I heard from Apolline Kohen this week that Kuninjku artist John Mawurndjul was awarded the Order of Australia (AM) on the 2010 Queen’s Birthday for his service to the preservation of Indigenous culture. Apolline reports that Mawurndjul is “thrilled” by the honor, as we all should be. Painter and philosopher, storyteller and genius of abstraction, a veritable traveler between two worlds, Mawurndjul epitomizes for me both the potential and the achievement of the Indigenous artist in modern times. Jeremy Eccles reported as follows:
“For service to the preservation of Indigenous culture as the foremost exponent of the Rarrk visual art style” – which is true enough in its second part – the foremost exponent of rarrk – but fails to acknowledge his huge advances purely as an artist, who developed his painting style from the more traditional representation of Dreamtime creatures from the Kuninjku theology during the 1980s to a virtual abstraction today that shimmers on his barks while still telling his fellow Kuninjku the stories of ceremonies that matter to them.
Mawurndjul has also maintained a remote lifestyle beyond the reaches of the Western world on his Milmilngkan family outstation where he paints, hunts and cares for his cave-painting dotted country.
From that fastness he has emerged to fascinate and challenge the rest of the world at exhibitions as significant as Les Magiciens de la Terre in Paris in 1989, Aratjara in Germany and England in 1993, Rarrk – the first major one-man show overseas by an Aboriginal artist in Switzerland and Germany in 2005 – and of course, his permanent contribution as one of eight indigenous artists at the Musee du quai Branly in Paris the same year.
Johnny Mawurndjul has also taken on the world simply through his character – making speeches at many of the above events in impenetrable Kuninjku, but leaving his audience convinced they’d understood every word! And, in the name of greater understanding, the Swiss National Science Foundation supported the publication of a multi-authored intercultural text in 2009 – Between Indigenous Australia and Europe – John Mawurndjul.
Also honored this year was Gija artist Peggy Patrick for her artistic accomplishments as a member of the Jirrawun group of artists and for the leading role she played in the 2002 theatrical performance Fire Fire Burning Bright, which recounted the story of the Bedford Massacre that took the lives of many of her countrymen–retribution for the slaughtering of cow.
Another piece of good news came in this morning: Bangarra walked away with the honors at last night’s Australian Dance Awards. Their twenty-year retrospective Fire won the award for outstanding performance by a company, while founder and chief choreographer Stephen Page received the services to dance award. Page, cheeky as ever, said that he was tempted to show up at the awards show dressed up as an old man from the Kimberley and admitted, “My ego thinks I need to be old to be accepting that award.” Here’s hoping the both Bangarra and Page can celebrate another twenty years of creating wonder for audiences around the world. Heck, Stephen, Merce Cunningham was still performing his own works well into his 80’s. The best years are yet to come!