Noŋ­gir­rŋa Marawili from my heart and mind

Art Almanac - - Art In Australia - Jeremy Ec­cles

‘The paint­ing I do is not sa­cred – it is my own de­signs from the out­side.’

This seems to be the essence of Noŋ­gir­rŋa Marawili’s unique­ness amongst Arn­hem­land’s bark artists. As her brother, the artist and cul­tural leader Djam­bawa Marawili points out, ‘I can only op­er­ate within the strict rules of our clan de­signs that have been passed on to me. She is much freer’. And that spon­tane­ity al­lows his sis­ter, ‘to cry for the land; while my job is to speak for it,’ as Djam­bawa dis­tin­guishes their work, al­most jeal­ously.

The sib­lings grew up in an ex­tra­or­di­nary fam­ily in which their fa­ther Mun­dukul Marawili, a famed leader/war­rior who had ‘un­count­able wives of the Mar­rakulu, Djapu and Galpu clans’, ac­cord­ing to Will Stubbs, the long-term art co­or­di­na­tor at both artists’ Buku-Lar­rng­gay Mulka Cen­tre in North East Arn­hem­land. The fam­ily group was 50-strong, and they lived no­mad­i­cally, mov­ing on both land and the wa­ters of the Gulf of Car­pen­taria by ca­noe as food sources, cer­e­mo­nial re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and cli­mate de­manded. In all three, Noŋ­gir­rŋa ex­pe­ri­enced the Madar­rpa clan es­tates and sa­cred sites that would be­come the sub­ject of her later paint­ings, prints and bone coffins/lar­rak­itj. But Mun­dukul died in 1950 when she was just 11, so was un­able to pass on to her per­mis­sion to paint those Madar­rpa clan de­signs.

But paint she was de­ter­mined to do – at first with hus­band Dju­tad­juta, who ac­knowl­edged her as­sis­tance on a two me­tre bark of ‘Mana’ The Sa­cred Shark in 1994 which re­quired a mass of cross-hatch­ing and out­lin­ing by her which Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) cu­ra­tor Cara Pinch­beck says gave ‘depth and move­ment to the sa­cred wa­ters in this work.’ By 1996, she was col­lab­o­rat­ing with their daugh­ters Rer­rki­wanga and Mar­rnayula on an even larger, three me­tre bark. In 1997, Dju­tad­juta would take out Best Bark at that year’s Na­tional Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der Art Awards (NATSIAA).

It’s in­ter­est­ing how blink­ered the NATSIAA judges can be. For Rer­rki­wanga Mu­nun­gurr won Best Bark in 2009, but it took un­til 2015 for Noŋ­gir­rŋa to be recog­nised.

Her ‘prob­lem’ is an in­abil­ity to make neat straight lines! Or as Stubbs put it to me, ‘She is un­tainted by the lin­ear/hi­er­ar­chi­cal judge­men­tal hand­i­cap of Western artists! She sim­ply lives in the mo­ment – the past and the fu­ture are now.’

Per­haps it didn’t help that Noŋ­gir­rŋa was sup­posed to be paint­ing the fa­mil­iar grid of small squares that rep­re­sent the fish trap (Dhawurr) cre­ated in myth­i­cal times by two spirit men on the Gur­riyalay­ala River at Waṉḏawuy. As the Buku-Lar­rng­gay web­site de­scribes it, ‘The fish trap was made of up­right posts forked at the top with a long cross­piece sit­ting in the forks. The space be­tween was filled in with more up­right sticks in­ter­wo­ven with hor­i­zon­tal sticks’; ie. it should only con­sist of straight lines. But Noŋ­gir­rŋa’s Waṉḏawuy (2012) has both the ran­dom­ness of a child’s noughts-and-crosses board stretched al­most to in­fin­ity – a ‘ran­dom form of ge­om­e­try’ – and dif­fer­ent colour tones to rep­re­sent dif­fer­ent states of the wa­ter in a way that ex­perts com­pare to Noŋ­gir­rŋa’s fa­ther-in-law, Wonggu Mu­nun­gurr, a ma­jor con­trib­u­tor to the leg­endary draw­ings com­mis­sioned in 1947 by an­thro­pol­o­gists, Ron­ald and Cather­ine Berndt.

Her sen­si­tiv­ity to wa­ter lead Noŋ­gir­rŋa nat­u­rally down­stream from Waṉḏawuy to Yathikpa, a point of land in Blue Mud Bay and the heart of Madar­rpa clan cul­ture. It’s here the fresh meets the salt wa­ter, it’s from here that Bar­alt’ja the sa­cred rock that stands strong against the forces of the sea and storm can be seen, it’s on that rock that Mun­dukul the Light­ning Snake senses the ar­rival of fresh, mon­soonal wa­ters from in­land and fires off his elec­tric curses into the sky in the form of light­ning, and it’s at the base of that rock that Baru, the sa­cred crocodile dived but the fire con­tin­ued to burn on his back be­neath the wa­ter. Wav­ing sea­grasses re­flect that fire to­day.

And so do the di­a­mond shapes – not al­ways per­fectly formed – in Noŋ­gir­rŋa’s barks which have flowed at a rate of a bark a day re­cently as she pre­pares for a show at Al­cas­ton Gallery in Mel­bourne that co­in­cides with the AGNSW’s ca­reer-span­ning ex­hi­bi­tion. In that, as Elina Spilia recog­nises in the cat­a­logue for the Scholl Col­lec­tion ex­hi­bi­tion cur­rently tour­ing the USA, you’ll ex­pe­ri­ence ‘Sea­spray crash­ing on rock, the dance of flames, the flicker of the snake’s tongue and light­ning flash­ing across the sky – the el­e­men­tal sub­stances and trans­for­ma­tive forces of the Yol­ngu world.’ Ac­cord­ing to Stubbs, this is all achieved de­spite pain that forces Noŋ­gir­rŋa to use two hands to hold her brushes.

Cara Pinch­beck sums up, ‘Marawili does not sim­ply doc­u­ment sites in coun­try, she cap­tures the dy­namism of a liv­ing land­scape, rad­i­cally re-imag­ined to re­alise a very per­sonal artis­tic vi­sion.’

Art Gallery of New South Wales Syd­ney 3 No­vem­ber, 2018 to 24 Fe­bru­ary, 2019

Waṉḏawuy, 2012, earth pig­ments on Stringy­bark (Eu­ca­lyp­tus sp.), 153.5 x 82.2cm Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria, Mel­bourne, pur­chased with funds pro­vided by Julie Kan­tor, 2013 © Noŋ­gir­rŋa Marawili

Light­ning, 2017, enamel paint on alu­minium com­pos­ite board, 200 x 122cm Art Gallery of New South Wales Wendy Bar­ron Be­quest Fund 2017 © Noŋ­gir­rŋa Marawili

Pho­to­graph: Diana Panuc­cio, AGNSW

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