Yolngu artist Dhambit Mununggurr taught herself to paint again

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Dhambit Mununggurr in front of her painting Bees at Gangan. Picture: Charlie Bliss

Dhambit Mununggurr in front of her painting Bees at Gangan. Picture: Charlie Bliss

I first met Dhambit Mununggurr at an exclusive media event for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Awards in Darwin.

She stood out against the formal setting and among the slickly dressed curators and public relations people racing around organising booklets and VIP seating.

Dhambit was barefoot, wearing an outfit entirely made up of clothes in her signature bright blue.

The handles of her black wheelchair were almost entirely covered in splatters of acrylic paint.

She shouted out or clapped with delight throughout the presentation, and clutched the hands of those around her with affection and excitement.

With her loyal husband and carer Tony always by her side, she had made the difficult journey, 11 hours by car, from her home deep in northeast Arnhem Land to be there to attend those awards for the first time - she had won the bark painting award for her work called Bees at Gangan.

And when we moved to the gallery to see the winning pieces, it was clear that Dhambit's work perfectly matched her in every way.

Bees at Gangan is huge - on a thick hunk of tree bark, with a white background and shapes depicting trees, bees, snakes and a billabong - all in vibrant shades of blue.

One of the first things she told me was that both of her parents were prolific and revered painters.

In fact, they had both won the main prize at the same art competition - the most prestigious First Nations art awards in the country.

"The only other person who can say that about themselves is her sister," Will Stubbs, the coordinator of Yirrkala's art centre where Dhambit painted Bees at Gangan, joked.

Dhambit credits her parents with a lot when it comes to her work. But, after a serious car accident in 2007, it was Dhambit who had to teach herself to paint again after losing the use of her previously favoured right hand.

Dhambit is a Yolngu woman, which is among the oldest living cultures on earth. Traditional Yolngu painting is done not using paint but by crushing ocre. When her injury prevented her from doing that, she had to seek permission from elders to start painting in acrylic paint, with blue soon emerging as her favourite.

"[The blue] comes from the ocean," she tells me. "It's history."

Since then, Dhambit has forged her own path as a contemporary Yolngu artist. She paints every day, all day, and regularly gives her art away despite its growing commercial value.

I feel privileged to have been given a peek into the world of such an extraordinary person, and I hope you do too.

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