JOHN MAWURNDJUL

Artist Profile - - CONTENTS - by Colleen O’Reilly

Strik­ing con­cen­tric cir­cles and rarrk cross-hatched de­signs hypnotise and en­thral within John Mawurndjul’s bark sur­faces. They res­onate with en­ergy. The Aus­tralian bark painter’s works are im­bued with a sa­cred rev­er­ence – phys­i­cal ob­jects whose form re­veal the se­cret truths and power in­side Kun­in­jku cer­e­mony. Both tra­di­tional and con­tem­po­rary ren­der­ings of Kun­in­jku spir­i­tual cul­ture, the works un­wind the threads of fam­ily, land and the Dream­time that de­fine In­dige­nous cul­ture. How­ever it is Mawurndjul’s out­look that is in­trigu­ing; ac­knowl­edg­ing the past and look­ing to the fu­ture, his prac­tice is fu­elled by the de­sire to in­voke a cross­cul­tural con­ver­sa­tion that blurrs the bound­aries be­tween Abo­rig­i­nal and Ba­landa. His works evoke a shared Dream­ing of con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralia.

THROUGH­OUT HIS CA­REER, Aus­tralian bark painter John Mawurndjul has em­ployed tra­di­tional and con­tem­po­rary tech­niques to cre­ate art­works that en­gage with Kun­in­jku spir­i­tual land­scapes, his­tory and in­tel­lec­tual life. His work, which has re­ceived ex­ten­sive na­tional and in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion, grows from cus­toms that go back gen­er­a­tions, but is strongly of the present in its ex­plo­ration of how the vis­ual can tra­verse and open up spir­i­tual and cul­tural mean­ings.

Mawurndjul was born in 1952 in the Mumeka re­gion of Arn­hem Land, and cur­rently lives at his out­post in Milmil­ngkan as well as at Man­ingrida. Mawurndjul be­gan paint­ing small barks in the 1970s with his brother Jimmy Njim­in­juma and un­cle Peter Mar­ral­wanga, who painted with cel­e­brated artist Yi­rawala. Through­out the 1980s he ex­plored the use of larger bark sur­faces, and painted an­ces­tral be­ings with bod­ies filled with rarrk cross-hatch­ing de­signs. In the 1990s, Mar­wurnd­jul de­vel­oped his strat­egy of cov­er­ing large bark sur­faces only with rarrk de­signs as­so­ci­ated with the Mar­dayin ini­ti­a­tion cer­e­mony, and the djang, or sa­cred sites, of his coun­try.

Like other Kun­in­jku artists, Mar­wurn­dul’s use of and in­ter­est in rarrk grew over time, from be­ing part of the de­pic­tion of the body of Nga­lyod, the rain­bow ser­pent, to grad­u­ally be­com­ing the main sub­ject of the work. Rarrk con­veys the pres­ence of an­ces­tral be­ings sym­bol­i­cally and em­ploys the com­mu­nica­tive strat­egy of the Mar­dayin cer­e­mony, both pub­lic and se­cret. The de­signs present not the bod­ies of an­ces­tral be­ings, but their power or essence. They are not the ex­act cer­e­mo­nial de­signs painted on the bod­ies of ini­ti­ates, the knowl­edge of which is said to have been passed to hu­mans from the cre­ator be­ings at the end of the cre­ation time, but rather ex­ten­sions of a for­mal tech­nique that ac­cesses the power of these se­cret mean­ings. Made with the tra­di­tional sa­cred ma­te­ri­als of white delek and red and yel­low ochre, Mar­wund­jul’s del­i­cate, metic­u­lous rarrk ac­cu­mu­late into im­mer­sive, un­du­lat­ing vis­ual fields. The large-scale barks take the place of the body in be­ing marked by, and made of, the power of an­ces­tral be­ings and the cre­ation time. The paint­ings are ma­te­rial in­stances of the in­ter­re­la­tion­ship be­tween in­di­vid­ual, the land, and of the di­vine.

Mar­wurnd­jul’s works re­late in com­plex ways to his ex­pe­ri­ence of his coun­try and the as­pects of this that he and other Kun­in­jku artists wish to share. In a 2003 in­ter­view with Luke Tay­lor, Mar­wund­jul ex­plained, “We paint the pub­lic as­pects of the Mar­dayin cer­e­mony, but there are also ‘in­side’ things. The dan­garrk lights [glow­ing plants that grow in wa­ter­ing holes] give off blue light at night in the wa­ter at Mar­dayin sites. At Kakod­be­buldi. The dan­garrk lights glow un­der the wa­ter. We can see it at night. I was liv­ing at Mumeka, I was do­ing crosshatch­ing. I […] came to the big body of wa­ter at Kakod­be­buldi and I saw in the wa­ter the dan­garrk lights glow­ing all over, here, there. Glow­ing and

flash­ing. It has small lights. Un­der the wa­ter the lights flash. They glow over a larger area, many of them. Just like the light in a house. Red, white, green. It glows un­til they all fin­ish, then this yel­low one. Two lights glow [burn] at the same time. This is Mar­dayin – the glow­ing of the lights is the spirit essence of the Mar­dayin. The lights are calling out. I went and saw these Mar­dayin lights glow­ing at night. I put the ex­pe­ri­ence in­side my head and went and col­lected bark, scraped it down, painted the back­ground un­til the sur­face was fin­ished and then painted the same thing I had seen in cross-hatched form.” Mar­wur­d­jul has ex­plored rarrk as an op­ti­cal tool and a specif­i­cally vis­ual medium, and for Kun­in­jku artists, the vis­ual ef­fects of rarrk, de­scribed as shim­mer­ing, shin­ing, and as em­a­nat­ing en­ergy, are in fact their spir­i­tual con­tent, and im­bue the bark paint­ing with the sig­nif­i­cance of vis­ual re­li­gious ex­pe­ri­ences in djang sites. They ref­er­ence vis­ual and sen­so­rial phe­nom­ena, but also in­ter­nal states of be­ing and a sense of his­tor­i­cal time.

