Printmaking and ceramics by Yolŋu artists on view in the Upper West Oval Room of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia.
Clouds drift in subtly modified patterns in these artworks by Nawurapu Wunuŋmurra and Bulthirrirri Wunuŋmurra, both Yolŋu artists from Arnhem Land at the top end of Australia’s Northern Territory. The thunderheads are associated with the beginning of the monsoonal wet season and the first sighting of “perahu” (boats) from Indonesia on the horizon. Fishermen based in the port of Makassar in Sulawesi, Indonesia, visited the north coast of Australia every year starting in late December or early January to gather trepang (sea cucumber) and engage in trade. They departed on the winds associated with “bulunu”, or the southeast cloud formations that herald the dry season.
Each artist has depicted the towering cumulonimbus clouds shared by all Yirritja clans as a symbol of the cycle of souls from ocean to cloud before they are reborn as freshwater rain. In their language, Yolŋu Matha, the word for “sunset” is “djapana” and in the Indonesia dialect of Bugis it means “farewell.” The Djapana song cycle follows natural and trade cycles as the sun sets, the fishermen from Sulawesi leave, and the spirits die. But, also, it encompasses the rebirth of the spirits, the return of their friends with the northern monsoon and the rising of the sun.
Bulthirrirri recounts how she paints a story that was passed down from Nawurapu: “Waŋupini (clouds) is the same story as my father taught me about the sunset. The sun is going down. The sunset on the clouds is like the red sails of the Makassans’ ships leaving at the end of the season.”
Many of her prints represent ceramic vessels painted with clouds and geometric designs. The pots, still used today in Sulawesi, are called “rupa” in Yolŋu Matha and “budjung” in Bugis-Makassarese languages. As she notes, “I have been painting ‘waŋupini’ on ceramic pots as it reminds me about the connection the Makassans have with Yolŋu.” Glowing against a black ground, Bulthirrirri’s printed images of painted pots capture the essence of “waŋupini” as clouds of both remembrance and return.