John Mawurndjul and the Varieties of Aesthetic Experience

This year will mark the fifth anniversary of the opening of the exhibition <<rarrk>> John Mawurndjul Journey Through Time in Northern Australia at the Tinguely Museum in Basel, Switzerland. It was a startling event at the time, as I recall: an internationally oriented retrospective of the work of a single Indigenous Australian artist–perhaps a first in the history of the art movement. The exhibition was held at an art museum–perhaps a rather unconventional art museum, but definitely one outside the realm of ethnography. In the months surrounding the opening Mawurndjul himself was in Europe preparing for the show, but also executing a commission for the Musee du Quai Branly, a most decidedly ethnographic venture. Among the eight artists invited to participate in the Australian Indigenous Art Commission, Mawurndjul was the only one to execute an original work on site, the column that adorns a corner of the Musee’s bookstore. (A reproduction of Mawurndjul’s Mardayin at Milmilngkan (2003) adorns the bookstore’s ceiling, and its execution was overseen in part by the artist.)

Mawurndjul and, by extension, Aboriginal art in Europe, were much in the news in Australia at the time. It was generally felt that this was the moment when Aboriginal art would finally break free of the anthropological ghetto to be recognized as an important contemporary aesthetic movement in its own right. The incorporation of the work of living, named artists into the fabric of the MQB’s administrative building was perceived as proof of this breakthrough. By mid-2006, when the Parisian museum opened to the public amidst international fanfare, the letdown was palpable. The presentation of Aboriginal art inside the museum only reinforced the ethnographic perspective; the celebrated Commission was overlooked among the many international festivities French President Chirac had arranged to mark the completion of his national museological legacy. The museum itself was by no means universally applauded; both its overall architecture by Jean Nouvel and its celebration of the artistic plunder from France outre-mer came under fire. Chirac’s hopes for a recognition of the universality of art in human experience nearly drowned in post-imperialist critiques.

All of this context is useful to keep in mind when taking up the recently published proceedings from a seminar held in Basel in conjunction with the opening of <<rarrk>> in 2005. Between Indigenous Australia and Europe: John Mawurndjul, edited by Claus Volkenandt and Christian Kauffmann (Aboriginal Studies Press/Reimer, 2009) collects eighteen essays on topics ranging from the artist’s biography to Kuninjku artistic tradition and from Karel Kupka to the neuropsychological bases of artistic expression. The much-worried frontier between art and ethnography is never far from the minds of any of the contributors. And while the essays are as full of insights into the debate as they are into the artistic practice of Mawurndjul and his clan, the perspective from five years on demonstrates how completely, at least in Australia (and I think in North America as well), the matter has been settled. Aboriginal art has found its place in the contemporary art gallery and museum. It may be a welcome visitor in the ethnographic domain, but it is today fundamentally out of place there except as an occasional guest.

The protracted process of academic publishing that requires the lapse of four years between the writing and the appearance of a scholarly essay may thus have burnished the contributions in this volume with a patina of historical debate, but it has not in the process dimmed the intensity of the insights contained in many of them. The authors, a mix of Europeans and Australians, bring a multidisciplinary approach to the study of Mawurndjul, his art, and the problems that his work poses from museology, aesthetics, and criticism. Some essays are introductory and factual; others are theoretical and highly speculative. Together they hold the jewel of Mawurndjul’s achievements over twenty-five years up to a light that allows the facets of his accomplishments to glow from within and illuminate a larger body of both art and criticism.

For my money, the best of these essays is Sally Butler’s “Translating the spectacle: John Mawurndjul’s intercultural aesthetic.” She begins with a pair of complementary quotations, the first from Jean Baudrillard, the second from John Mawurndjul, that comment on the nature of what my friend Ken George has called “objects on the loose,” here specifically, cultural forms that become untied from the context of their creation to find a place in the wider world. Most of the contributors to this volume would agree, however, that these objects do so without losing their intrinsic cultural rootedness; this seeming paradox is key to the vision of Mawurndjul’s achievement in the Basel show and in his international career.

Threads of ritual, spectacle, and transformation run through Butler’s assessment of Mawurndjul’s work and its place in modern artworlds. I especially liked her assessment of Western exhibitions as rituals, an idea that both provides a distance for us to think about the manner in which we display and consume art while also linking Western practice to the more comfortable association of ritual with Aboriginal art. The concept of spectacle similarly helps to bridge what we often assume to be a chasm in Western and Aboriginal approaches to art; certainly art and spectacle are no strangers in our museums today, nor were they in the halls of the Renaissance. For Indigenous Australians, spectacle and the power of immanence can be twinned in the presence of the Dreaming ancestors manifested in the optical and aesthetic brilliance of their paintings. Both ritual and spectacle traffic in transformation, and Butler argues (as do others in this volume) that transformation is central to Mawurndjul’s achievement. This is most important in his development of the use of rarrk. What began as a technique for the infill of certain body parts became in Mawurndjul’s hands the generative power for his late, all-over mardayin compositions. 

By singling out Butler’s essay as especially illuminating, I mean no disservice to the contributions of other authors. Howard Morphy’s “Art theory and art discourse across cultures: the Yolngu and Kunwinjku compared” adumbrated the themes that would be developed in his monograph Becoming Art: exploring cross-cultural categories (Berg, 2007). Here his essay, among the most fully developed among the proceedings, lays down a theory of an Aboriginal aesthetic. Luke Taylor’s “Painted energy: John Mawurndjul and the negotiations of aesthetics in Kuninjku bark painting” is an essential introduction to the particular forms of making art in the artist’s home territory; if you have not read Taylor’s essential Seeing the Inside: bark painting in Western Arnhem Land (Oxford University Press, 1996), you can gain much insight into Taylor’s theses from this short essay. As always, Jon Altman provides a lucid examination of the social and economic contexts of Mawurndjul’s painting career in two essays, “A brief social history of Kuninjku art and the market” and “Brokering Kuninjku art: a critical perspective on the complex processes of mediating with the market.”

The latter half of the proceedings published here offer a variety of perspectives from European (that is, non-Australian) scholars. Especially useful is Christian Kaufman and Richard McMillan’s “From bark to art: Karel Kupka between Arnhem Land and Basel,” which documents the early history of collecting and contact that led to wide awareness of bark painting in Europe and created the collections in Basel and Paris without which the <<rarrk>> exhibition most likely would never have come to pass.

The essays collected in Between Indigenous Australia and Europe: John Mawurndjul form an essential companion to the catalog of the exhibtion<<rarrk>> John Mawurndjul Journey Through Time in Northern Australia. Many of the authors appear in both volumes, and while there are excellent color plates and plentiful black-and-white illustrations in the newer publication, the catalog naturally provides a far more comprehensive documentation of Mawurndjul’s output, which is useful to have to hand while reading the symposium proceedings. Conversely, the proceedings take a more theoretical approach to questions of intercultural aesthetics. They focus less on Mawurndjul the artist and man, and more on what his art and his success in Indigenous, Australian, and European arenas can teach us about art and culture. Together the two volumes bear witness to Mawurndjul’s extraordinary achievements as painter and ambassador, theoretician and practitioner. They also provide a useful framework for the continuing and necessary development of a dialogue on the meanings of Indigenous Australian art in the 21st century.

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