John Mawurndjul: Bark Maestro

June 22, 2018
John Mawurndjul

Here’s an art trivia question: “Who was the first Australian artist to be given a retrospective at two major European museums?” Answer: John Mawurndjul of western Arnhem Land, who in 2005-06 had his work shown at the Museum Tinguely in Basel, and the Sprengel Museum in Hannover. If you don’t remember seeing the exhibition when it returned home in triumph that’s because no Australian art museum agreed to play host.

Admittedly, the timing wasn’t ideal. In late 2004 the Art Gallery of NSW had presented Crossing Country, a landmark survey of the art of western Arnhem Land in which Mawurndjul had played a leading role. Like so many indigenous exhibitions, Crossing Country was critically acclaimed but failed to attract large audiences. The museums, forever hoping to boost attendances, were wary of another high-profile indigenous show. It’s nonetheless shameful that no institution felt obliged to celebrate Mawurndjul’s historic achievement.

It’s also a little surprising, considering the quantity of lip service our museum directors, curators and art bureaucrats pay to all things Aboriginal. All those elders, past, present and future, being thanked fulsomely at every official function… but no room at the inn for an artist who had broken new ground in our cultural relations with Europe.

This year Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art and the Art Gallery of South Australia are combining to give Mawurndjul the exhibition he deserves. At the age of 66, Mawurndjul is not simply Australia’s premier bark painter, he is one of our greatest artists of all time – not an accolade I use frivolously.

John Mawurndjul. ‘Rainbow Serpent’s antilopine kangaroo’ (1991), NGA Coll.

Like all great artists Mawurndjul is an innovator who has transformed his chosen medium and our understanding of it. His output transcends its origins, asking us to abandon the narrow, ethnographic focus common to discussions of bark painting, if of not all indigenous art. Standing in front of his work one recognises the hand of a master. His paintings are things of beauty, filled with secret-sacred meanings that may be felt intuitively but never properly decoded.

Over the past two decades Mawurndjul has travelled around Australia and to many overseas destinations, but his only true home is a strip of tropical bushland on the northern rim of the continent, about 500 kms east of Darwin. Maningrida, an almost exclusively indigenous settlement of 2,300 people, is where Mawurndjul comes to socialise and meet with visitors. He spends the greater part of the year on outstations such as Milmilngkan and Mumeka, where he lives a more traditional lifestyle.

Maningrida is known for bark painting, carving, weaving, and lately silk-screen printing. Mawurndjul may be the best-known artist in town, but he is not the only star in a community recognised as one of the most important centres for indigenous art.

The first thing one notices about Mawurndjul when you visit him on his home turf is his extraordinary personal dynamism. Small of stature, lean and sinewy, his face framed by a straggly grey beard and a mass of woolly hair, Mawurdjul is like a coiled spring. Although he speaks very little English, and is often silent, it’s obvious he is a powerful figure.

As anthroplogist, Luke Taylor, writes in the catalogue of the Basel exhibition: “Mawurndjul is a man who impresses all who meet him with his energy and drive. He is a remarkable hunter who will work hard all day to obtain the highly prized bush foods that he will share with his relatives. In his art he tackles major works with a similar intensity.”

It might be added that Mawurndjul has a self-confidence few people, anywhere, could match. When Diane Moon, a former art advisor at Maningrida, took the artist to see a major Picasso show during a visit to Cologne, she said: “One day there will be an exhibition like this for you.”

“I know”, he replied.

In 2006 Mawurndjul was present at the opening of the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, when a number of paintings by indigenous artists were gifted to the institution. After the official speeches Mawurndjul felt moved to say something on behalf of his own people, and spoke with fluency and passion for the best part of ten minutes – in the Kuninjku dialect. The French cameras and microphones remained riveted on him, even though not a word was comprehensible.

When he was finished, art advisor, Apolline Kohen, stepped forward and translated: “Johnny says ‘Thank you very much.’”

For the first ten years of his life, Mawurndjul lived in the bush in western Arnhem Land, between Oenpelli and Maningrida. He relocated to Maningrida in the early 1960s, when he was found to be suffering from the early stages of leprosy. At this time he was given the name “John”, although friends and relatives still address him by his skin name, “Balang”.

The young Mawurndjul did not enjoy life in the settlement, where traditional ceremonies, lifestyles, and even language were discouraged. As soon as his health was restored he returned to the bush and continued to hone his abilities as a hunter and a painter.

