Clan: Gumatj, Rrakpala group
Wanapati is a Yolŋu artist who lives in the remote Gumatj homeland of Biranybirany, North East Arnhemland in the Northern Territory. This is a coastal community set amongst sand dunes and stringybark forest at the end of a lonely gravel road three hours from the nearest small town, Yirrkala. There are approximately ten houses here but no mains power or store. The residents live a life dictated by the ceremonial and seasonal calendar supplemented by regular 6 hour round trips to the mining town of Nhulunbuy for supplies.
Wanapati is the son of deceased artist and spiritual leader Miniyawany Yunupiŋu from whom he inherited rich ceremonial instruction, and was trained in the art, Law and cultural practice of his and related clans while living between the homeland communities of Waṉḏawuy (his mother’s clan land) and Biranybirany. Wanapati has been strongly influenced by peer and artist Gunybi Ganambarr who radically embraced the use of found object in his practice. Gunybi is fifteen years older than Wanapati but a very inclusive and warm mentor to younger artists. He has always actively encouraged them to find their own path, as he was, by his own mentor, Djambawa Marawili AO.
Wanapati has quickly forged his own style, etching his sacred Gumatj clan designs and narratives into the face of discarded street signs and twisted metal and aluminium surfaces that litter the landscape of North East Arnhemland. He is a physically large man but quite shy, very gentle, friendly, humorous and soft spoken. He is popular within the Yolŋu community who recognise his natural humility and respect for others.
Wanapati works are presented in partnership with the indigenous art centre Buku Larrŋgay Mulka located in Yirrkala, North East Arnhmeland, NT.
‘the stunning set-up for Wanapati Yunupiŋu’s first ever solo exhibition (Melbourne or otherwise), sets a special corner of the [Melbourne Art] Fair on fire. The south looked jealously to the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art in Darwin late last year when the exhibition Murrŋiny surveyed eight artists from Yirrkala, all working in the medium of engraved “steel” (found metals). Now we get a piece of it ourselves, with Yunupiŋu’s murrŋiny paintings that overlay images of marine life (from deep and shallow water) with ancestral designs of fire. These works do appear both hot and cool. The exposed aluminium twinkles innocently, but I wouldn’t touch the murrŋiny surface; cut with a rotary drill, I bet it’s sharp as hell.’
– Victoria Perin, MeMO Review, February 2022
Following his fathers death in 2008, he began to paint his clan design on bark, yidaki and larrakitj.
During late 2019 Wanapati began working on found and discarded street signs and metal forms etching his sacred Gumatj clan designs and narrative’s into their surface using a rotary tool. In doing so he was part of a group of artists who followed the artistic movement of fellow artist Gunybi Ganambarr. Gunybi stretched the art centre’s guiding principle which required the use of natural media in depicting sacred designs. This was expressed in the phrase, ‘if you are going to paint the land you must use the land’ . The elders accepted that Gunybi in presenting materials and mediums which he found on or within the land was in fact using ‘the land’. In creating this loophole he became the originator of the ‘Found’ movement in North East Arnhemland.
In 2021 Wanapati was included in the ground-breaking and sell out exhibition ‘Murrŋiny – a story of metal from the east’ at the Northern Centre of Contemporary Art in partnership with Salon Art Projects. His works were highly revered and collected by the Art Gallery of NSW and significant private collectors both within Australia and internationally. Wanapati’s work was also used to create a large scale mural on the facade of NCCA.
In the same year Wanapati was a finalist in the NATSIAA award with his works on discarded baking trays and was selected to hold a solo exhibition of his work at the Melbourne Art Fair as part of the Indigenous Art Centre Program.