Af­ter trav­el­ling through thou­sands of years of his­tory, Aus­tralian in­dige­nous art will soon tour ma­jor US in­sti­tu­tions, writes Amos Aik­man

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

Wukun Wanambi and Yin­i­mala Gu­mana in New York; and with Kevin Rudd and cu­ra­tor Kade McDon­ald; op­po­site,

Ever­greens grow around the door of the Kluge-Ruhe Abo­rig­i­nal Art Col­lec­tion in Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia, where Djam­bawa Marawili was leaf­ing through pa­pers when he found a pic­ture of his fa­ther. The im­age ac­com­pa­nied a mon­u­men­tal bark paint­ing that, in 1996, then about nine years ear­lier, had won him a Na­tional Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der Art Award in Aus­tralia.

The mid-1990s were im­por­tant for Marawili: not only was he gath­er­ing renown as an artist but he was also pre­par­ing to as­sume the lead­er­ship of his Madar­rpa clan from his fa­ther, Wakuthi Marawili, who died in 2005.

In the two decades to 2015, when Marawili was in the US on an artist’s res­i­dency, he had re­vised his fa­ther’s gen­er­a­tion’s be­liefs about the way clan de­signs, known as miny’tji, could be used in Yol­ngu art. He did so as part of a sea rights bat­tle that ul­ti­mately won Abo­rig­i­nal groups con­trol over 80 per cent of the North­ern Ter­ri­tory’s coast­line be­gin­ning with the land­mark Blue Mud Bay de­ci­sion in 2008.

“My fa­ther didn’t re­ally ex­plain him­self to our peo­ple,” Marawili says. “He left a mes­sage through pat­terns and de­signs, through paint­ing … (and) when I saw that pic­ture, it awak­ened my mind to the need to stand up for our cul­ture, to share the wis­dom and knowl­edge of that old fella so it can be mean­ing­ful to ev­ery­one.”

With that re­al­i­sa­tion, a plan be­gan form­ing to demon­strate the strength of Yol­ngu cul­ture through what could be one of the most am­bi­tious over­seas shows in years.

The Kluge-Ruhe at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia is the only mu­seum in the US de­voted to Abo­rig­i­nal art. At the heart of its col­lec­tion are barks gath­ered across sev­eral decades, first by lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor Ed­ward Ruhe and later by me­dia mogul John Kluge, once Amer­ica’s rich­est man. Work­ing on a shoe­string bud­get from the 60s on­wards, Ruhe amassed pieces by artists such as Nar­ritjin May­muru, Mithi­nari Gur­ruwiwi, Bir­rik­itji Gu­mana, Gawirrin Gu­mana and Wand­juk Marika, now ac­knowl­edged as masters of their time. In 1996, Kluge com­mis­sioned 28 mon­u­men­tal paint­ings from BukuLar­rng­gay, the art cen­tre in Yir­rkala in north­east Arn­hem Land where Marawili and oth­ers trade, cap­tur­ing a snap­shot of lo­cal artists’ work just as they were at­tain­ing in­ter­na­tional promi­nence. Those pieces have never been ex­hib­ited to­gether be­cause of their size.

Marawili saw his fa­ther’s pic­ture while ex­plor­ing Kluge-Ruhe’s ar­chives with Henry Sk­er­ritt, a lanky Aus­tralian in­tel­lec­tual who was then do­ing a PhD and is now the mu­seum’s cu­ra­tor. “I think it was both an amaz­ing and also quite emo­tional, nos­tal­gic thing for Djam­bawa, look­ing at those paint­ings,” Sk­er­ritt says. “He said to me, ‘You need to show that the tra­di­tion is con­tin­u­ing.’ ”

Marawili is a bar­rel-chested man who speaks in a com­mand­ing basso. “I saw some of our pat­terns and de­signs and re­alised it was just one part of our story reach­ing out to Amer­ica,” he says. “Some of the pat­terns were re­ally old … to­day, we have the same de­signs and pat­terns and sto­ries, but we have new ways of putting Story of a Wife Kid­nap­ping them out into the pub­lic (do­main), of us­ing them to tell peo­ple that we have our own rights, our own lan­guage, our own way of liv­ing … we have our own so­ci­ety, our own world, our tribal roles and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties that have been there for cen­tury af­ter cen­tury, an­ces­tor af­ter an­ces­tor, be­cause we have our own coun­try and we have been liv­ing on our coun­try — we were the first peo­ple in Aus­tralia be­fore the sec­ond fam­ily group came. I’m talk­ing about white­fel­las.”