From a young age Mawurndjul was recognised as a formidable hunter, deeply versed in bush lore. He was also an artistic prodigy who learned his painting skills from his father-in-law, Peter Marralwanga (1917-87) and was soon given the task of adding the delicate cross-hatching to his elders’ designs. Mawurndjul sees Marralwanga and the legendary Yirawala (1897-1976) – once dubbed “the Picasso of Arnhem Land” – as the originators of a style of painting known as “rarrk”.

“Before Yirawala and Marralwanga there was no rarrk,” Mawurndjul has said, “…it was just rock art. They took the rarrk from the Mardayin ceremony and they put it on bark. They started it and we, the new generation, are doing new things. I make my rarrk different.”

In the art of western Arnhem Land this innovation was as revolutionary as the introduction of oil painting in the early Renaissance. Before these pioneer artists came along, the term “rarrk” referred exclusively to the cross-hatched patterns painted on the bodies of dancers and those undergoing initiation ceremonies. Bark paintings consisted of simple outline drawings and dots.

As the old men have died Mawurndjul has assumed an increasingly powerful role in the community. He is custodian of a great deal of territory, and responsible for the maintenance of ceremony.

He takes these duties seriously, seeing himself as a guardian of age-old traditions. He also understands how important it is to pass this knowledge on to the next generation. He has helped turn his wife, Kay Lindjuwanga, and his daughter, Anna Wurrkidj, into accomplished artists; and supported the efforts of his brother, the late James Iyuna, and his talented nephew, Samuel Namunjdja.

To watch Mawurndjul work on a picture is to understand the affinity between hunting and painting. He sits cross-legged on the ground, rubbing ochres against a piece of pale stone, adding a squirt of glue, and applying colour in delicate strands onto a rippled sheet of bark. Like hunting, this requires infinite patience and the steadiest of hands. It also requires a deep knowledge of the country that provides the both game and the Creation stories that Mawurndjul draws upon.

These paintings are filled with animals, and with ancestor figures, from the native mermaids, the Yawk-Yawks, to the all-powerful serpent, Ngalyod. Since the early 1990s Mawurndjul’s abiding theme has been the Mardayin – the wealth of local ceremonies that maintain the spiritual well-being of his people.

Mawurndjul says that his Mardayin paintings have both an inside and an outside. To the non-initiated the works appear to be geometric abstractions, with neatly divided segments, mesmeric rarrk patterns and mysterious floating discs. To the artist’s countrymen they are full of meanings that are invisible to the casual gallery-goer. Mawurndjul emphasises that painting the Mardayin can be “extremely dangerous”. If he were he to reveal anything that needs to remain hidden it would make him a target for sorcery.

For Mawurndjul there is a straightforward connection between painting and magic. When he accepted the Clemenger Contemporary Art Award at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2003, he explained to his Melbourne audience that he had supernatural powers.

If Mawurndjul feels driven to paint Mardayin themes it’s because he feels non-indigenous people – “balanda” – must be given the opportunity to see and understand the culture, religion and traditions of western Arnhem Land, which he sees as no less important (and a great deal older) than their western, Christian counterparts. In the small museum at Maningrida the artist is happy to discuss every artefact through translator, Murray Garde. Each exhibit, from bark canoes to historic photographs comes with a detailed explanation.

The need to communicate with the largest possible audience has been a driving force in Mawurndjul’s career. He is credited with bringing about a major escalation in the size of bark paintings after he visited various museums and saw the scale on which artists were working. “Then,” he says, “I had a dream which made me want to paint very large barks and so I just did it.”

The result of Mawurndjul’s dream was a new kind of painting: barks covered in exquisite cross-hatchings, on a scale so large they would have been inconceivable to even his most recent forebears. The themes are utterly traditional but the works themselves are new as Ornette Coleman’s free jazz improvisations were in comparison with more conventional forms.

An avant-gardist at heart, Mawurndjul is quick to proclaim his break with the past. “I have my own style, my own ideas,” he says…”I always think of new ways to paint, I always look for something different.”

He sounds like a Russian Futurist when he says: “I changed the law myself. We are new people. We new people have changed things.” It’s the kind of statement that radical artists have always made: an expression of supreme self-belief and a sense that art, whether it is practised in the studios of Paris or the tropical wilderness of the Northern Territory, has the power to change the world.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 23 June, 2018