I Am the Old and the New

Time Out (Sydney) - - ART - Ben Neutze

BARK PAINT­ING IS among the most recog­nis­able Abo­rig­i­nal art, but you mightn’t know that it was only pop­u­larised in the 1930s. Un­til then, the fa­mil­iar im­agery was used as body paint and in caves. Oc­ca­sion­ally the pat­terns were painted onto bark as a record of the de­signs, but it’s only rel­a­tively re­cently that the bark has been con­sid­ered its own can­vas. One of the great­est ex­po­nents of bark paint­ing – and one of the great­est ex­po­nents of Abo­rig­i­nal art in gen­eral – is John Mawurnd­jul, who rose to in­ter­na­tional fame in the late 1980s and ’90s. The Kun­in­jku artist, based in Arn­hem Land, is get­ting a ma­jor ca­reer ret­ro­spec­tive at the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art, made up of 165 works. They’ll take over the third level of the MCA this win­ter, the same space where English artist and provo­ca­teur Grayson Perry pre­sented a block­buster show in 2015. At the time, Perry sparked de­bate when he con­tro­ver­sially said Abo­rig­i­nal art should not be con­sid­ered con­tem­po­rary art. Clothilde Bullen, one of the cu­ra­tors be­hind Mawurnd­jul’s ex­hi­bi­tion and a War­dandi (Ny­oon­gar) Abo­rig­i­nal woman, strongly dis­agrees. “I think all Abo­rig­i­nal art be­ing made here and now is con­tem­po­rary, and I’d ab­so­lutely stand by that,” she says. “But it’s OK that [Perr y] is given the op­por­tu­nity to say those things at the MCA, and we have this kind of re­but­tal.” Not only is Mawurnd­jul one of the ma­jor pioneers of the bark medium, he has evolved and pushed tra­di­tional prac­tices, like rarrk, which refers to a close and metic­u­lous crosshatch­ing that cre­ates an al­most shim­mer­ing ef­fect on the bark. And he has been deeply in­volved in shap­ing the nar­ra­tive and lay­out of this ex­hi­bi­tion, which ex­plores el­e­ments of Kun­in­jku cul­ture and then cov­ers parts of his coun­try in Cen­tral Arn­hem Land. “In a sense, you’re work­ing through coun­try in the way you should – in the way John would want you to walk through,” Bullen says, adding that while his work is im­bued with sto­ries and im­ages stretch­ing back thou­sands of years, vis­i­tors shouldn’t be wor­ried about in­ter­pret­ing the paint­ings in­cor­rectly. “It’s ac­tu­ally OK – it’s an art­work and peo­ple will have dif­fer­ent takes on it. I think peo­ple need to drop that fear.”

John Mawurnd­jul works in Lu­mi­nous MCA Col­lec­tion, 2015

John Mawurnd­jul, ‘An­ces­tral Spirit Be­ings Col­lect­ing Honey’, 1985-1987

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