Maningrida’s Year

If someday art historians look back to assess the Aborginal art scene in 2006 I think there will be two salient themes in their analysis. The first will be that there had never before been such extensive coverage of Aboriginal art in the international press. It must certainly have been the first time that there were major exhibitions of Aboriginal art taking place simultaneously in three world capitals: the opening of the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris, the Pintupi show at Hamilton’s Gallery in London, and Dreaming Their Way, the Aboriginal women’s painting exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC.The second will be that everywhere you turned, artists from Maningrida were in the headlines. 

At home in Australia, there were carvings at William Mora in Melbourne; fibre exhibitions at Bandigan Arts in Sydney and Indigenart in Melbourne; and bark paintings at RaftArtspace in Darwin and Short St Gallery in Broome. Among the unusual venues for artists from Maningrida were Nomad Art’s “Replant: a new generation of botanical art” in Darwin, which featured prints by Debra Wurrkidj, and the 2006 Biennial Conference of the Jewellers and Metalsmiths Group of Australia in Sydney, which included twenty-two artists from Maningrida among the exhibitors.

This sort of exhibition schedule in itself isn’t especially remarkable. But combine that record with the domestic and international highlights that I outline below, and I think you’ll agree that this was, in many ways, Maningrida’s year.

At the beginning of the year, of course, John Mawurndjul’s major retrospective, <<rarrk>>, was about to close after a four month stay in Basel’s Museum Tinguely before moving on to Hannover for a run at the Sprengel Museum that lasted until early June. The seventy-five works in the show spanned the years 1979 to 2005 and included paintings on bark, carvings, hollow logs, and prints. The exhibition was curated by Bernhard Luthi, who was responsible for Aratjara: art of the first Australians, the major international exhibition of Aboriginal art mounted across Europe in 1993. Both the heft and the design of the catalog for <<rarrk>> recall that earlier European blockbuster. Along with the catalog for Crossing Country from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, just a year earlier, <<rarrk>> will provide scholars with raw material for analysis of the art of Arnhem Land for decades to come. The interviews with Mawurndjul contained in these catalogs kept the press supplied with dramatic quotations for most of the year.

Perhaps the most startling venue for Aboriginal art in 2006 was the LaFontaine Centre of Contemporary Art, where Apolline Kohen organized a significant exhibition for the King and Queen of Bahrain. It opened on March 8 and ran through April 12. Sixteen artists representing the various countries served by Maningrida Art and Culture were represented in the catalog, Dream Track: Aboriginal art of Arnhem Land, accompanied by an essay by Apolline, an excellent map of the territories, outstations, and language groups of Central Arnhem Land, and of course, a brief interview with Mawurndjul. Although dominated by the Kuninjku clan centered these days on Mawurndjul and his extended family, the exhibition included representatives of other groups, including Terry Ngamandara, Tommy Steele and his daughter Lorna Jin-Majinggal, Samuel Bronson, and Johnny Bulunbulun. Bark painting, woven fish traps, and mimh, lorrkon, and yawkyawk sculptures demonstrated the scope of creative activities coming out of the center.

In May, with the opening of the Musee du Quai Branly fast approaching and Aboriginal art in the headlines around the world, Mawurndjul’s photograph appeared on the cover ofTime Magazine, with the Eiffel Tower in the background. By June, the Eiffel Tower had been replaced by Jacques Chirac as Johnny’s co-star in the newspaper and magazine photos and images of rarrk were in the Parisian airports. It probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s visited the Musee that there are probably more photographs of Mawurndjul’s contribution to the Australian Indigenous Art Commission posted on than of all the other works combined. An exhibition of work at Luc Berthier’s gallery, Muse africain, opened the evening before the official debut of the Musee.

John Mawurndjul in Paris, June 2006
August brought the 23rd National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, and recognition for Samuel Namundja as “Gungura–Wind Dreaming–with goanna tracks” took the Bark Prize. Later in the month the Clemenger Contemporary Art Prize exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria featured six dazzling lorrkon by Ivan Namirkki among the entries. Although Judy Watson won the prize (another artist who’s had quite a year–including the MQB and the NATSIAA Work on Paper Award in addition to the Clemenger), Ivan’s pieces were strong and among the best, most dynamic work he’s done recently.

