Clan: Madarrpa, Yithuwa group
Noŋgirrŋa is the daughter of the Maḏarrpa warrior Mundukuḻ (lightning snake) and a Gälpu woman Buḻuŋguwuy. Noŋgirrŋa was a wife of Djapu statesman Djutjadjutja Munuŋgurr (deceased) who won best bark painting at the National Aboriginal Art Awards 1997, in which she ably assisted. She was the mother of four sons before birthing her two daughters, Marrnyula and Rerrkirrwaŋa (both artists – Rerrkirrwaŋa won best bark in Telstra 2009).
Noŋgirrŋa is a highly respected senior in her community, knowledgeable in two educational systems and practitioner in the bush and also institutions. She is a prolific producer of art, her work includes bark paintings, ḻarrakitj, carvings, and limited edition prints. Many of the works attributed to her husband Djutadjuta were crosshatched by Noŋgirrŋa as part of teaching her family the required skills. She most often paints her husband’s Djapu clan designs, the Gälpu clan designs of her mother, or that of her own clan the Maḏarrpa. The following is an extract from the accompanying essay from her sell out show in 2013, ‘And I am Still Here..’
Ŋoŋgirrŋa started life as one of the numerous children of Mundukuḻ the Maḏarrpa warrior (c.1890-c.1950). He was a famed leader/warrior with uncountable wives of the Marrakulu, Dhuḏi Djapu and Gälpu clans. Noŋgirrŋa was a child of Buḻuŋguwuy, one of the four Gälpu wives. Life was a bountiful but disciplined subsistence amongst a working family group of closely related mothers, brothers and sisters. This was over fifty people!
She was born on the beach at Darrpirra, North of Cape Shield on the ocean side. But they were wakir’ – camping/moving around. They went to Yilpara. They went to Djarrakpi. But their special place was Guwaŋarripa (Woodah Island). They were a fleet of canoes travelling all the way to Groote Island and back and forth from the mainland. They lived in this rich place surrounded by coral reefs. When they wanted to catch the wind they would break off the branch of a tree and use that as the sail. Mums, babies, dogs and kids being paddled by their husbands, brothers and fathers through tropical waters full of huge reptiles, mammals, fish, turtles and sharks. One day she was at Bariŋura when the great leader Mawunbuy was lost in a canoe capsized by a whale or a Japanese submarine, whichever witness you believe.
Noŋgirrŋa went to Yirrkala with her father’s sisters however she did not go to school as she was too scared. Her father died on Warrpirrimatji Island near Groote. Later they carried his bones to Baykultji in the far west of Blue Mud Bay to stand in a ḻarrakitj (hollow memorial pole).
The rhythm of that life is different from the staccato, repetitive machine-like beat of the ‘working week’. It is better to zig when another instinct would zag. That’s how to avoid the crocodile, the cyclone, the illness, the ambush, the dispute. Like the music of the yiḏaki. The ‘music’ is not the melody. The colour and flavour and story comes in the rhythm which is as fluent and changing as the melody of an aria. Watch a metronomic person try and clap to the ‘beat’. There isn’t one. The clap-sticks provide a structure but within that the tongue of the player dips and darts without a rigid pattern. It is this un-rhythm that Yolŋu are at one with and which these works sing with. Noŋgirrŋa’s bark paintings can be seen in the same way.
Like a yiḏaki is a monotone, the palate of earth pigments is limited. There are no purples greens or blues in this melody. But the ‘music’ is in the patterns of the percussion. The countless breath strokes and their interplay have the spontaneity and narrative of any melody but within a single note. It is this rhythm that cannot be preplanned or manipulated or replicated by mechanic people.
Djutjadjutja Munuŋgurr came to Yirrkala from Waṉḏawuy. He helped build the airstrip for the army during the war. She was in her early teens. They gave her to him. Three of her children were born in ward two of the newly built Yirrkala hospital. This is now gallery two of the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre where she painted the works of this exhibition. Her father and daughter each went on to win the NATSIAA prize for best bark painting. So why now do we hear of Noŋgirrŋa? Has something changed? No. She has always been this good. It is only now that we are noticing. Maybe we have changed and are becoming receptive to the “I saw the makarratha. Where they stood against each other with spears at Matarawatj under the old law. There were three men Djapu, Dhalwaŋu and Gumatj. And I am still here and I am still strong and I am still working.” Noŋgirrŋa Marawili (trans.) Yirrkala, October 2012.
Her second show at Alcaston ‘Yathikpa’ was also a sell out with institutional purchases strong. It represented a move from her husband’s Djapu clan Dhuwa moiety imagery to her own, the Maḏarrpa clan Yirritja moiety waters and fire. For the first time she was painting her own identity with power and passion.
A highlight of her career in art so far has been the retrospective ‘From my Heart and Mind’ at the AGNSW in 2018-9 curated by Cara Pinchbeck which won national critical praise and a strong catalogue.
After this exhibition she began to apply the toner from discarded magenta print cartridges to her bark which took her into completely new phase in line with the Found movement. Prior to this she had worked on discarded Alupanel. This genre of work led to massive popular and critical acclaim in shows at Tarnanthi 2019 and Nirin Sydney Biennale 2020 as well as successive shows at Alcaston Gallery. Ben Quilty a well known Australian artist posted on his instagram at this time. ‘best painter on the planet right now?’.