Will Stubbs is coordinator at the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Arts Centre in Yirrkala, NT, and a passionate advocate of Indigenous arts and Australia’s unique arts centres. A former criminal lawyer, Will began working with Yolngu Elders and Artists, such as Djambawa Marawili AM, Gawirrin Gumana AO and Wanyubi Marika in 1995. The Yirrkala artists have since won several major art prizes, and exhibited widely and internationally, including at Musée du quai Branly in Paris.
Interviewer and Producer
Will Stubbs, coordinator of the The Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Art Centre, Yirrkala
- Interviewer and Producer
With the kind assistance of Jacqui Tosi
Yolande Brown 0.05
Today I've got the absolute pleasure of yarning on the phone with Will Stubbs, the coordinator of the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre, the Art Centre in Yirrkala North East Arnhem Land. We're going to chat about life in North East Arnhem Land, about Will’s work at the Art Centre and about the practice of Artist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu. So, I might start by asking how long have you worked in the Art Gallery, Will?
Will Stubbs 0:34
Well I just passed 25 years last month.
I know. I've become more and more ineffective as time goes by, but I guess that's natural.
(laughs) No, no, no, you’ve just become more streamlined with what you do!
Yeah. Yeah better at getting other people to do all the work! Yeah.
Is there a favourite aspect to what you do? Is, do you have a favourite part of, you know, your work at the gallery?
Well basically, I make it a rule that I don't get to have a cup of coffee at home. So we open at 7.30. (YB - Wow) And that's a good reason to get to work. So, I just have a cup of coffee and a cigarette at 7.30. (YB - At work?) And that's the bit that. . . Yeah… that makes you get up and go to work. If you can’t have your cup of coffee and cigarette at home, you got to go to work. And then after that, things just flow. So, there's no favourite thing is just a delight to work here. I mean, we don't even work. The distinction between work and play is a construct of the colonial mind.
I love that.
It's true. Yolngu don't work because there's no such thing. Everyone here is in activity or not. When you go hunting, you know it's not work. That seriousness and that, this sort of division from life and the idea that you leave yourself at the door is not how a Yolngu business like this operates. So if you spend time with Yolngu, in their normal way of being in the bush, you know, you see these people exhaust you trying to keep up with these old ladies when they're going for yams or oysters, shellfish whatever it is, they don't stop. But they, people don't have frowns on their face, and they're not judging themselves against some other criteria. It just, fully engaged with what they're doing and that might be having a joke, having a laugh or painting or you know, dealing with customers, or packing stuff or whatever we end up doing. It's not like we left ourselves behind while we're doing it. Everyone's just being themselves.
I love that you call it…
I mean, I mean, that's a normal, normal place. A normal good place to work will be like that.
Yeah. I love that you call it activity rather than work.
I mean, this is where you realise that these divisions don't exist in reality. They're only a cultural construct.
It's so true, I’ve never thought about that (laughs)
Yeah. I know. I mean, when you're a Dancer, you're technically working. But I mean…
But you love what you're doing. So, it doesn't feel like work.
Well it's not. Work is not real. The concept of work is not real. And when you take away, when you're gardening, you're working, I guess, from a European perspective, but no one's paying you to do it.
But, you know,
It's like being a mother.
Yeah like being a mother. Exactly. So, exactly. And so you know, when I'm in here, I'm gardening or I'm being a mother, but I'm not really working. And that's not because I'm lazy. It's because there's actually no such thing as work. And the problem where it rebounds back the other way is that in the industrial society, you are only as valuable as your work. So if you don't work, according to the accepted definition, you're worth nothing. And even people who do work all their lives are conditioned to believe that they haven't done enough. And their worth is somehow linked to this concept of work, which is not real. And none of this is purely up to Yolngu philosophy. You know, one of the great sayings is if you love work you do, you'll never work a day in your life. And basically, I've got 30 colleagues here, who never worked a day in their life. And I guess it's the same feeling at Bangarra. You don't see Dancers with those horrible work grimaces on their faces. Even though it's as hard as anything anyone could ever do.
They're being, they’re not working.
Yeah, it's like a meditation.
