Wukun Wanambi and Yinimala Gumana are artists and emissaries from a culture New Yorkers know too little about. Both Aborigines from Arnhem Land, Australia, Wukun and Yinimala brought a grounding dose of reality to the oft-vapid and ever-shifting New York art world. Instead of chasing big dollars with an Instagram drop, the pair showcased Aboriginal artwork in order to share their culture’s too-often overlooked story with the populace of a self-obsessed city.
Wukun and Yinimala came to New York to present their own bark paintings as well as research other bark paintings that came overseas from their homeland years ago, and now reside in Stateside museums. Bark painting itself is an elaborate creative process and a physical, narrative thread that binds generations of First Australians together. CONVICTS got lucky enough to sit down with Wukun and Yinimala and hear their stories about travelling the states, life in remote Australia, and their deeply rooted pride in Aboriginal culture.
Hello, gentlemen. To start, could you introduce yourselves and tell us where you’re from?
My name is Wukun Wanambi and I’m from Australia, Arnhem Land.
My name is Yinimala Gumana and I’m from Australia, the tip of Australia, right at the top in Arnhem Land.
What do you think of New York so far?
It’s our first time coming to New York and an opportunity to see big places. Not only that, but we also came because our ancestors have bark paintings around here that we want to discover. Now, a new generation like us is coming to carry on the strength and the power of the art.
For someone who doesn’t know, could you talk to us a bit about bark painting and explain its significance to Aboriginal culture?
Bark painting comes from a bark tree. It curls and then we cut the bark off, make it flat then leave it for a week and a half. Then we put sandpaper onto it. Bark is really important, it’s a shelter, it’s a medicine and it’s also something that we can draw art upon. We know the animals, we know the landscape, so we drew those things straight away. In white society you don’t do that.
Tell me a little bit about this trip. You’ve been in New York and DC. What’s that been like?
This is our first time in New York and is a good experience for us to see different cities and meet people. It’s different from where we are from, it’s different from Australia and also from Arnhem Land. It’s totally different.
When you’re walking through the streets of New York, what are you thinking about? What catches your attention?
First thing is, it’s a big place and there’s a large population here. We think all different kinds of things. But mainly we try to concentrate on why we are here.
New York is an interesting place that we have always seen in movies. Now, today, our feet and our feelings and our minds and our things are right in the middle of the city. It’s like we can feel and know the middle of the city, just like the middle of the bush in our country. So this is a bit different, which is good.
What do you hope to accomplish in New York?
As artists, we want to promote Aboriginal art in the art world and carry our identity around the world so that people understand who we are and what we are and why we are doing this. We want to share the strength and power that has been given to us from the past. We will keep on sharing our paintings as long as generations come up.
Can you tell us how bark painting relates to the spiritual and historical importance of passing on stories within your culture?
The traditions are a part of our lives. It’s a spiritual way of carrying on through life, and also sharing the culture with people who don’t understand your life or your way or of doing things. So we are here for that, and also also doing research for our people. Researching bark paintings that came here a long time ago, back in 1950s and in 1996.
What’s it like researching these bark paintings?
It is just like if you missed a bark painting from your great-great-great-great-grandfather and grandad. It’s a time for us to stand up and continue to research where they are. It’s like when you go onto the computer and you look for your ancestry. That is the same pathway, but a more surface way of understanding.
What are you hoping that the Americans who see your bark paintings take out of it?
I hope New York and other people can understand how bark has been passed on from generation to generation to generation until today and that it’s still carried out. Bark can’t stay by itself, bark needs a family, it needs songs, law, culture, painting to go with it. All that. All the instruments that we have have to come together. One person can’t dance. All this needs a family to support it and carry that law together.
Tell me a little bit about you and your position in your culture at home?
Can you talk a bit about the instruments that we have here?
We use all these instruments in the ceremonies back where we come from.
When someone dies we use two instruments. When someone dies it’s a serious thing and we concentrate on the dance. When it’s a celebration, it’s completely different. We have enjoyment and fun in that area, so, it depends on how you want to use them. But we want to share our lifestyle because our lifestyle is not in the city. It’s more of a bush way of entertainment. But it’s great to see New York. You hear a lot of stories about New York, both good things and bad things, that they make songs around here that they make films here. Things like that are why I am so glad that I came here.
Do you feel outside of your comfort zone?
Well, it’s almost the end of the trip and we’ve been pushing hard to explore the art and here it is. New York – what can we say you know? It’s different away from home.
Tell me more about your lifestyle at home and the Aboriginal culture for Americans that don’t know about your culture?
Back home is where you have freedom. The bush is free. I always like painting. Painting is my day-to-day but I do that after hours. I’ve got a proper job, but then I come home and paint until about 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning then have a small sleep and go back to work again. It’s not like you do painting and say ‘Oh I’m tired, I’ll leave that until the next day.’ Those are four to six hours – depending on how much time we can share with our wife or family – to share with painting.
How much do you sleep? Do you work all the way through the night?
I can’t count it, it’s difficult. You have a little meditation in the middle of painting so that you can continue knowing the pathway of what you have to draw.
Tell me about your meditation?
Meditation is just like hitting a rock. A lot of white fellas don’t go to the ocean, they hit the wall and that’s it. Like in university. For us, we go to the sea and we can feel the air coming in. When you hear the water splash, it gives you the power and wisdom of that and then you can feel more comfortable. Inside the house you can hear the water roar, and you can meditate with that.
Could you give us a few things you’d like people to know about Australian Aboriginal culture?
We are proud.
Culture is really important to the Aboriginal people, to the people of Arnhem Land. Culture is our life, it’s a part of our life we carry in so many ways. It’s a special thing that we carry in our communities. You feel proud. The language, the culture is very important.
OK, last question: tell me what New York is going to learn from you guys?
Excellent. Thank you gentlemen, and safe travels.