‘I Am the Old and the New’ by John Mawurnd­jul


No­table men­tions

Mikala Dwyer: a shape of thought (aGnsw)

Mutlu Cerkez: 1988-2065 (mUma)

Colony (nGV)

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.

Miriam Cosic

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