Dhupuma Beyond Visibility

Elina Spilia Australian Indigenous Studies & Art History programs
The University of Melbourne

In the mid-1960s, the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO) established its most northerly space tracking station in northeast Arnhem Land, on an ancestral estate owned by Gulumbu Yunupingu's father and his Gumatj lineage. Here, at Gulkula, eucalypt forest ends in a dramatic escarpment that provides breathtaking views of the luminous skies over the Gulf of Carpentaria. Like generations of Yolngu before them, ELDO's astronomers observed the seasonal cycles of planets and constellations. They maintained a vigilant watch over the night sky, measuring the satellites they launched into space with telescopes trained like mechanical eyes into the darkness.

As if by providence, ELDO had built its tracking station on a sacred site that lies on the ancestral route walked by the ghostly spirit Ganbulapula, who tilted his head upwards in search of honey hidden high in the trunks of hollow eucalypts. In local idiom, the honey sought by this ghostly man is said to hold the sweetness of knowledge, and it is Ganbulapula's inquiring, upturned gaze that provides an insight into Gulumbu's paintings. Dhupuma (the elevated gaze, the elevated mind) was preordained by Ganbulapula's intent search for honey and re-enacted by the astronomers' intent study of the heavens.

Is it the glimmering light or the expansive darkness that compels such wonder about our place in the Universe? The beauty of the night sky rests on the threshold between the visible and invisible, the known and unknown. This edge symbolises an ever-shifting boundary of unanswered questions, a translucent veil over an ungraspable limit, a point that moves ever further beyond reach. The search for knowledge that lies beyond this horizon has driven centuries of scientific, metaphysical and humanist inquiry, and this enduring awe of the magnificent spread of the sky underpins Gulumbu Yunupingu's stunningly detailed paintings of garak, the universe, and ganyu, stars.

Away from the light pollution generated by large cities, the skies of Arnhem Land appear both brighter and blacker. Certain astronomical bodies - the Sun, the Moon, the Milky Way, particular stars, constellations, planets and galaxies-hold profound significance in Aboriginal cosmologies because they are regarded as ancestral phenomena. Yolngu landowners of northeast Arnhem Land describe certain celestial bodies as ancestral agents who established the laws of nature and of Yolngu society. According to the scholarship of the Yolngu, the most profound knowledge in the contemporary world is prefigured by ancestral actions, and the most persuasive evidence of these actions is provided by sacred objects. These objects hold the most intimate and powerful revelations of ancestral law, and so are scrupulously hidden from casual view. These objects and their safeguarding are described through metaphors of shadow, darkness and obscured vision.

The idea that meaning exists beyond visible perception is a grounding principle of ancestral revelation, and one that is transposed into Yolngu aesthetics. According to Yolngu scholarship, an invisible or semi-visible trace may indicate an imminent but obscured presence, power or thing that holds profound and secreted meaning. Astrophysicists provide us with an apt analogy: celestial bodies are not perceptible in themselves; they are visible only through fragments of light beamed across unfathomable light years: eye and light join across distance and time to provide traces of an ancient past manifested in the present.

Gulumbu Yunupingu's signature works bear thousands of star shapes painted in natural pigments that range between delicate pinks and ephemeral creams, mustardy ochres, deep chocolates, earthy browns and dusty beiges, offset by stark whites and charcoal blacks. The repetitions and variations of form and hue in Gulumbu's paintings produce mesmerising surfaces that appear to move in and out of focus. While each piece is unique, her paintings also form a continuing body of work that now spans nine years - a performative documentation of the entire night sky. The artist paints the Universe star by star, as if by painting each one she might discover their finitude and reach beyond its edge. When installed as an immersive environment, Gulumbu's painted hollow logs situate us within (rather than beneath) the night sky. We move through a forest of galaxies, walking amid eucalyptus trunks (as Ganbulapula did) with a gaze directed into the heavens and a mind drawn upwards in wonder at the magnificent spread of the Universe.

Gulumbu's practice is humbling, meditative, and deeply philosophical. She offers each work as an invitation, a provocation, to seek an expanded perspective, to seek whatever lies beyond the known universe. "We don't know what is beyond", the artist says. "When you look up, go deeper until you can see the dots in my painting. Look around, keep studying. The mind goes up and up, we don't know where or how deep it goes". Art, science, metaphysics and epistemology are encapsulated in the metaphor of dhupuma, the upturned gaze and the upturned mind, an enduring contemplation of a universe that lies beyond human sight and beyond human knowledge.

Reproduced with the permission of the author and MGA