Desperately ill and frail, but with eyes that shine with intelligence and passion, Gulumbu Yunupingu was the star at the premiere of her giant artwork at the ANU's Hedley Bull Centre yesterday.
Yunupingu, who lives in the Yirrkala community in Arnhem Land, made the arduous trip against the wishes of her family and despite having terminal cancer.
She did so because she wanted to attend the opening of the new MCA building in Sydney where her work, depicting celestial formations upon bark panels and hollowed memorial (Larrakitj) poles, is on display.
She took the opportunity to travel to Canberra as well to see her Garrurru (Sail), in its completed form.
Painted on a pieces of jarrah wood Garrurru measures 7 metres by 3 metres, weighs more than a tonne and was lowered by crane through the roof of the centre which houses the College of Asia Pacific Programs.
As Yunupingu watched proceedings from her wheelchair, her daughter Dhalulu Ganambarr spoke on her behalf.
''Mum asked me to speak because she is really overwhelmed. Mum is a very sick lady now but she really, really wanted to come here to be a part of this ceremony, even though the rest of the family didn't want her to,'' she said.
Yunupingu's works have been exhibited extensively overseas and she was one of eight artists invited to produce work for the opening of the Musée du quai Branly in Paris in 2006.
She is the sister of two former Australians of the Year, Galarrwuy Yunupingu and Yothu Yindi frontman Mandawuy Yunupingu.
Garrurru represents the boats of the seafaring Indonesian traders, the Macassans people, with whom Yunupingu's clan, the Gumatj, have had strong cultural and economic ties for at least 400 years.
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington said: ''The university has a program for integrating art works into the fabric of new buildings, reflecting the functions carried out within. In Yolngu, the word Garrurru means sail and derives from the Macassan word for sailcloth.
''This close linguistic link demonstrates the centuries of interaction between the fishermen of the Indonesian archipelago and the indigenous communities of Arnhem Land.
''The artwork is a symbolic representation of the close links between Australia and Asia, one of the major elements in the College of Asia Pacific Programs.''
Professor Hughes-Warrington said Yunupingu, born in 1945, had a ''very busy life apart from her art practice.''
She was one of four people who translated the Bible into Gumatj and works with Galarrwuy Yunupingu to educate non-indigenous people about Yolngu life and culture.
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