‘A visionary in many ways’: art world mourns loss of Yolngu artist Mr Wanambi

The art world is mourning the loss of one of Australia’s most respected First Nations artists, Mr Wanambi, with one of his mentees saying “his passing has changed our entire landscape”.

The Yolngu painter, film-maker and curator died in Darwin on Sunday, more than 1,000km from his home in north-eastern Arnhem Land. He was just 59 years old. His family have requested his first name and image not be published.

Best known for his saltwater bark designs and larrakitj (memorial poles), Wanambi has been represented in dozens of major exhibitions across Australia since gaining the authority to continue the art making practices of his father in 1997.

Wanambi was also a key founder of the Mulka Project, a network of multimedia artists and video and sound technicians who use new technology as a means of sustaining, archiving and sharing Yolngu cultural knowledge. The group is based in Yirrkala, where Wanambi and his family live.

Wanambi and Yirrkala’s Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre have also been pioneers in the NFT Indigenous art market.

Fellow Yolngu artist Ishmael Marika, the Mulka Project’s creative director, has worked alongside Wanambi for the past 12 years. He told Guardian Australia the multi-award-winning artist had been a seminal influence in his own achievements, including a 2016 NATSIAA award for his film piece Sunlight Energy II and his digital video My Grandfather Passing on a Message, which was acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria.

Marika spent several years visiting museums and galleries across Australia with Wanambi, collecting thousands of archival photographs and film footage for the Mulka Project.

“He was our cultural adviser, he was always the one that would talk to the families, and make sure that we did not get into trouble,” he said.

Will Stubbs, the coordinator of the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre and a close friend of the artist for more than 30 years, said Wanambi had been experiencing major health issues, but his death was sudden and unexpected.

“His spirit has quite a journey to go on now,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine the intensity of grief in his large family and the community.”

Wanambi has had two solo exhibitions in galleries in Victoria over the past 11 years and another at Singapore’s Redot Gallery in 2016.

His work is in permanent collections across the world, including France’s Musee de Lyon, Germany’s Museum Fünf Kontinente and Museum Kunstwerk, Switzerland’s Fondation Opale, the National Gallery of Australia, Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art and the Holmes a Court Collection.

Recently he curated the first major survey of Aboriginal bark paintings ever staged outside Australia, Maḏayin, which is currently touring the US.

In 2007 Wanambi became director of the Mulka Project, coordinating ventures such as Nhama, a collection of short films from Yirrkala, and serving as a mentor and trainer to younger Yolngu people.

Mulka’s program and technical director, Joseph Brady, said he had been mentored by Wanambi for the past 10 years.

“He adopted me as his brother on my first morning when I arrived here [at The Mulka Project] and we’ve worked side by side ever since,” Brady told Guardian Australia.

“He was a visionary in many ways. He pushed the boundaries of what was possible with his artwork and with his clan design. He made inroads into the digital art world that nobody else was even considering doing.

“There is no replacement for him. His passing has changed our entire landscape.”

Stubbs said in addition to Wanambi’s extensive body of work, he would be remembered as a kind, gentle and humble man, a highly respected leader of the community, and an artist who had no qualms in using his talent as a tool to further the rights of Indigenous peoples.

His involvement in the Saltwater Collection, now housed at the Australian National Maritime Museum, recognised the victory of the historic 2008 high court Blue Mud Bay decision, which secured Indigenous sea rights in the Northern Territory. The artist’s Wukiḏi installation, which sits in the foyer of the NT supreme court, commemorates the suspected police murder of Wanambi’s ancestor Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda, the first Indigenous person to have his case heard in the high court.

“As an Indigenous person living a ceremonial life that faces many obstacles, it was a constant challenge to maintain spiritual health. But he would confront these challenges with kindness and compassion,” Stubbs said.

“In the 30 years I have known him, I have never seen him display any anger, despite provocation that came his way.”

Brady said Wanambi’s death has changed the north-eastern Arnhem Land community irrevocably.

“It’s never going to be the same again,” he said. “We will move on, we will evolve. But it’s a totally new landscape that we’ll be working with.”

Wanambi is survived by his wife, Warraynga, who is also an artist, their five children and multiple grandchildren.

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