‘I Am the Old and the New’ by John Mawurndjul
Mikala Dwyer: a shape of thought (aGnsw)
Mutlu Cerkez: 1988-2065 (mUma)
Patricia Piccinini: Curious Creatures (Goma) John Mawurndjul is one of the greatest Australian artists of our era, no need to add the qualifier “Indigenous”. From his youth in still traditional Kuninjku lands in Western Arnhem Land, where he displayed a precocious understanding and execution of traditional arts, to his cosmopolitan ease in the art galleries of the world today, he has been a great ambassador for his country and people.
In that time, Mawurndjul made a brilliant transition from depicting significant flora and fauna, ancestral history, the supernatural and the ceremonial, to a luminous abstraction that still pays obeisance to his traditions. He continues to live on the traditional lands of his people, and to respect the protocols of the duwa moiety to which he belongs, even as he reaches for human universality.
He retains the rarrk, or crosshatching, that marks this homeland’s art – whether he’s dealing with the ceremonial, the symbolic or the purely decorative, as in the West – but has shifted from the figurative to the abstract. Themes include the Rainbow Serpent, Mimih spirits, fish and turtles and marsupials, the beautiful and ubiquitous local waterlilies and much more. Increasingly as he ages, the sacred Mardayin ceremony looms large. Though his “canvas” is still largely bark, he has also worked with sculpture and etchings.
This large-scale retrospective of his work, co-curated by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and the Art Gallery of South Australia, moves to Adelaide this month. It represents not only the creative journey of a great artist but also the positive aspects of Indigenous intersection with balanda culture. That Mawurndjul and his people continue to suffer socially and politically under federal government interventions in their ancestral lands makes for bittersweet background knowledge.
The exhibition catalogue – brilliantly written, eloquently illustrated and beautifully produced – is more than a memento. It stands in its own right as a magnificent testament to Mawurndjul’s time on earth.