Milŋiyawuy is the Milky Way. It is also the name of a river that flows into the north of Blue Mud Bay. This dual reference is an important sign that Naminapu Maymuru-White’s paintings of Milŋiyawuy come out of that dialogue between the universal and the particular that lies at the very heart of Yolŋu art. Her paintings are the Milky Way, viewed and conceived of from a very particular place. For people living in cities the lights of urban life cut them off from the luminescence of the night sky, allowing only the brightest of stars to shine through.
Sitting at night on the shores of Blue Mud Bay, away from that world where electrical energy casts a veil between people and the stars, the Milky Way appears brightly as a river flowing through the night sky. The sky has a density, diversity, a dynamic brilliance that never ceases to amaze, and it draws you into its depths. Naminapu’s Milŋiyawuy series of paintings are a condensation of the experience of looking at the Arnhem Land night sky and provide a window through which we can experience it at a distance. And ‘condensation’ is the right word. For it certainly is not simple representation.
The night sky does not look precisely as it does in her paintings, although they seem to evoke its presence. Art creates its own reality. It is imagination, coupled with the deceptively complex structure and vibrant patterning of Naminapu’s imagery that enables the viewer to expand each painting into a universe with its constellations, exploding nebula, shooting stars and the occasional black hole.
But how do Yolŋu see the Milky Way and how is their vision reflected in Naminapu’s paintings? Yolŋu art involves a continuous dialogue between abstraction and representation – a dialogue connected to the deep meanings of Yolŋu life and coming out of an intimate relationship with the natural world. The Milky Way is not a distant phenomenon – the extended boundaries of our galaxy – but is closely connected to the world in which Yolŋu live.
Naminapu’s Milŋiyawuy series has developed out of a lifetime of training as an artist in a number of different media. At one level her paintings come directly out of the artistic heritage of northeast Arnhem Land. Her father Nanyin Maymuru and his brother Narritjin Maymuru were leading Yolŋu artists. The themes and iconography of her paintings are greatly influenced by their work and represent designs associated with her Maŋgalili clan. Milŋiyawuy is the river on earth where Maŋgalili people have lived for countless generations and is a source of the spiritual identity of the clan. The Milŋiyawuy in the sky is one of the homelands of the dead, where spirits go.
A design feature of many of Naminapu’s Milngiyawuy paintings, curvilinear lines running through the work which often create a frame within the whole, represents both the banks of the river on earth and the boundaries of the Milky Way in the sky. Neither is rigidly fixed since the river bursts its banks in the wet season and becomes part of a great inland lake or sea, and the Milky Way merges with the night sky as a whole.
The curvilinear design also has another meaning. It is a Maŋgalili clan design that refers to the ŋaraka, the bones of the clan, its spiritual identity. The design alludes to the relationship between the passage of life on earth captured in the flow of the Milŋiyawuy river, and the spiritual passage to the afterlife reflected in the flickering appearance of spiritual identities in the Milky Way. In some of her earlier paintings Naminapu elaborated on details of the mythology of the Milky Way, on the presence of different ancestral images in the constellations – the freshwater crocodile Ngäw, or the canoe of the ancestral fishermen – and on the passage of spirits of the dead from earth to the sky. She has consciously returned to this classical figurative representation of elements of the epic song cycles in some of the paintings here.
In the non-figurative Milŋiyawuy series these meanings are implicit in the core design, and evoked by the scintillating imagery of the stars shining in the night sky. It is a characteristic of Yolŋu paintings to represent complex ideas through condensed imagery and use aesthetics to guide the imagination.
However while Naminapu’s Milngiyawuy paintings have their foundations in Yolŋu art practice they also reflect other influences in her artistic career. She has for many years been an accomplished printmaker and the present series of works reflects her experience working on etchings with artists from the print workshop at Canberra School of Art during her Creative Arts Fellowship at the ANU in 2000. She also learnt batik dying at workshops in the 1980s and used it to produce Maŋgalili designs on cloth.
The layered technique of etching engages the artist in a reflective process that looks towards the final image through a sequence of reversals that adds depth to the image. There seems almost to be a synergistic relationship between Yolŋu art, with its layering of form and meaning, and non-Yolŋu techniques such as etching and batik. Naminapu’s present work thus reflects a combination of influences acquired through her engagement in art practice over a period of fifty years.
The Milŋiyawuy series takes Naminapu’s work in a new direction, synthesising her past experiences and demonstrating the technical mastery she has achieved through working in different media and on different surfaces to create powerful aesthetic effects. Her paintings continue the dynamic trajectory of Maŋgalili art and their depth and expressive power communicate powerfully across cultures and contexts. The works seem to pulsate with energy. The paintings on bark, board and on the surface of the larrakitj (memorial poles) allow us to experience the Milky Way as it exists in her mind’s eye – Milŋiyawuy in the Arnhem Land sky as it stretches above and seems to be echoed below in the waters of Blue Mud Bay; Milŋiyawuy as a great reservoir of the spirits of the Maŋgalili clan. Her focus is on the transcendent and evanescent nature of the spiritual dimension—people moving in space and time, linking individuals across generations, sensing the presence of the dead in Country, in the passage of the seasons and in the night sky. Yet equally in her paintings she captures characteristics of the night sky that map onto other cultural imaginaries, whether in reflecting on the aesthetic beauty of the sky at night or reflecting on the nature of the universe, on our Galaxy and the infinity beyond.