Doesn't mean it's not hard. It's hard digging yams. It’s hard getting oysters, but…
Yeah yeah, it's a flow.
Yeah, I mean, I'm not saying that people don't commit and do things that look like work. It's just that if you don't have that concept in your head to begin with, then yeah it's a totally different thing.
Mmm. That's beautiful. Do you recall when Nyapanyapa first started painting at the gallery?
Yeah. It's going back a way. I mean, I don't think she ever started in our living memory, like she would have been painting things. It's just… in the balanda (non-Indigenous) way, you know, she became an Artist when other people started appreciating it. But she has been making things her whole life. It's just a natural state of things too, for her make things and they would have been insignificant carvings, scratchy carvings, you know, painted shells. Because she, you know – this is the irony of where we're at and where my role is – is to ensure that she is appreciated as she should be within that hierarchical judgmental world of art in the mainstream system which is full of Roman culture that we all inherit … with hierarchies. But she doesn't live in that world. She doesn't recognise it. She's just as totally ignorant of it really. She's just making stuff.
And it’s interesting.
Stuff that she was making when she was an ‘insignificant nobody’ is the same stuff that she's making now that she's a famous Artist. Because, you know this is again a Yolngu thing – and stop me if I'm getting too heavy – and I'm not ‘man-splaining’ or ‘white-splaining’ or whatever, I'm just as confused as everybody else. I've just tried to figure it out. When I constantly bump into cultural misunderstandings, every day, because of what's in my head, and the absence of things that are my head, or the presence of things that are in other people's heads, it’s a constant curiosity to me. So I've tried to understand what's going on and failed to a large degree. But what you end up doing is looking back at yourself and going, ‘Ahh, I see why I thought that was so weird. It's because of this structure that's in my brain that's not in these other people's brains.’ And one of the things is judgment.
And I read a quote from Shakespeare the other day, and it's not the right, I forget what it actually says but it says, ‘there's nothing good or bad, except thinking makes it so’. So Shakespeare says that, and Yolngu live that. So the idea that we have that everything is good or bad, and that God or somebody – Darwin – put us here to determine what is good or what is bad. Good dance, bad dance, good art, bad art.
[Someone just fell over. . . Are you okay Richie?]
So people aren’t good and bad, you know, that dress isn't good or bad. It's just a dress. But this overlay that we believe has to be put on everything, is not real. And the way you can tell that is when you're the lonely outsider in a group of people who don't have that in their head. And you just go ‘What? Why don’t you understand that what that person just did is really bad, or really good?’ Because Yolngu overlay is not this binary good and bad, but the Yolngu overlay is a binary Yirritja and Dhuwa which is two moieties - two halves of the world - which interplay in every context. And it's not, it's not a hierarchy of value put on by the observer. And, so I don’t know how I got on to this track but what happens is there...
But there's still. But there's still morals in there. There’s still moral codes that filter through.
Absolutely, absolutely, but they're not – Yeah – when I say this, to explain this to people they are... ‘oh, you just want everything to be bad’. And I say ‘no, that's not how it works’. You know, you know the outcomes that, if you want to touch on that scale better, if you're not constantly trying to decide who's good and who's bad and what's good or what's bad, but if you're doing it by a different system, you might find that – whatever - it gets, you get a bit worm holey with that but what the effect of it is, you know, the last year in the National Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Art Award, which is a big gig in the Visual Arts. And the Art Centre won the first prize, and four of the six category prizes. Well, overall four of the six prizes.
Wow. That's hugely successful.
Yeah, that's huge. And you know, what was weird is that the exact same thing happened the year before. So, my role is to take these people to Darwin to get patted on the back for being better than everyone else, when they inherently know that it's impossible for one person to be better than another.
I love that.
I'm full of ego and pride and joy about these things, and for the Artists themselves it's an absurdity. And they have no real interest in turning around, getting patted on the back for something that's not real. So I just very struggle very hard to get them to these events, because it's not real.
Do they enjoy. . .
And you know that with Indigenous people – it's a general truism about Indigenous culture, even where it's being actively targeted for 200 years, that every single person remains connected to every other, single person. Regardless of what they may have done, it can't change the essence that they are intimately and eternally connected to us and to you. And you're just part of an organism - that you are a cell in an organism. There is no such thing as an individual. That's another shock for the western mind. Yeah.
yeah. It’s yeah. . .
