“We Are The Old: Luku Ŋurrungitj” Opens in Darwin

A new exhibition at Tactile Arts in Darwin explores the Yolŋu tradition of looking back to look forward.

Article by Megha Kapoor

Joe Dhamanydji, Guku Galinyin' (Native Honey Bee Hive), 2024 (detail), ochre on bark. Photography courtesy the artist and Salon Art Projects.

Many miles and worlds away from the clinking glasses toasting the Archibald down south, two artists, one “lil-bit young” and one “lil-bit ol” from the island of Milingimbi in North East Arnhem Land, are showcasing a collection of work that honours that Yolŋu tradition of looking back to look forward. 

Joe Dhamanydji, the elder of the two men, and Matthew ‘Teapot’ Djipurrtjun are both recognised song and law men whose painting practices have been born from ceremonial custom. These two men have also been, as art writer Max Moon puts it: “the spear-tip of Milingimbi Art and Culture’s Djalkiri Keeping Place and its work researching the vast amount of material taken from Milingimbi now lying dormant in institutions around the globe.”

The works in “We Are The Old: Luku Ŋurrungitj”, the first of its kind, are built on years of researching and reconnecting with works made by their fathers, grandfathers, uncles and aunts and represent the artist’s response to being inspired by ‘new’ techniques discovered in these repatriated collections. 

A work by Matthew Djipurrtjun. Photograph courtesy of Fiona Morrison.
A work by Matthew Djipurrtjun. Photograph courtesy of Fiona Morrison.

I had the privilege of spending time with some artists in Milingimbi in early 2023. I remember being completely struck by the lived experience of culture as a vital part of life. Something we are so disconnected from ourselves.

These Yolŋu artists are the embodiment of a living culture, of ancient law and ways of living. Beyond what I understand as ‘art’, this is a way of preserving heritage and identity in a world that has done all it could to take it away.

So it’s no surprise that these men speak with great purpose and pride about reclaiming and studying the work of their forefathers as source of strength and an invaluable tool to drive new work forward:

“Here today, we are in that – in the old,” says Dhamanydji. “In their footsteps, or tracks. We don’t just make something new. We look at the ground. What those Old People did — that’s it. And those old paintings are bringing back our memory to make it new. So we move forward.

“And when we die there are new shoots coming up. Young Yolŋu are growing and they take over the work — working, working, working and learning from the old. That’s how we get the knowledge. So it’s like that – we are the old.”

A portrait of Matthew Djipurrtjun. Photography by Charlie Bliss.
Artist Joe Dhamanydji. Photograph courtesy Photograph courtesy of Charlie Bliss.

Stylistically it’s an interesting pairing, Dhamanydji’s work certainly has a sense of classicism to it – a feeling of antiquity and refinement whereas Teapot’s, although equally refined, has a vividness and crisp modernity. Even to this art luddite the juxtaposition of technique, expression and use of material is clear.

Also clear is how vital the work of the Djalkiri Keeping Place as a resource firmly focused on cultural return as a tool for these artists and the wider community to connect with their own documented past. This concept of cultural repatriation is such a simple one to understand, one only has to have a childlike understanding of not taking what does not belong to you, yet this work is laboured and expensive and hinges on funding to keep it going.

What’s clear is that is it invaluable to support the development of a incredible part of Australia’s living cultural tradition.

An artwork by Joe Dhamanydji. Photograph courtesy of Fiona Morrison.
An artwork by Joe Dhamanydji. Photograph courtesy of Fiona Morrison.

We Are The Old: Luku Ŋurrungitj runs until 29th June at Tactile Arts in Darwin and is presented by Milingimbi Art and Culture and Salon Art Projects.