The Warlpiri-speaking community of Yuendumu lies approximately 100 kilometres north of Papunya in the Northern Territory. It was established in 1946 by the Australian government to deliver rations and welfare services to Aboriginal people in the surrounding district. Yuendumu was the first Aboriginal community in the Western Desert region to begin painting for the art market, after Papunya. Senior Warlpiri men knew of developments at Papunya in the 1970s, but were reluctant to paint for the public domain. In the early 1980s, the first artists at Yuendumu to produce paintings were Warlpiri women. Then, in 1983, a group of senior men including Paddy Sims, Larry Spencer and Paddy Nelson, painted the 30 doors of the local school with Jukurrpa images to remind the students of their traditional education. The project encouraged this senior group and other Warlpiri artists to paint on canvas on a large scale for exhibition. Within two years they had established their own art centre, Warlukurlangu Artists.
Yanjilypiri Jukurrpa (Star Dreaming) 1985 is one of the first large canvases to emerge from Yuendumu. This magnificent work by three senior Warlpiri men relates to the fire ceremony of the Warlpiri, and is associated with the creation of the constellations. While the artists remained circumspect about the deeper levels of interpretation of the imagery, they described the dominant central motif as a ceremonial ground painting upon which the Fire Ceremony is performed. Participants shake smouldering branches and the embers float into the night sky to create the constellations represented by the circles and stars surrounding the ground painting. In turn, the ground painting can be seen as an evocation of the earth.
A feature of Yuendumu paintings is that many are produced collaboratively. Contributors are involved as either kirda (owners of the Jukurrpa through the patrilineal line) or as kurdungurlu (managers of the Jukurrpa through the matrilineal line). Jimija Jungurrayi Spencer (1908–1989), the owner of the Star Dreaming, supervised this painting but did not participate. The main painter was Paddy Nelson who had matrilineally-inherited rights to the Dreaming. Paddy Sims and Jimija’s younger brother, Larry Spencer, assisted.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (eds) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010