You know, when we have our idea of destiny. And you know, people are encouraged to separate themselves from the group. I mean it’s a parenting practice in western culture to separate the baby and make it cry in a separate room as early as possible, so that it can learn that it's alone. And when you have this idea of the individual seeking its free will destiny, that's the same as when one of yourselves decides to do that. It says stuff. The rest of you, I'm going to be, discover my own true essence and chart my own journey. That's a malignancy.
Wow, that is a really interesting way of looking at things.
Yeah, well, it's not me. I'm just trying to define what the hell these crazy people I live with are thinking and this turns out to be embedded into a philosophy. Even the idea that Aboriginal people have a philosophy is just a complete surprise to people, because I figured that out from my perspective is because they have a philosophy and it's the exact opposite of ours. So it becomes invisible. If you're non-materialistic, non-individualistic, non-hierarchical, non-judgmental, then that's basically the opposite of culture. So you have no culture. So, that's how it's seen. Because it's incomprehensible. It's unable to be admitted into the system through which we view everything. Not because it doesn't exist, because it's literally, in many cases, the exact opposite of the foundations of our Roman industrial society.
So if you look at a situation like Tibet and, you know, the Chinese saying, ‘well look at these poor bastards, they're materially impoverished. They're deluded with ah, rank superstition that makes them wander around on the top of mountain tops and wave flags and ring bells. We're going to save these people and put a big petrochemical plant in their sacred country.’ From us we know that's wrong because, we know Richard Gere is a Buddhist, Richard Gere, whatever his name is, we admit that as a possible worldview. And we know the Chinese are imperialist. But, we are the Chinese and the Yolngu are the Tibetans. And that's exactly what's happening right here and has been for 200 years, but we can't see ourselves in that frame because we cannot admit the concept that there is Aboriginal philosophy, or intellectual thought, or poetry, music and art - in art other than decorative … art that speaks to what it is to be human. And that's where Bangarra and Buku have a role, you know, because it's just a tiny, little … We're like the coronavirus, you know, attaching to the spike, or our spike pierces the cell. Once people say that art, then they can potentially become infected with the idea that you know, all humans are valuable and the greater diversity of humanity the better, and it's not an offence to think different or look different or speak different – especially when that difference is actually the original.
Wow. Well, we've gone off on a tangent here but I love it. And, and sort of continuing on with what, what you're talking about, but going back to Nyapanyapa at the same time, other Yolngu people joke about Nyapanyapa’s work as, as being ‘mayilimiriw’, is that right? I don’t know how to. . .
Yeah, ‘mayilimiriw’, ‘mayilimiriw’. Yeah, ‘mayilimiriw’. Yeah so.
Yeah. Which means meaningless.
Yeah. So, the art is actually a language, a written language. So, in ordinary Yolngu painting, something is either wakinŋu - ordinary, decorative only, or it's maḏayin- sacred, and it manifests the language. So someone looks at a certain pattern that will trigger them to, you know, 200 songs, orally passed down - which is poetry. So, think about the Odyssey or the Iliad, or the Old Testament, the Bible, was probably orally recorded before it was written down. So, when you see that pattern, all of those associations just echo. And it's so rich, because it summons chapters of the Bible, or whole texts in people's minds, and then you've got someone who's just making marks. So it can't be treated with the same regard from a Yolngu perspective. Whether that's judgment or not, but it's just a fact. It's not encoding the law. It's not. It's not intellectually as powerful as the other things are. And she's never made those kind of marks. And so when there's no sort of oppression of her through this fact, but it's more a matter of amusement to incredibly knowledgeable professors, that this person who can't even write is lauded so highly by an outside culture. If you get my drift.
Yeah, well, maybe it's that she chooses not to express herself in, in that script.
Well she definitely does choose not to express herself in that script. She doesn't put it any higher than making marks and at the end of the day that’s what it is - making marks - and this is the power of her art, and art generally.
… and the meditation of activity.
