September 2018

by Julie Ewington

‘John Mawurndjul: I Am the Old and the New’ at the MCA, Sydney
The celebrated bark painter’s ethos guides this retrospective exhibition

Ancestral Spirit Beings Collecting Honey, 1985–87, MCA and Maningrida Arts & Culture. © John Mawurndjul / Copyright Agency, 2018

I Am the Old and the New: this title quotes the artist, John Mawurndjul, who is the most celebrated bark painter living today and completely certain of his role in Kuninjku society in western Arnhem Land. He is a leader holding to the way of life and knowledge taught by his father, and an artistic innovator on the world stage.

This finely calibrated position is embodied in an exhibition according to the Kuninjku world view; as the curators note in the gorgeous catalogue, Mawurndjul’s direction was crucial. Works are grouped around significant sites on Kuninjku country, from both the yirridjdja and duwa moieties of Arnhem Land societies, and focused on their particular animals, plants and spirit beings, their narratives, custodial arrangements and spiritual significance. We walk across Country as we traverse the museum, with Mawurndjul as guide; he speaks in the first person in wall texts, which are presented in both Kuninjku and English.

This arrangement according to Kuninjku priorities is not standard, but its cultural otherness is exactly the point. Abandoning the conventional chronological structure of retrospective exhibitions is now becoming quite common, but this weaving together of early and late works, intense small barks and very large ones, and ostensibly representational subjects with inventive abstracted imagery is very sophisticated. What is revealed is extensive knowledge of Country, animals and seasons, and the interconnectedness of all this with human use, masterfully meshed into Mawurndjul’s fine rarrk, the distinctive crosshatching of Arnhem Land art.

This exceptional talent was recognised early: Mawurndjul’s work has been collected by major Australian museums since the late 1970s. But what made him celebrated are his refined abstract paintings from recent decades relating to the important secret Mardayin ceremony: “a prevalent source of inspiration”, as MCA curator Keith Munro noted on the opening weekend. These luminous works are often painted in red ochre over a white ground; they shimmer, they float. As Hetti Perkins writes in the catalogue, “These paintings are like the captivating wayuk [waterlilies] that float on the surface of billabongs where Ngalyod [the Rainbow Serpent] lurks, signalling the vast hidden depths, breadths and power of the knowledge that informs Mawurndjul’s art.”

In recent decades, bark painting was somewhat eclipsed by desert painting, but Mawurndjul’s exhibition and the success of Arnhem Land artists at this year’s National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards in Darwin attest to the region’s cultural confidence. Speaking in Kuninjku on the opening weekend in Sydney, Mawurndjul was assured in his carriage of his culture to world audiences. He understood this communicative potential early: large barks made in 1988 for the developing MCA were included in the landmark exhibition Magiciens de la terre (Paris, 1989); a commission for the Musée du Quai Branly (Paris, 2006) achieved international recognition – a TIME magazine cover is one indubitable marker of celebrity. Fame and the beauty of the works aside, two key points emerge here: the importance of living with dignity on Country, and the enormous potential of cross-cultural collaborations in Australia.

John Mawurndjul is a great Australian artist. Don’t miss this magnificent exhibition.

Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, until September 23; Art Gallery of South Australia, October 26 – January 28, 2019; and then at eight regional venues nationally until late 2020.

Julie Ewington

Julie Ewington is an independent writer, curator and broadcaster, now living in Sydney.

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