Culture

Art

Noŋgirrŋa Marawili: ‘From my Heart and Mind’

By Tristen Harwood
Thinking is feeling in this exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

A massive hole cleaves the earth on Bathurst Street in Sydney’s CBD. The hole is the proposed site for the Greenland Centre, a towering 235-metre residential high-rise. The developer has posted a notice at the site, making perfunctory mention of the rightful owners of the land – the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation – whose practices, the developer says, have been “irrevocably altered” by colonisation. The notice strategically ignores the lived relationship that Eora peoples still have to the land. Yet, by peeling back the epidermis of the city at the construction site, the layers of the worldly, metaphysical, storied land are revealed. If only momentarily, it becomes clear that Eora lifeworlds are “irrevocably altered” only so long as the settler-colonial occupancy dominates.

Around a kilometre away, Yirrkala-based contemporary artist Noŋgirrŋa Marawili’s exhibition From My Heart and Mind, curated by Cara Pinchbeck, is on view at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW). The show comprises 25 works spanning the breadth of Marawili’s dynamic painting and printmaking practice, including works on paper, poles, large-scale barks, aluminium and board, which together illuminate a radical attention to surface and tactility. Throughout the show, the artist’s work draws on and embodies the interconnected atmospheric energies that sculpt her surroundings: lightning, sea spray, rock formations, wind, water.

As the title From My Heart and Mind implies, thinking and feeling are inseparable processes. Material culture, the natural environment and Aboriginal philosophy dissolve into and arise from each other. While Marawili’s work expresses the richness of meaning that the land and ocean at Yirrkala hold, it also presents the possibility for imagining and feeling the land differently in other places, like the site at Bathurst Street where earthly depth is revealed.

Worldly forces are figured as intentional actors in Marawili’s paintings, participating in poetic webs of connection. Take for example Baratjala (2018), a small painting on paper, which portrays a rectangular, dark-brown bathi (woven bag), simultaneously recalling a coastal rock. The rectangular form shifts between looking like a rock spotted with red and white dungunanin, “the barnacles that dress up rocks”, and a “dillybag full of the day’s harvest”, as the didactic panel suggests. The rock implies physical weight and stillness, whereas the bathi evokes ease of movement across land. Interiority and exteriority are differentiated (the inside of the dillybag and the surface of the barnacle-decorated rock), yet they constantly trade places. In Baratjala, the relationship between the bag, its imagined carrier, its contents, the rock and barnacles does more than just connect them; it produces them anew.

From My Heart and Mind examines the thresholds of seemingly impermeable surfaces through a number of works. With Yathikpa (2013), the artist has painted a crosshatch pattern in natural pigments, white and brown, to form a mesh of small diamonds across the surface of a large undulated bark, which recalls the ripple of waves across the sea’s surface. The diamonds appear to swell with the bark’s unstable surface, creating a pulsating rhythm that can be felt, as it seemingly beats in time with the heart. This bodily sensation shifts focus away from visual legibility to affect: thought becomes feeling. Here, meaning is transmitted through the body, the viewer feels Yathikpa as they think it.

Throughout the show, AGNSW’s didactic exhibition panels offer a vocabulary that helps the viewer make sense of the physical sensations produced by the work. On the didactic accompanying Yathikpa, Marawili, emphasising knowing as a corporeal act, describes the diamonds in this painting as “tongues of fire”. The tongue is both a means for communication and a sense organ, suggesting a synthesis of agency and affect – to taste is to know is to speak.

Surface porosity is further explored in Baratjala Lightning and the Rock (2018), a tall bark painting depicting sea spray as gentle trails of dots that fall on two soft-pink rocks in the centre of the bark. Marawili encircles the rocks with gestural brushstrokes of translucent white that partly reveal and blend with the brown of the bark, recalling sea foam, which simultaneously floats on and recedes into the ocean surface. These eloquent brushstrokes play with the line between the surface of the bark and the representational surface, giving the work a granular quality that expresses rather than depicts sea foam. While this painting doesn’t show the lines that represent lightning in Marawili’s other works, the title of the work suggests lightning is an absent presence, or an unseen force in the painting.

Produced at the threshold of the air-sea interface, sea spray is a lively mixture of matter that grounds From My Heart and Mind in a specific place. Explaining her practice, Marawili says, “I paint water designs. The water. As it crashes onto the rocks at high tide. Sending the spray into the sky,” and in doing so, she emphasises the agency of the natural world, which is a deliberate poetic force in her work.

Marawili’s conception of the relationship between the natural world, people and art is not unlike Gagudju elder and poet Bill Neidjie’s (1920–2002) use of the extra-subjective gender-neutral pronoun “e” in Story About Feeling (1989), which he uses to refer to the natural world, the poem itself, feeling and people:

This story e can listen careful

and how you want to feel on your feeling

This story e coming right through your body

e go right down foot and head

fingernail and blood … through the heart

and e can feel it because e’ll come right through

and

Wind for us

That way e come blow wind

and you feel it lovely, nice,

feel it cold now … lovely

And I love it that wind.

With both Neidjie’s poetry and Marawili’s painting, a text or artwork does not seek to merely represent the relations between things, it’s an active participant in that relationship, describing, embodying and communicating a world.

Bad Dog (2015) is among Marawili’s first works in which found materials are painted in place of bark. In this work, she paints over an MDF board that was originally used in a workshop run by Bangarra Dance Theatre. “Bad dog”, handwritten in black marker, can be seen under a translucent layer of creamy-brown ochre. By leaving this notation visible, the material’s past use remains visible, giving the work a palimpsestic quality that signals collective practice, along with the material’s movement through time and place.

Lightning (2017) is a work on aluminium board, which the artist has painted with enamel. Trails of diamonds, dots and serpentine lines in black and white traverse the aluminium, dressing-up and encircling black rock forms set on a crimson background. While lines and dots gesture to lightning and sea spray, the space between the lines traces the interplay of unseen forces – wind’s movement, lightning’s heat.

In addition to enamelled brush strokes, Marawili scratches slivers of aluminium away from the surface. Both bark and aluminium board are forms of external cladding. Scratching the aluminium board’s surface puts it into a closer relationship with her barks, which also undergo a process of having their inner surfaces scraped back in preparation for painting. By drawing a connection between the two materials, Marawili dissolves the distance between the “built” and “non-built” as it becomes evident that both materials are constructed culturally as well as materially.

The use of aluminium board, an industrially produced construction material, also alludes to development policy in northern Australia, where the artist is based. The federal government’s approach to developing northern Australia sees the land only as an instrumental resource. Like the hole on Bathurst Street, it is an empty space apt for serving market and state interests. In this sense, the aluminium board is a potent symbol of dispossession.

Yet, Marawili treats the material in a way that is intimate, bringing it from the abstract realm of capital accumulation to the level of her own body. In this way, Lightning and From My Heart and Mind present not only the artist’s deep poetic knowledge of a specific location in Arnhem Land, they convey the potential for thinking the world differently elsewhere.

Tristen Harwood

Tristen Harwood is an Indigenous writer, cultural critic and researcher, now living in Naarm (Melbourne).

Noŋgirrŋa Marawili: From my Heart and Mind, Art Gallery of New South Wales, installation view

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