Yeah. So, you know, I mean, without going off into another tangent, our concept of time is also totally anthropological. So we believe that things either start with the Big Bang or with, you know, the seven days that God took to make the Earth and that things will end in a doomsday or a big disaster. We have this timeline entrenched in our head, but Yolngu don't. And within our own culture, neither did Einstein. Einstein says that people who believe in the past or in the future are the victims of a stubborn illusion. So reality is not like that. In Yolngu when you're talking about the events described in those songs, you're using a grammatic tense which doesn't exist in English, which we bastardised and called the Dreamtime without anyone understanding what that means, but it is a contemporaneous past/present/future.
If you apply it to our own thoughts - something like Jesus was/is/will be crucified. So I just told you, there's a 32-year old man being tortured as we speak. It's immediate. And it is how the seasons progress. It's how the land is/was/will be shaped. And so, in that context, time, and the time Nyapanyapa spends making her artwork, is existing in a dimension that we don’t grasp. Look, it’s perfectly rational to believe in an arrow of time, it's just not how reality is. It’s just our perception of it - our little torch beam seems to be moving in an inexorable direction from past to future through the present. It's just that the people who know about these things ie. Einstein and the Yolngu, say that is not in fact how reality is.
Yeah it's not linear, lineal.
No. And so, yeah. I mean, that's sort of a bit of a non sequitur with Nyapanyapa, but that's, that's the time in which she's living. She's living in that time the Yolngu are living. And their spirit is eternally cycling, so even death doesn’t end - the endless infinite progression. So it's one of the possibilities about the world and its creation, that it never started … and it will never end. We don't know enough to know if that's right or wrong. But this is how the Yolngu see it. And it's totally at odds with how we see it.
So, I think Nyapanyapa without really trying to educate us about these things is manifesting it. You know, it is a mystery as to what people see in the art. I'm not saying I don't see it too, it's just that when you come to write or talk or think about what she's doing, it's very hard to pin it down to something that will make sense in an English, you know, in, in a Roman head, but I tend, I feel as if people can just glimpse that eternal moment. So from living in the exact moment that you're in, knowing that there is no past and there is no future is impossible to do, but lots of Californian, self-help people would recommend it to you. (YB – laughter) It’s how Nyapanyapa lives and how most Yolngu live, because the future… western people, industrial people, as they, I, think of them - you know, because their focus is totally on material things and how to attain comfort in all their time - planning and anticipating the future and getting their resources largely for that. Whereas Yolngu walk off with nothing and find what they're looking for, and live without if they haven't got it without anxiety.
So, you know, it's quite frequent here to blow a tyre … usually the spare tyre has been lent to someone else. Usually the jackhammer has been taken by a woman to go and get oysters. No one's been thinking ahead, you know, no one's been spending their whole time worrying about what will happen ‘if’. As a non-Indigenous person stuck in a situation, two hours from home, in the threatening bush, you know, automatically panic kicks in and you look around and everyone else is just lighting a fire, going around and seeing what resources are available there and getting ready - not getting ready - just being, when I'm trying to engender some panic and some disaster crisis thought processes. . . and everyone's looking at me as if I'm the one with the problem (YB laughter) because they're not lost. They're where they are. And they're quite happy to be where they are. And that's what makes them incredibly adaptable, flexible, resilient. You know, you take a house away from a white person, or a salary, or a mortgage or an insurance policy, away from a not a ‘white’ person, but from a ‘non-Indigenous’ person - from an ‘industrial’ person - and panic sets in. Where Yolngu are running, dancing to the beat of a different drum.
Wow, that’s yeah.
I think that’s in those paintings. They are painted in the moment, at the same time. They don't have a beginning or an end - they’re just a channel.
Nyapanyapa’s bark paintings operate within the four dimensional environment. Which is interesting too.
Yeah, well, this is some part of what we do here as well, is that um, everything is against the Anglo model. You know, there is only one model, and it's what's received from England. So, a painting is meant to be square and flat. That's a given. So, after 25 years of struggling with people's impression of that, and you know, apologising for the fact that these barks aren’t squarer or flatter, eventually, I realised that they’re better that way. From my point of view, so they're more interesting. And, what we've been doing lately, which is highly recommended to anyone who has got a bark painting, is get four bits of foam and chock it off the wall, five centimetres, so it's no longer defined by the square, flat, Roman wall and then it becomes what it is, which is an object, suspended in space - and those ripples and contours enhance it.