Installation shot of Ivan Namirkki’s work at the Clemenger Prize Show, August-September 2006. (Thanks, Suzanne)

As the year comes to a close, so does the circle, with Mapping Djang, another solo exhibition from John Mawurndjul at Annandale Galleries, in conjunction with a sculpture show, Lorrkons Mimih Spirits Yawkyawks. The works in Mawurndjul’s show are a wonder, even to one accustomed to surprises from a man whose innovative capacity seems unlimited. There is a grace and fluidity to his line in these paintings that has been hinted at for several years now, but has never achieved the elegance presented at Annandale. In the past he has maintained a somewhat static partitioning of the painting’s surface and allowed changes in the orientation of the rarrk to suggest the dynamic of the water and the mystery of what resides beneath it. Here the cross-gridding itself swoops and bends to play counterpoint to the curving black and white elements of his designs and the small islands of solid color that suggest pockets of an ancestral essence achieve a new buoyancy and luminescence. This dynamic spirit is much in evidence in the sculptural works as well, as the artists, especially Ivan Namirkki and Hamish Karrkarrhba, look for new decorative patterns to break up the surface of these attenuated figures and suggest the rapidity with which mimih spirits can vanish into the crevices of the stone country. The three lorrkons in the show, by Timothy Wulanjbirr, Samuel Namundja, and James Iyuna, are all superb examples. James Iyuna’s piece is an especially satisfying new direction for the artist, whose precisely gridded rarrk has long needed something to lift it beyond expert craftsmanship. The twisting serpent that climbs the length of the pole, with diamonds swirling at severe angles to the background design, is the most vibrant work I’ve seen from him.

There’s also what looks to be a major show at the Drill Gallery Gallery at the Australian National University in Canberra, Mumueka to Milmilngkan: innovation in Kurulk art. This exhibition features the work of the three brothers, Mawurndjul, Iyuna, and Njiminjuma, who have among them shaped Kuninjku bark painting in the past decade. Curated by John Altman, Director of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy at ANU and Apolline Kohen, and also featuring the work of family members Kay Lindjuwanga, Irenie Naglinba, Melba Gunjarrwanga, Abraham Mongkorrerre, and Anna Wurrkidj (among others), the show promises to be a major survey of the art of the region. From the advance publicity, it looks to highlight the significance of the outstations in the continued economic viability of the region as well, thus making an important and very timely political as well as aesthetic statement. Luke Taylor of the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research (CCR) at ANU has contributed an essay based on a lecture delivered at the CCR, “Negotiating Form among the Kuninjku Bark Painters,” to the show’s catalog. (If anyone reading this has a line on how I can obtain a copy of the catalog, please let me know.) The show opened on November 2, and runs until December 17, 2006.

Will this whirlwind of activity continue in 2007? Given the combination of curatorial expertise, marketing intelligence, and sheer dedication that Apolline Kohen has demonstrated for several years now, we can only expect it to be so. Already, there has been a taste of things to come in London, where Josh Lilley presented Rarrk–A Preview during the first week of October at Gallery 5 in Notting Hill. Josh, who formerly worked with Bill Gregory at Annandale Galleries, will be opening his own space in London early in 2007, and the premier show will be a much expanded version of his preview featuring over one hundred works by ten artists, including the “first extensive display of Aboriginal sculpture in London.” Josh was kind enough to send me some photographs of the opening last October, which I include below for your enjoyment.

As I’ve surfed the Web and mined my collection of catalogs in preparing this essay, I’ve been struck repeatedly by the vitality of the work as well as its variety. In addition to creating some of the most vibrant and innovative work on bark, artists from Maningrida have pioneered whole new genres, most particularly in the area of fiber sculpture from artists like Lena Yarinkura and Marina Murdilnga and paperbark sculpture from Bob Burruwal and Terry Wilson. The bronze and aluminum castings produced in conjunction with Urban Art Projects were groundbreaking when they appeared more than five years ago, and remain magnificent today. The ubiquitous mimih sculptures may have begun as a means to continue production during the dry season when bark is impossible to obtain, but today they are a staple in almost every gallery. Their whimsy and low price tags appeal to buyers who might not have wanted to invest in Aboriginal art before, and now may be one of the smartest marketing strategies seen in recent years. 

It’s sometimes easy to forget that there has been a steady market for the artistic production of Arnhem Land almost since Baldwin Spencer brought examples of it back to Melbourne in 1914, and that missionaries in the 1930s provided income for their communities through the sale of bark paintings. And perhaps for that very reason, the art has had a hard time shaking the association with ethnography and primitivism. (A decade ago I met with a curator at the University art museum to show her slides of our collection, which at that time was heavy with works from the Central Desert. She didn’t quite know what to make of the work. “You don’t have many paintings with animals in them, do you?” she asked, clearly having expected x-ray art rather than abstraction.) The difficulty of properly conserving works that employ bark or fiber as the medium has probably also contributed to the slow acceptance of Arnhem Land work as fine art. It has taken the unusual genius of a man like Mawurndjul along with the brilliance of an advisor like Apolline Kohen to blast away those impediments to acceptance. I think 2006 will be remembered for those reasons as a landmark year.

An overview of Rarrk–A Preview, Josh Lilley, London, 2006.

Lorrkon by John Mawurndjul, and those ubiquitous mimihs, Josh Lilley, London, 2006.

Detail of a bark painting by Timothy Wulanjbirr, Josh Lilley, London, 2006.

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