Waŋupini: Clouds of Remembrance and Return

  January 8 - July 7, 2024

  On view in the Upper West Oval Room of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia


Clouds drift in subtly modified patterns in these artworks by Nawurapu Wunuŋmurra and  Bulthirrirri Wunuŋmurra, both Yolŋu artists from Arnhem Land at the top end of Australia’s Northern Territory. The thunderheads are associated with the beginning of the monsoonal wet season and the first sighting of perahu (boats) from Indonesia on the horizon. Fishermen based in the port of Makassar in Sulawesi, Indonesia, visited the north coast of Australia every year starting in late December or early January to gather trepang (sea cucumber) and engage in trade. They departed on the winds associated with bulunu, or the southeast cloud formations that herald the dry season.

Each artist has depicted the towering cumulonimbus clouds shared by all Yirritja clans as a symbol of the cycle of souls from ocean to cloud before they are reborn as freshwater rain. In their language, Yolŋu Matha, the word for “sunset” is djapana and in the Indonesia dialect of Bugis it means “farewell.” The Djapana song cycle follows natural and trade cycles as the sun sets, the fishermen from Sulawesi leave, and the spirits die. But, also, it encompasses the rebirth of the spirits, the return of their friends with the northern monsoon and the rising of the sun.

Bulthirrirri recounts how she paints a story that was passed down from Nawurapu: “Waŋupini (clouds) is the same story as my father taught me about the sunset. The sun is going down. The sunset on the clouds is like the red sails of the Makassans’ ships leaving at the end of the season.”

Many of her prints represent ceramic vessels painted with clouds and geometric designs. The pots, still used today in Sulawesi, are called rupa in Yolŋu Matha and budjung in Bugis-Makassarese languages. As she notes, “I have been painting waŋupini on ceramic pots as it reminds me about the connection the Makassans have with Yolŋu.” Glowing against a black ground, Bulthirrirri’s printed images of painted pots capture the essence of waŋupini as clouds of both remembrance and return.

Waŋupini (clouds) is the same story as my father taught me about the sunset.

—Bulthirrirri Wunuŋmurra


Nawurapu Wunuŋmurra was the eldest son of the great artist and Dhaḻwaŋu clan leader Yaŋgarriny Wunuŋmurra. He assisted his father from an early age and began painting in his own right as his spiritual authority increased. After contributing to every major group project that emerged from Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre in the 1990s, he held his first solo exhibition at GrantPirrie Gallery, Sydney, in 2004. In the 2000s, Nawurapu became renowned as a sculptor and his carved mokuy (spirit) entered major museum collections. In 2009, he was included in the Moscow Biennale and, in 2010, he won the inaugural “New Media” prize at the 27th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. During a trip to Makassar, Indonesia, in 2015, a batik from one of his paintings was presented to the Textile Museum in Jakarta. A posthumous exhibition of his sculpture was shown at Fondation Opale, Switzerland, in 2021.

Bulthirrirri Wunuŋmurra is an emerging artist who began making art independently in late 2007. She is the granddaughter of the great artist and Dhaḻwaŋu clan leader Yaŋgarriny Wunuŋmurra and the daughter by Yolŋu Law of the great painter and sculptor Nawurapu Wunuŋmurra. Under her father’s guidance, she maintained her family’s rich artistic heritage. Following his death in 2018, she assumed responsibility for the creation of art depicting the stories he taught her, which has since led to stylistic innovation in her work. In 2018-19, she was also elected to the management committee of Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre.

Douglas Fordham is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Art, University of Virginia. Fordham is an historian of art and the British empire and a print specialist. In both his research and teachings, Fordham engages with the Kluge-Ruhe collection.