So, when we came to a period where we were able to do recycled art, which refers us back to Bangarra, where we had a game-breaking Artist called Gunybi Ganambarr who started picking up bits of PVC pipe and old abandoned, water tanks and started rendering them in his designs, and the Elders approved that and dictated that it fit the earlier edict that if you're going to paint the land, use the land. So, if you're going to render the identity of the land then use natural medium, which is something that we've mandated since the early 90s, and goes back to whatever beginning there may have ever been. When he started doing this about 2011, it’s really changed everything.
I can remember Stephen Page on one of your guys’ trips up here where you guys bring back the dance to Yirrkala in respect to the way the Yolngu helped Stephen and Bangarra in the early days. You guys were flying out and Stephen said ‘Oh, Will, can you pick up those 50 sheets of MDF off the basketball court because we're just not going to have time before the plane?’ And I said ‘yes, sure - we’re really happy to do it. It’s such a joy when you guys come.’ And as he was leaving, he said, ‘Oh, and you should paint on those.’ And I said, ‘We're not painting on those. We've got to use the bark and the ochres and the thing and don't tell me what to do. You just look after the dancing and I’ll look after the art’ (YB - laughter) And then after he left, I realised that actually this is totally compliant with the recycled art that ah we’re picking this stuff off the ground, which would otherwise go in the bin. And at that point, we were able to provide those beautiful, square, flat sheets to Nyapanyapa and others.
And we were able to paint on a scale that we can’t with bark because there's no tree that's ah 1.2 meters wide – one meter would be about the max. And I was so relieved, because we’d finally got away from the stigma of bark. And then I looked at them and I realised that I didn't love them as much as I love the bark, as they’re flat. So that was an interesting insight, but other people love ‘em and they are beautiful, and it's great to work on that scale. But, um, it was a funny revelation, after straining to get to the point of acceptance to realise that actually, you're better off.
With the more traditional surface.
Well, not so much traditional because I just don't like that word, because it's meaningless. Yeah, the opposite of that is contemporary, which means now and everything we make is now.
I know I've had this conversation about traditional dancing before. With people just assuming that because it’s traditional it has to be of the past and can’t be part of a continuum.
You know if you said the Popes, you know, doing traditional something or other, you know, whatever - a priest is wearing traditional dress … It just doesn't have the same pejorative sense that it does when it’s applied to Indigenous people. It implies old fashioned, primitive behaviour.
And once again, it goes back to using the English language as a vessel to contain a construct that doesn't exist for the English in the English language. So…
That’s right. That's right. And it's always it's always been managed to marginalise other views, because that's the nature of language. You know, I mean, it's not anything corrupt or bad, particularly about Anglo people. It's just, you know, what we're witnessing is the maturation of Anglo viewpoints to include others. And that's part of Bangarra and Buku and part of Australia's really great history, you know, certainly in my lifetime, and it's progression and it hasn't stopped … and what's happening now, Black Lives Matter, is just one aspect of just ah, a growing up. A greater philosophical and intellectual maturity in Anglo culture. Especially for Australians, to find a place on this continent, for a set of ideas that are not all imported. And find a standpoint for a non-Indigenous person to love and embrace the full history and beauty and wonder of this country.
And accept the country, the land, for all that it is.
And my particular personal journey has been so fortunate by just a stroke of luck. I ended up in the hands of the Yolngu. And it’s ah, as you would know, it's a mandated part of Yolngu culture to accept everyone without judgment and to share everything you have. These are just universal requirements of Yolngu culture. So if you accidentally land amongst the Yolngu, you're given everything, and that's not because I'm special. It's just the accident of life and it's available to anyone who interacts with any Australian Indigenous person. People crave it. And they just have all these barriers towards getting what they want, which is a sense of belonging in this country. And it would be different if it was this thing somehow withheld or rationed out or applied hierarchically, but it's not. It's available.