In re­cent works such as ‘Milmil­ngkan’, 2009, the fine rarrk ap­pears as a sub­tly tex­tured sur­face. Each bark sec­tion is its own con­struc­tion, fit­ting to­gether as an or­ganic but struc­tured whole that seems to op­er­ate as a unit even as the sep­a­rate parts in­sist on their own in­ter­nal logic, much like forms in na­ture. The eye fol­lows bands of colour that seem to weave for­ward and back in three-di­men­sional space. The com­po­si­tion is built around two bands of white delek and two sets of con­cen­tric cir­cles. In Kun­in­jku works these forms of­ten rep­re­sent sa­cred traces of an­ces­tral be­ings in the land­scape at Mar­dayin sites, here a de­posit of delek and the glow­ing dang­gark, lead­ing to an un­der­stand­ing of the lay­ered and swirling rarrk as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Mar­dayin phe­nom­ena un­der the sa­cred wa­ter­ing hole. It is also pos­si­ble to in­ter­pret the cir­cles as the wa­ter­ing holes them­selves, which along with delek sites are un­der­stood as the marks made by an­ces­tral be­ings as they were swal­lowed by, or emerged from the earth dur­ing the Dream­time. The paint­ing thus be­comes a sym­bolic land­scape laced through with rarrk sig­ni­fy­ing Mar­dayin power.

In ‘Dile­bang’, 2009, white and dark bands swirl and twist amongst the red, and one band of white di­vides the whole in two, here the soft curve of the cross­hatched sec­tions em­pha­sised by the straight white sec­tion. In ‘Bil­l­abong at Milmilinkan’, 2004, lines in ovoid for­ma­tions or­ga­nize the sur­face, ar­ranged in vary­ing sizes in­side of each other and all con­nected. The rarrk works within the shapes in com­pli­cated ways, cre­at­ing the pow­er­ful sense of op­ti­cal play with sur­face and depth, reg­u­lar­ity and en­ergy that Mar­wurnd­jul has be­come known for.

Mawurndjul is very in­ter­ested in the role these works play in the in­tel­lec­tual life of his com­mu­nity, which tra­verses the bound­aries of Abo­rig­i­nal or Ba­landa (non-Abo­rig­i­nal or of Euro­pean de­scent). In the 2003 in­ter­view with Tay­lor, Mawurndjul com­mented, “The

Ba­landa stands next to the paint­ing and looks at the paint­ing at an ex­hi­bi­tion open­ing in an art gallery. They stand along­side the paint­ing and ex­am­ine it and think about it. I’ve seen many of them ap­ply­ing their minds to the paint­ings. Some white peo­ple have their own ‘crosshatch­ing’ in ev­ery city...” and later, “You know, it’s good that we, [the] new gen­er­a­tion of Bin­inj peo­ple, [that] our cul­ture is trav­el­ling to places where Ba­landa live, and they are think­ing hard about it with their minds. They think about the cross-hatch­ing. And we can all think about it, have knowl­edge of it, even Ba­landa. But maybe they don’t fully un­der­stand it. Ba­landa also paint things they have dreamed. They paint their dream­ings too.” Mar­wurnd­jul’s works are meant to be con­tem­plated so as to ac­cess both on con­scious and un­con­scious lev­els, spir­i­tual mean­ings and con­nec­tions to cul­ture and na­ture, past and fu­ture. It is clear that Mawurndjul in­tends for his work to have an im­pact both within his im­me­di­ate com­mu­nity and in the world more broadly that comes si­mul­ta­ne­ously from the spir­i­tual ex­plo­ration of form, and of the so­cio­cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance of rep­re­sen­ta­tional prac­tices. The dis­tinc­tive way in which he ne­go­ti­ates com­mu­ni­ca­tion across cul­tural dif­fer­ence and the vis­ual power of his work have earned him ac­claim both at home and on a global stage.

01 Milmil­ngkan (de­tail), 2009, nat­u­ral earth pig­ments on bark, 155.5 x 91cm 02 John Mawurndjul. Pho­tog­ra­phy by Bill Gre­gory

03 Mar­dayin at Dile­bang, 2005, nat­u­ral earth pig­ments on bark, 143 x 74cm 04 Lor­rkon, 2006, nat­u­ral earth pig­ments on hol­low log sculp­ture, 206 x 25cm 05 Milmil­ngkan Site, 2008, nat­u­ral earth pig­ments on bark, 162 x 38cm

06 Bil­l­abong at Milmil­ngkan, 2004, nat­u­ral earth pig­ments on bark, 216 x 60cm Courtesy the artist and An­nan­dale Galleries, Sydney

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