Melbourne campus library displays Guykuda Mununggurr's Yolngu Angel

Published: Thursday 16th June 2016

Guykuda Mununggurr comes from a family lineage of great authority, and is the great-grandson of famous Djapu clan elder and ‘King of Arnhem Land’ VVongu Mununggurr.

Guykuda works with his wife Bininydjiwuy Wununmurra, who paints the… sculptures that he makes.[1]

Although this work has  been exhibited several times under the title Yolngu Angel, most notably as a finalist in the prestigious Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Art Award in 2015, the artist is surprisingly circumspect in attributing true angelic symbolism to it.

According to the Yirrkala Arts Centre, “When asked about the underlying meaning he denied any. He said “its just art.”[2]

This reticence may be well-founded.  The Centre’s literature goes on to offer an intriguing insight into local polemics, stating that “in march 2013 the elders at Garrthalala where [the artist] lives forbade him making any more mermaid forms because of spiritual danger from Maningrida who do have a mermaid story.”[3]

As the only artist in his homeland and having apparently already been banned from making images of mermaids (a moderately common subject in Aboriginal art and worldwide folk mythology), Mununggurr may have a perfectly natural desire to avoid additional prohibitions resulting from over-zealous admissions of Christian symbolism in his work.

Ironically, the presentation of hybridised religious symbols in enthusiastically sanctioned and rewarded in more established areas of Aboriginal art production wuch as the Warmun Community of Western Australia (See Shirley Purdie’s work in the lounge to your right upon entering the Melbourne Campus Library).

Viewed from well outside the realm of provincial controversies however, the Mununggurr sculpture represents a fascinating inversion of traditional iconography.

With the emaciated, smaller than life-size figure dressed essentially in rags  the artist moves decisively, and perhaps appropriately away from the grandiose, gold-encrusted spectacle of angels form in Western European art toward a humble and unpretentious figure that we might come to recognise as a perceptive embodiment of key Christian values.

[1] Alcaston Gallery, Guykuda Munungurr Curriculum Vitae, 2016

[2] Buku Larrnggay Mulka Artwork Description for Yolngu Angel, 2010

[3] Ibid.