From their in­ter­ac­tions with Ma­cas­san, Dutch and pos­si­bly Chi­nese sailors, through early set­tle­ment and on to the Yir­rkala Church Pan­els and Yir­rkala Bark Pe­ti­tions, the Barunga State­ment, the Yol­ngu peo­ple have sought to project their iden­tity with this force.

“When Djam­bawa told us what we had to do, we got hop­ping and we’re do­ing it,” says Margo Smith, the Kluge-Ruhe’s di­rec­tor. “We re­ally want to un­der­stand these works of art the way Yol­ngu un­der­stand them.”

Ma­dayin means law. Ac­cord­ing to a dic­tio­nary, the word can de­scribe the beauty in­her­ent in rit­ual ob­jects, im­por­tant cer­e­monies or peo­ple; as an ad­jec­tive, it con­veys con­no­ta­tions of rev­er­ence, se­crecy and taboo.

Will Stubbs, Buku’s co-or­di­na­tor, says there is no English equiv­a­lent but the Greek con­cept arete (like moral virtue) is sim­i­lar. “If you see a beau­ti­ful woman come out of her bed­room, dressed for her prom, and you are her grand- fa­ther, you might say ‘ma­dayin’,” he say. “It’s the idea that moral virtue equals ex­cel­lence, equates with the idea that moral virtue equals law … what you need to un­der­stand is that this is a dif­fer­ent uni­verse and that, as an out­sider look­ing in, you are not ob­jec­tively neu­tral.”

If all goes to plan, ma­dayin also will be the ti­tle of a ma­jor new tour­ing ex­hi­bi­tion bring­ing Amer­i­cans as far as pos­si­ble on to the Yol­ngu’s spec­tral plane. Sk­er­ritt says there is “a lot more in­ter­est (in the US) in Abo­rig­i­nal art than there is in non-Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralian art”. While some smaller US gal­leries have be­gun prob­ing the canon more deeply, so far larger in­sti­tu­tions have pre­ferred sur­veys con­sist­ing of a few pieces each of var­i­ous styles. These mu­se­ums and gal­leries, Sk­er­ritt and oth­ers be­lieve, now have an ap­petite for some­thing “more tai­lored”.

Stephen Gilchrist, a Univer­sity of Syd­ney lec­turer who cu­rated Every­when: The Eter­nal Present in in­dige­nous Art from Aus­tralia at the Har­vard Art Mu­seum last year, says it is an ex­cit­ing time to work in the US as more in­sti­tu­tions open their doors. “In Aus­tralia, in­dige­nous art is of­ten seen as op­po­si­tional to Aus­tralian art,” he says. “Out­side Aus­tralia, straight away it’s in­ter­na­tional art … that can be quite free­ing.”

One dif­fi­culty with Aus­tralian au­di­ences is that they of­ten need to learn and un­learn to es­cape their prej­u­dices, Gilchrist says. “Some­times, it’s just eas­ier with a blank slate. In Aus­tralia, a lit­tle bit of knowl­edge can be very danger­ous,” he says. “You can ac­tu­ally get to a much deeper place, I think, with in­ter­na­tional au­di­ences.”

Ma­dayin’s aim is to of­fer Amer­i­can au­di­ences their first in-depth look at Abo­rig­i­nal art from a par­tic­u­lar re­gion via a se­ries of shows at top­shelf met­ro­pol­i­tan in­sti­tu­tions. Ear­lier this year,

(c.1968) by Gawirrin Gu­mana

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