‘All Yolŋu and Balanda in general, we have to work together and make this happen. If it's only me, it won't happen. We need someone as a co-pilot, skipper, to get to our destination. If it's only you, you can't get nowhere. With Yolŋu and Balanda besides (each other) we can make things happen and get to our destination safe and sound. Teaching each other, you can do that. We can teach each other different techniques; it goes back to balance. That’s a big word for us, balance.’
Bonhula Yunupingu, interviewed April 2022
‘This is us, on the water, in a boat, carrying fire. It could be us, but it could be anyone too. The first one (piece we made together) was very much us, but this is sort of, a bit about how we are all like this. We are playing with fire, on water, in fine balance. Things can go wrong, and we need to really honour that. I think for me, this one really reflects the evolution of my learning from Bonhula.’
Damien Wright, interviewed April 2022
Damien Wright (b.1969) and Bonhula Yunupingu (b.1978) have been working together since 2010, both are craftsmen who look deeper than simply designing and making furniture. Bonhula is a Yolŋu man of the Gumatj clan who met Damien, a Melbourne-based craftsman, after he was invited to help set up a furniture studio to use the Gadayka (Stringy Bark) that was being felled and discarded by the local bauxite mining company. They consider the material’s memory, tracing how it came into their hands, what its purpose and use was and what it will become.
The petrified Red Gum that Damien sourced from Victoria holds the light, the Gurtha (fire), which only allows the light to seep through cracks. The Red Gum is 10,000 years old; an enduring witness fossilised in a capsule of time, now the holder of light. The light is a clue tracing back to the many peoples who would camp along the beach lighting fires at night to socialise and gather. The copper wire to bind the pieces to support the joinery is a nod to joinery practices of Yolŋu peoples, who typically use kangaroo sinew and resin to bind tools. The Stringy Bark eucalypts are the trees that would be worked into shelters and weapons for hunting. The sculptural form pays homage to those hunters. The Stringy Bark, the copper and the petrified Red Gum are materials sourced from mining and building industry, as ‘waste’. The materials are mnemonics for Damien and Bonhula unlocking the cultural, social and industrial lives they lived.
This is the second work that Damien and Bonhula have created together, and it marks a huge shift in their relationship. No longer are the men separate, they are forced into a canoe and a co-dependent relationship in order to reach their shared destination as collaborators. It is about balance and honouring the reality that non-First Nations and First Nations collaboration comes with its set of dangers. It speaks to the tensions present but also holds hope for a symbiotic future between balanda and Yolŋu (white and black) that is based on balance. It marks a challenge and offers an invitation to share the journey, regardless of the dangers.
By directly speaking to the materials memory and its present intent they create sculptural poetry. They describe their relationships as “an ongoing circular cross cultural collaborative project” and they create pieces that resonate beyond decorative design, product design and engineering and into consciously creating social futures. The partnering of the makers creates a dialogue that embodies Bonhula’s methodology as a Yolŋu custodian and Damien’s expertise as a craftsman and expert in European joinery. Each material used is a sentence that features in a much longer story. Each sculpture these two men create together becomes library of collective knowledge.
The intent of Damien and Bonhula’s creations are based in their interpersonal relationship and intertwined in their creative process. They utilise skills from one another’s cultures, European joinery, Yolŋu methodology and teach one another. This collaborative process has been one that they have worked on since 2010 after Damien was invited by Gumatj Elder Galarrwuy Yunupingu to help them to establish a local workshop to recycle the stringy bark that is felled during the mining process and discarded as waste. The intent of the creators is to respect the materials and to have a two-way learning exchange between the individuals that models conscious circular ways of living. There is no end or beginning their works are markers of time and markers of their collaborative relationship
The historical narratives of these objects are evident through each individual material. The materials act as clues to deeper stories. Bonhula brings the stories of place, the place the Gadayka (Stringy Bark) grows and where he and Damien forged their relationship. He brings the story of the Stringy Bark’s ancestors and the relationship they have with Yolŋu people. These are the trees that would used for making shelters and weapons for hunting. The sculptural form pays homage to those hunters in the design. The petrified Red Gum that Damien sourced from Victoria holds the light, the gurtha (fire), which only allows the light to seep through cracks. That Red Gum is 10,000 years old; an enduring witness fossilised in a capsule of time, now the holder of light. The light is a clue, tracing back to the many peoples who would camp along the beach, lighting fires at night to socialise and gather. The copper wire used to bind the pieces to support the joinery is a nod to joinery practices of Yolngu peoples, who typically use kangaroo sinew and resin to bind tools. The Stringy Bark, the copper and the petrified Red Gum are materials sourced from mining and building industry, as ‘waste’. Through their collaborative process the history of the materials are honoured and their future function is imbued with their stories and the relationship held between the makers and the materials.