As soon as you speak to an Aboriginal person, if you are approaching them on equal terms, they will give you everything they've got. You know, because they have to, because that's the culture. Yeah, yet we’re the hoarders. We have the concept of, you know. Your mother with withholds her approval if you don't do your homework. And for Yolngu, that's disgusting, because there can't be any conditionality on acceptance. You are accepted. And I always think it's ironic that Survivor, it's totally based around people being excluded. (YB – laughter) Certainly in Australian Indigenous culture, that's the one thing you can't do. That's why locking people up in a jail is such a cruel punishment. You know, it’s unthinkable, to remove people from society can't be done, you can do everything else.
But there's still punishment, there's still lore and there’s still …
That’s right but no one gets excluded. That’s the one thing that can’t happen. A person cannot exist in isolation. And you’d know society can cut someone off. So we're … this is the daily reality of life in a Yolngu community in terms. You know, it's similar to the connection you have with your child, if your child turned out to be a drug importer, you'd still be going to the jail three times a week to visit them. And that's a special genetic relationship recognised by non-Indigenous or industrial people because, you know, genes are the most selfish thing that we can follow. You know, we love them because they're part of us. Whereas in Yolngu, the kinship connections are non-genetic in lots of cases - genes are irrelevant. It's about connection. And everyone has as close a connection as your own child. Everyone fate is your own fate you know ‘ask not for whom the bell tolls’. We just had a ceremony for a two-month old baby who died who was well known to be going to die. The entire community stopped for three days. Thirty cars came from the airport to the home. This is not because this person was important or relevant on a hierarchy. This was if you want to, from a balanda perspective, the least important person possible, but there's no gradation of acceptance. There’s no gradation of connection. Everyone is connected.
The kinship system is incredible. The way it, you know, everybody within the community is connected. You have so many mothers and so many sisters and so many fathers and…
This is at the root of what we’ve been talking about through this whole call - is that it cannot be explained when you think of it using the English word ‘kinship’. This system of burridor is the core of the philosophy that I've been talking about. It's not just the people. You know, it is every square meter of land, every bird species, plant species, animal species, cloud formation, wind direction, is inextricably linked in this incredibly complicated geometry that can't be mapped out in any way that anyone's been able to find so far. That is in the minds of everyone. And that is the reality. So that you are getting triggered. If you imagine all of the works of literature in the world and all of the works of art in the world and all the music in the world was actually manifest in the things you see around it, so every single species of grass triggers you to a set of songs, paintings and books - this is, this is the philosophy we're talking about and it doesn't, it can't be learned in fifteen minutes. So it’s, just beyond, it can’t be learning twenty-five years - I’ve been working at it. But this is why it remains invisible.
But at the core of it is those sorts of universal values that I was talking about, but it's actually dressed in this kaleidoscopic structure. It's as complicated as the world is, but somehow, eight-year olds know it. Because you know, this is the other side of things. We're playing a game in our whiteboarding, what should happen to Indigenous people? If you can't see what they're actually learning and what's in their heads and you're not that interested, then you see them as having nothing. So they've got nothing. So the best thing would be to herd them into a school and teach them what we know because what we know is valuable. So the struggle of Indigenous academics to at least even just keep speaking their own language against the efforts of every department of education in the country. Merrki, my wife, asked Nigel Scullion on Q&A, when they did it at Garma two years ago ‘Is there a single bureaucrat to your knowledge in any federal or state department of Indigenous affairs who is fluent in an Indigenous language?’ And he said, ‘not to my knowledge’. Imagine the arrogance of taking over someone's entire country and not going to the basic trouble of learning the language. People who go to France for two weeks make an effort to learn the language.
That's right. We toured China back in 2002 and I learned an amazing amount of Mandarin in just two weeks. Even that short period of lessons gave me an appreciation of the language and qualities and the more respectful way of communicating when on their country.
Well, that's been incredible. Thanks, Will. Yeah I love listening to you talk.
Thanks Yolande. Lots of love to you guys. We love you guys you know. Bangarra are family - literally.
Yeah, thanks so much, Will. It's been such a pleasure. Bye.
That was a really interesting conversation with Will Stubbs - the coordinator of the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in North East Arnhem Land.