny means iron or steel

The word Yolngu Matha “Murrŋiny” was defined in English as “iron and steel,” but the team behind a new Darwin exhibit of the same name said it was also commonly used as an exclamation sign meaning ” sharp ”or“ deadly ”.

It’s an apt title for the exhibition, which brings together metal artwork by eight Yolngu artists.

Traditional designs have been carved into scraps of discarded water tank and signage, including one warning viewers that they are on native land.

A hand can be seen carving a design on an old road sign in silver, black and yellow
Artists from the country of East Arnhem turn scrap metal into works of art.(

Provided: David Wickens, Center Buku-Larrngay Mulka


Mr Ganambarr explains that the intricate designs connect with the stories and songs of his home, the small riverside homeland of Gangan in Arnhem Land.

“It connects to a place, a place in the spiritual realm,” he said, pointing to the artwork behind him.

When working with scrap metal there are also no sketches or drafts and each work can take it weeks.

A work of art showing dozens of long-necked birds engraved in silver metal on a black background
Yolngu artists engrave traditional songs and stories on metal.(

ABC News: Che Chorley


“I’m just doing it,” he said, pointing his head.

“Each story, it represents us, it represents all the artists, the people who belong and who we are,” he said.

The “visionary” art of Ganabarr

Director of the North Center for Contemporary Art (NCCA) Petrit Abazi spotted Gunybi Ganambarr’s art at the Buku Larrngay-Mulka Art Center in the community of Yirrkala, about 700 kilometers east of Darwin, and l ‘declared “the work of a young visionary”.

“Swapping his brush for an electric engraver, ocher for spray, and choosing aluminum foil instead of bark, he delivered something revolutionary both aesthetic and tangible,” Mr. Abazi wrote for the ‘before the Murrŋiny exhibition.

A man is seen cutting metal using an angle grinder with sparks shooting from one side
Unlike traditional tree bark stripping, this group of Yolngu artists cut scrap metal to create a base for their works.(

Provided: David Wickens, Center Buku-Larrngay Mulka


Mr Abazi said the metal works of art strayed from the old rules, which dictated “if you paint the earth, you use the earth”.

“In consultation with the elders, Gunybi argued that the materials found on the earth were now part of the earth,” he wrote.

Salon Art co-director Matt Ward, who organizes the exhibit in partnership with the NCCA and Buku, said the Darwin exhibit was the culmination of considerable work over the past decade.

He said the metalworking technique was pioneered by Gunybi Ganambarr but now was “the first time we’ve seen a whole bunch of artists involved”.

Silver and black wavy lines of a Yolgnu metal work of art
The metal found is spray painted and then engraved to create the effect.(

ABC News: Che Chorley


“I hope people will remove the idea that Aboriginal art, especially Aboriginal art in northeast Arnhem Land, is evolving,” he said.

Murrŋiny: A Story of Metal from the East opens today at the Northern Center for Contemporary Art in Parap, Darwin and runs through mid-September.

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