John Mawurnd­jul: I Am the Old and the New

Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art Aus­tralia, Syd­ney

The Monthly (Australia) - - THE MONTHLY — NOTED - noted by Julie Ewing­ton

I Am the Old and the New:

this ti­tle quotes the artist, John Mawurnd­jul, who is the most cel­e­brated bark painter liv­ing to­day and com­pletely cer­tain of his role in Kun­in­jku so­ci­ety in western Arn­hem Land. He is a leader hold­ing to the way of life and knowl­edge taught by his fa­ther, and an artis­tic in­no­va­tor on the world stage. This finely cal­i­brated po­si­tion is em­bod­ied in an ex­hi­bi­tion ac­cord­ing to the Kun­in­jku world view; as the cu­ra­tors note in the gor­geous cat­a­logue, Mawurnd­jul’s di­rec­tion was cru­cial. Works are grouped around sig­nif­i­cant sites on Kun­in­jku coun­try, from both the yir­rid­jdja and duwa moi­eties of Arn­hem Land so­ci­eties, and fo­cused on their par­tic­u­lar an­i­mals, plants and spirit be­ings, their nar­ra­tives, cus­to­dial ar­range­ments and spir­i­tual sig­nif­i­cance. We walk across Coun­try as we tra­verse the mu­seum, with Mawurnd­jul as guide; he speaks in the first per­son in wall texts, which are pre­sented in both Kun­in­jku and English. This ar­range­ment ac­cord­ing to Kun­in­jku pri­or­i­ties is not stan­dard, but its cul­tural oth­er­ness is ex­actly the point. Aban­don­ing the con­ven­tional chrono­log­i­cal struc­ture of ret­ro­spec­tive ex­hi­bi­tions is now be­com­ing quite com­mon, but this weav­ing to­gether of early and late works, in­tense small barks and very large ones, and os­ten­si­bly rep­re­sen­ta­tional sub­jects with in­ven­tive ab­stracted im­agery is very so­phis­ti­cated. What is re­vealed is ex­ten­sive knowl­edge of Coun­try, an­i­mals and sea­sons, and the in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness of all this with hu­man use, mas­ter­fully meshed into Mawurnd­jul’s fine rarrk, the dis­tinc­tive crosshatch­ing of Arn­hem Land art. This ex­cep­tional tal­ent was recog­nised early: Mawurnd­jul’s work has been col­lected by ma­jor Aus­tralian mu­se­ums since the late 1970s. But what made him cel­e­brated are his re­fined ab­stract paint­ings from re­cent decades re­lat­ing to the im­por­tant se­cret Mar­dayin cer­e­mony: “a preva­lent source of in­spi­ra­tion”, as MCA cu­ra­tor Keith Munro noted on the open­ing week­end. These lu­mi­nous works are of­ten painted in red ochre over a white ground; they shim­mer, they float. As Hetti Perkins writes in the cat­a­logue, “These paint­ings are like the cap­ti­vat­ing wayuk [wa­terlilies] that float on the sur­face of bil­l­abongs where Nga­lyod [the Rain­bow Ser­pent] lurks, sig­nalling the vast hid­den depths, breadths and power of the knowl­edge that in­forms Mawurnd­jul’s art.” In re­cent decades, bark paint­ing was some­what eclipsed by desert paint­ing, but Mawurnd­jul’s ex­hi­bi­tion and the suc­cess of Arn­hem Land artists at this year’s Na­tional Abo­rig­i­nal & Tor­res Strait Is­lander Art Awards in Dar­win at­test to the re­gion’s cul­tural con­fi­dence. Speak­ing in Kun­in­jku on the open­ing week­end in Syd­ney, Mawurnd­jul was as­sured in his car­riage of his cul­ture to world au­di­ences. He un­der­stood this com­mu­nica­tive po­ten­tial early: large barks made in 1988 for the de­vel­op­ing MCA were in­cluded in the land­mark ex­hi­bi­tion Magi­ciens de la terre (Paris, 1989); a com­mis­sion for the Musée du Quai Branly (Paris, 2006) achieved in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion – a TIME mag­a­zine cover is one in­du­bi­ta­ble marker of celebrity. Fame and the beauty of the works aside, two key points emerge here: the im­por­tance of liv­ing with dig­nity on Coun­try, and the enor­mous po­ten­tial of cross-cul­tural col­lab­o­ra­tions in Aus­tralia. John Mawurnd­jul is a great Aus­tralian artist. Don’t miss this mag­nif­i­cent ex­hi­bi­tion. Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art, Syd­ney, un­til Septem­ber 23; Art Gallery of South Aus­tralia, Oc­to­ber 26 – Jan­uary 28, 2019; and then at eight re­gional venues na­tion­ally un­til late 2020.

An­ces­tral Spirit Be­ings Col­lect­ing Honey, 1985–87, MCA and Man­ingrida Arts & Cul­ture. © John Mawurnd­jul / Copy­right Agency, 2018

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