The fractal imaginary: patterns recur, sounds echo, spindling forms repeat. The river flickers and shimmers as the sun’s baryte rays touch the water’s surface, and at night, a river of stars in the sky. This is what it looks like when Naminapu Maymuru-White paints Milŋiyawuy – which refers to the River of Stars, also known inter alia as the Milky Way – in black, white, and grey shades of ochre on barks and on larrakitj (hollow logs).
Maymuru-White is a painter who studies the surfaces of things – the river, the star-flecked sky, the barks she paints on – which is not to say her work is superficial or simply decorative, not that the decorative should be dismissed. As Canadian poet and essayist Lisa Robertson describes, ‘Surfaces inflect our gesture. And vice versa.' (1) In this sense the surfaces – water, stars, shimmer – that Maymuru-White paints tell stories that inform and recall the way she, Yolŋu, moved through the world.
Milŋiyawuy is a central element in the understanding of Sky Country, as well as Maŋgalili (Maymuru-White’s clan) being and belonging. The River of Stars is entwined with the story of Guwak, which tells of the Ancestral beings that led Maŋgalili to Djarrakpi (in North-East Arnhem Land). As told by the Gay’wu Group of Women, Guwak ‘takes the spirit back to join the Ancestors in the River of Stars,’ and ‘as the spirit reaches their destination a call is heard.’ It resonates, ‘it is heard in Milŋiyawuy’ and ‘its echo is heard in Yangarratji, the Sea of Stars that lives on earth.' (2) Milŋiyawuy, which Maymuru-White paints over again and again, is not a repetition or even reiteration of the same theme, but an extension, or calling-into-being of Milŋiyawuy.
Maymuru-White was taught to paint miny’tji (sacred clan designs) by her father, Nänyin, and his brother, Narritjin Maymuru. This made her one of the first Yolŋu women to be given the permissions by Elders to produce such artwork, marking a shift in Yolŋu creative practice.
From kinship tutelage, the intergenerational passing of miny’tji, Milŋiyawuy carries on in the paintings of Maymuru-White. For The National 4, the artist has produced a constellation of barks, titled Milŋiyawuy – Celestial River (2023). This work consists of small barks, shimmering with white stars on a black background, which creates a sublunary light. The earth pigments the artist uses ground the work, making a material and visual connection between the River of Stars in the sky and on earth.
The small stars trail across the black background as the barks themselves seem to trail across the gallery wall. The arrangement conjures the experience of finding a pattern of stars in the sky. In Milŋiyawuy – Celestial River, the viewer feels what the river in the sky looks like.
The stars, the water, kin, the paintings on the walls, everything is connected ecologically; the sky, the ground, the river, the artist’s hand. Maymuru-White’s marks are echo forms, fractalising waves of ancestral energy, spirit energy, the life force that is in everything.
(1) Lisa Robertson, Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture, 2010, Coach House Books, Toronto, p.50.
(2) Gay’wu Group of Women, Song Spirals: Sharing Women’s Wisdom of Country Through Songlines, 2019, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, p.151.
Sullivan+Strumpf acknowledge the Indigenous People of this land, the traditional custodians on whose Country we work, live and learn. We pay respect to Elders, past and present, and recognise their continued connection to culture, land, waters and community.