John Mawurnd­jul, I am the old and the new – Jeremy Ec­cles

Art Almanac - - Contents - Jeremy Ec­cles

‘I the old and the new.’ What a mar­vel­lously bib­li­cal state­ment by the Western Arn­hem Land artist, John Mawurnd­jul. He made it boldly in ac­cept­ing this year’s male Red Ochre Award at the Syd­ney Opera House in May, and the once-shaggy bush­man – who lives 50 kilo­me­tres from the town­ship of Man­ingrida on his own Milmil­ngkan out­sta­tion, hunt­ing, car­ing for his Coun­try and paint­ing – had a new con­fi­dence in his hand-in-pocket stance, neatly trimmed hair and beard, in re­sponse to this im­por­tant recog­ni­tion by his peers.

But the quote is also the ti­tle of his sec­ond in­sti­tu­tional solo show – the first was at Basel’s Mu­seum Tinguely in 2005 – at the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art Aus­tralia (MCA). This is cocu­rated with the Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia (AGSA), where it will be staged in Oc­to­ber be­fore a slightly re­duced ver­sion of the 165-work ex­hi­bi­tion tours the coun­try un­til the end of 2020.

The pre­sen­ta­tion is also co-cu­rated with the artist him­self. MCA Curator Clothilde Bullen com­ments, ‘He’s just so charis­matic, and knew pre­cisely which of his ba­bies were im­por­tant and which less im­por­tant. ‘This one such a good one,’ he’d an­nounce. And our ex­hi­bi­tion will be fully bilin­gual, thanks to the heroic ef­forts of trans­la­tor Mur­ray Garde.’

‘We’ll be look­ing at 35 years of Mawurnd­jul’s prac­tice,’ Bullen con­tin­ues; not­ing the shifts across that time. He stud­ied the an­cients like Yi­rawala and Mid­jawmid­jaw, but was taught to paint by his un­cle Peter Mar­ral­wanga and el­der brother Jimmy Njim­in­juma. His early works – seen in the land­mark ‘Magi­ciens de la Terre’ ex­hi­bi­tion in Paris in 1989 – were mainly fig­u­ra­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tions of mythic fig­ures like fe­male Yawkyawk wa­ter-hole spir­its or Mawar­rmul­mul, the shoot­ing star spirit. Then he carved sculp­tural fig­ures and lor­rkons, adding the finest lines of cross-hatch­ing for the first time in Kun­win­jku art.’ ‘I changed the law my­self,’ Mawurnd­jul once boasted.

‘Fi­nally,’ con­cludes Bullen, ‘as his knowl­edge of cer­e­mo­nial mat­ters grew, he’s con­cen­trated on the Mar­dayin cer­e­monies that are the foun­da­tion of Kun­in­jku law and cul­ture. These works ap­pear abstract to us, be­cause he can only show the public as­pects of the cer­e­mony.’ But Mawurnd­jal points out that there are ‘in­side’ mat­ters too for ini­ti­ates: ‘The dan­garrk lights in the wa­ter give off a blue colour at night in the wa­ter­holes at Mar­dayin sites. This is Mar­dayin – the glow­ing of the lights is the spirit essence of the cer­e­mony. I saw these lights glow­ing at night. I put the ex­pe­ri­ence in my head and went and col­lected bark, scraped it down, and then painted the same thing I had seen in cross-hatched form.’

For­mer Art Gallery of New South Wales Curator Hetti Perkins de­scribes Mawurnd­jal’s process as ‘a kind of alchemy. The essence of the orig­i­nal is there in the new – which shines and glows.’ This is am­pli­fied in the words of the artist him­self: ‘Through some sort of magic, I am a chemist man my­self. I am the Num­ber One chemist man.’ He is also the se­nior djunkay, or cer­e­mo­nial man­ager, for the Mar­dayin cer­e­mony – which is rarely per­formed these days. He is keep­ing it alive through his art.

It’s not all been plain sail­ing, though, for this great artist. In 1998, his work was re­jected at the Koln Art Fair as ‘folk art’ – which must have made his 2003 vic­tory in Aus­tralia’s Cle­menger Con­tem­po­rary Art Prize all the more sat­is­fy­ing. And Mel­bourne Pro­fes­sor Jon Alt­man, who has spent much time in Kun­in­jku Coun­try with Mawurnd­jul, be­lieves that the artist has ‘quite con­sciously scram­bled the gen­er­a­tions of rock art in his Coun­try to find an aes­thetic that pleases the Western eye.’ Not that this helped when the Global Fi­nan­cial Cri­sis cut sales from In­dige­nous art cen­tres na­tion­ally by 50% be­tween 2008 and 2011. And then there was the In­ter­ven­tion, which re­placed the man­age­ment of Man­ingrida’s Baw­inanga

Abo­rig­i­nal Cor­po­ra­tion, which owns the Art Cen­tre, with peo­ple so in­ex­pe­ri­enced that funds were de­nied to it to post paint­ings out of Arn­hem Land. Mean­while the Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment Em­ploy­ment Pro­gram, which gave art cen­tre and out­sta­tion work­ers a ba­sic in­come, was ‘de­monised and de­mol­ished’ ac­cord­ing to Alt­man.

Ceas­ing to have an art in­come, a dispir­ited Mawurnd­jul ceased to paint. This in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised su­per-star could no longer af­ford to ac­cess his out­sta­tion, moved into a Man­ingrida town camp and looked for a job as a tyre-re­pairer. In 2015, Mawurnd­jul ad­mit­ted that he’d ‘taken a break’ from bark paint­ing, and ‘it may be some time be­fore I go back to it.’

For­tu­nately, he has – win­ning the 2016 Best Bark in the Na­tional Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der Art Awards (NATSIAA) and com­plet­ing two ma­jor com­mis­sions for the MCA and AGSA. Mind you, the now-66 year old Johnny Mawurnd­jul did tell the Red Ochre au­di­ence that his visit to open the MCA show on 6 July ‘may be the last time I leave my Kun­in­jku Coun­try.’

‘I am the old and the new’ will be tour­ing na­tion­ally on con­clu­sion at the MCA.

Jeremy Ec­cles is a spe­cial­ist arts com­men­ta­tor who has been writ­ing, broad­cast­ing and film­mak­ing in Aus­tralia since 1983, with a spe­cial in­ter­est in In­dige­nous cul­ture.

Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art Aus­tralia 6 July to 23 Septem­ber, 2018

River Whale Shark, 1989, ochre on wood, 19.5 x 233 x 23cm Aus­tralian Na­tional Mar­itime Mu­seum col­lec­tion, Syd­ney © John Mawurnd­jul. Li­censed by Copy­right Agency, 2018

An­ces­tral spirit be­ings col­lect­ing honey, 1985-1987, ochres on Stringy­bark (Eu­ca­lyp­tus tetrodonta), hand-spun bark fi­bre string, 110.5 x 61 x 5cm Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art Aus­tralia and Man­ingrida Arts & Cul­ture with fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance from the Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der Board of the Aus­tralia Coun­cil, 1994

© John Mawurnd­jul. Li­censed by Vis­copy, 2017

Milmil­ngkan, 2008, earth pig­ments on Stringy­bark (Eu­ca­lyp­tus tetrodonta), 171 x 71cm Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia, Ade­laide, Gift of the San­tos Com­mu­nity Fund, 2009 © John Mawurnd­jul. Li­censed by Copy­right Agency, 2018

Pho­to­graph: Saul Steed

Cour­tesy the artist and Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art Aus­tralia, Syd­ney

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.