John Mawurndjul, Past and Present

It has been little more than a dozen years since the name of John Mawurndjul was linked for the first time (to my knowledge) to what were and perhaps remain the most famous names world-wide in Aboriginal art, Emily Kam Kngwarray and Rover Thomas. The occasion was an exhibition whose scope still staggers me, The Eye of the Storm: eight contemporary Indigenous Australian artists, organized by the National Gallery of Australia for display at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, India late in 1996 and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney the following year. (The five other artists in the show were George Milpurrurru, Brian Nyinawanga, Fiona Foley, Ken Thaiday, and Roy Wiggan.)

Kngwarray had just passed away; indeed she is listed in the catalog as “Kwenentway” rather than as “Emily.” Rover Thomas would die just thirteen months after the Sydney opening. Mawurndjul (b. 1952) was a relatively young man and all of the works in the exhibition were completed before he had turned forty. For years afterwards, Kngwarray and Thomas remained the touchstones of celebrity in the Indigenous art world, and even today, the media remains awash in stories that celebrate that fame, be in the shattering of auction records or allegations of fraud and forgery.

In the years since that exhibition, Mawurndjul’s achievements and the accolades he has received for them have continued to mount, although he has never seemed to seize the public’s imagination in quite the same ways as the two great oldies did. In 1999, Mawurndjul won the Bark Painting Award at the 16th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. In 2003 he received the prestigious Clemenger Contemporary Art Award, the first Indigenous artist to be so honored. He was among the stars of 2004’sCrossing Country exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and in the same year was among eight artists included in the Australian Aboriginal Art Commission for the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris. In 2005 a major retrospective of his work, <<rarrk>> John Mawurndjul: journey through time in northern Australia opened at Basel’s Museum Tinguely. 

In that year and early in 2006 Mawurndjul spent several months in Europe, with some of that time dedicated to painting a large column in the form of a lorrkon, the ceremonial burial pole of the Kuninjku, which was the only original work of art produced by the hand one of the eight painters for the administrative and curatorial building at Quai Branly. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine on May 15, 2006, and in the accompanying article (“A Parisian Romance”) Michael Fitzgerald claimed that “more than anyone else, John Mawurndjul has changed the face of bark painting” and called the artist “the Michelangelo of rarrk.”

In November of 2006, the Drill Hall Gallery at the Australian National University mounted a major exhibition, Mumeka to Milmilngkan: innovation in Kurulk Art, featuring sixty-six works by the extended clan, descendants of Anchor Kulunba, over whom Mawurndjul now stands as the senior figure. The excellent catalog for this exhibition contains major essays by Jon Altman, Luke Taylor, and Apolline Kohen, in addition to a most useful genealogy that charts the family relationships among the dozen artists in the show.

The theme of innovation that is central to Mumeka to Milmilngkan is itself centered on Mawurndjul. In particular, Luke Taylor’s essay explores the stylistic experiments that Mawurndjul began thirty years ago, building on the work of Yirawala and Marralwanga to create new ways of encoding ancestral power in the shimmer of the rarrk’s cross-hatchings. Kohen traces the growth of the younger generation, the grandchildren of Kulunba, and especially the emergence of strong painters among Kuninjku women. Innovating in this instance as well, Mawurndjul was central to the development of women’s painting, with his wife, Kay Lindjuwanga, and his younger brother James Iyuna’s wife, Melba Gundjarrwanga, among the first to take up a brush and gain recognition.

Now Drill Hall has returned to honor the master once more in the new exhibition, John Mawurndjul Survey 1979-2009, which celebrates three decades of creativity and gathers together, in addition to his paintings on bark, a significant corpus of the etchings Mawurndjul executed between 2004 and 2007. (The exhibition opened on April 16, 2009 and will be on view in Canberra through May 24.)

Kohen, Altman, and Taylor have once again teamed up to produce useful and informative essays for the catalog. Kohen provides a brief history of Mawurndjul’s experimentation with etching, following on a similar piece by her father, Jean Kohen, published in the <<rarrk>> catalog. (The elder Kohen is himself a printmaker and was instrumental in introducing the technique at Maningrida.) Altman and Taylor have collaborated on “Articulating Differences: John Mawurndjul and the creation of a distinct identity through art.” Brief as it is, this essay is an exemplary critique of Mawurndjul’s style and subjects, especially good in its interpretations of the later, more abstract works. Taylor offers a guide to understanding the imagery (for example, the white bars that have often appeared in the bark paintings of late reference specific landforms such a rocky cliffs) and the representations of the networks of billabongs whose shimmering skeins project the djang of Mawurndjul’s homelands.

Examples of Mawurndjul’s latest magical variations on the waters of Milmilngkan will be on view in a solo show at Annandale Galleries starting May 24 and can now be seen inpreview at their website. The new works manifest serenity and grace; the frenetic fracturing of the picture plain that characterized his output a decade ago has given way to a gentle line that lofts across the surface of the bark in stately rhythms. The broad white bars and the large circles that denote waterholes are moments of stasis in these paintings. The power of the country is immanent; the transcendence and vigor of work like the Mardayin Ceremony (2003) that adorns the ceiling of the Quai Branly is now muted.

Mardayin Ceremony at the MQB Milmilngkan, 2008

The Annandale website, by including links to half a dozen earlier exhibitions, both solo and group shows, acts almost as a minor retrospective in its own right, letting us chart the changes in Mawurndjul’s style over the years in which his accomplishments have multiplied along with his fame.

That fame can only further increase with the long-awaited publication by the Aboriginal Studies Press of Between Indigenous Australia and Europe: John Mawurndjul, edited by Claus Volkenandt and Christian Kaufmann. Altman, Kohen, and Taylor are joined by scholars Australian and European in providing a baker’s dozen of essays, which sprang from an international symposium held in Basel in 2005 on the occasion of the opening of the Mawurndjul retrospective there. (Many of the authors also contributed to the catalog of that exhibition.) I’m looking forward to settling down to what promises to be a challenging and rewarding read.

In fact, challenging and rewarding are good adjectives to describe Mawurndjul’s art itself. And perhaps that is why he is not quite the household name in Australia that Emily and Rover are. Mawurndjul’s work is beautiful, but not decorative, strong but not bold or stark. And to some extent bark paintings still suffer from a perception that they belong to the past, that their physical qualities–bark and ochre–distance them from both fine art and contemporary art, and that those qualities make them a curatorial problem not easily embraced by the average collector. (I’ll admit that central air and heating do make it easier to consider owning paintings that are especially susceptible to fluctuations in temperature and humidity.)

Thinking it over, I am struck by how Mawurndjul’s art, in a unique way, does stand between Australia and Europe, and how Mawurndjul himself seems to relish having a foot planted in each world. In a statement he made in preparation for the Crossing Country exhibition and reprinted in the catalog for that show, he stresses the variety of ways in which he has altered the traditions from which his art has emerged. “Any bark you see in Maningrida, mine will be changed from that,” he said (Crossing Country, p. 137). The exhibition’s subtitle was “the alchemy of Western Arnhem Land art” and Mawurndjul reinforced that theme while at the same time distancing himself from the European tradition. Speaking of his travels abroad he said, “I go all over showing my paintings and they all look at me, photograph me. We all join together. They look at me and see I am very different to those white people. But through some kind of magic, I am a chemist man. The number one chemist man, yes” (ibid.)

Last week, in reviewing a new collection of essays on W. E. H. Stanner, I remarked on Stanner’s insight into the concepts of continuity and change in Aboriginal culture. I’m struck again by how relevant those ideas are to Mawurndjul’s work. If you look at the broad sweep of his career, it is easy to discern the metamorphoses from early depictions of wallabies and echidnas through the complex tangles of his portraits of Ngalyod, from the similarly intricate depictions of billabongs to the serene abstractions of the twenty-first century. And yet take any single painting out of the chronological line-up and it is difficult to guess with much precision what period of his career it belongs to. The magnificentBuluwana now in the collection of the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (cat. no. 17 from the new Drill Hall show) looks far earlier than 2000; the 1997 Mardayin Ceremony – theme IV (cat. no 13) would not look terribly out of place in the upcoming Annandale show. Apolline Kohen notes that during the 2004 etching workshop in Maningrida, “Mawurndjul made two prints … which reacquainted him with figuration” (John Mawurndjul Survey 1979 – 2009, p. 28).

Poised between tradition and innovation, concealment and revelation, Milmilngkan and Paris, figuration and abstraction, stasis and change, John Mawurndjul is at once the most representative of Aboriginal artists and the most individual.

Etchings by John Mawurndjul

Mardayin at Dilebang, 2004 Wayuk at Kakobabuldi, 2004 Billabong at Milmilngkan, 2004
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