John Mawurndjul: I Am the Old and the New

July 27, 2018
John Mawurndjul, 'Lightning Spirit'

This year’s best exhibition title is: John Mawurndjul: I Am the Old and the New. A landmark retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the show demonstrates the paradox of bark painting: as one of the oldest forms of artistic expression and something completely new.

This was inconceivable to the organisers of the Cologne Art Fair in 1994, who rejected an application from Melbourne dealer, Gabrielle Pizzi, on the grounds that the contemporary barks she intended to show were a form of “folk art”. This created a huge controversy at the time, and it’s notable that the Germans have since been at the forefront in the appreciation of indigenous art.

The first-ever retrospective for Mawurndjul (b.1952) was held in Basel and Hannover in 2005-6. That show set the standard for the MCA and the Art Gallery of South Australia when they decided, three years ago, to put together a new retrospective which has grown into a comprehensive display of 165 pieces.

The MCA show is distinguished by an emphasis on language and by the arrangement of works in accordance with moiety – a term that denotes two ritual groups into which a people is divided. Mawurndjul’s people are duwa and yirridjdja, and every place, story or animal in this exhibition was assigned to one side or the other by ancestral beings at the time of the Creation.

At the artist’s request the curators have not hung works in chronological order, but according to the site where each story originates. This reflects the indigenous sense of time, in which the past is always alive in the present. Neither is there any distinction between history and mythology: the history of the country is the story of the spirits that have helped shape its distinctive features.

Each section of the exhibition and the catalogue is introduced by bi-lingual panels in English and the artist’s native tongue, Kuninjku. It’s a mark of respect that makes us realise that the features of Mawurndjul’s homeland and all the native creatures most probably had Kuninjku names at a time when English, as a language, didn’t even exist.

Even the word rarrk – which refers to the artist’s “cross-hatching” technique – has a broader, untranslatable importance. Interpreter, Murray Garde, describes it as nothing less than “a means for navigating the diversity of the human condition.”

John Mawurndjul, ‘Ngalyod ‘(2012)

In this exhibition as we journey from room to room we travel between sites, connecting Mawurndjul’s paintings to tales of the Rainbow Serpent, the argument between the moon and the quoll, the crow that was transformed into a rock, and the ancestral woman named Buluwana. We meet the entities associated with each site. Some are familiar to us, such as frogs, turtles or crocodiles; others are supernatural in origin – the Shooting Star Spirit, the Lightning Spirit, the Mimihs, and the indigenous mermaids, the Yawk-Yawks.

To the untrained eye, Mawurndjul’s country, roughly 500 kilometres east of Darwin, is a mass of tangled, steamy bushland. To the artist, every feature is significant. The landscape doubles as an enormous story book filled with hidden rules, ceremonial obligations and taboos. For Mawurndjul the stories are not fairy tales but part of his spiritual heritage. As one of the leading custodians of the land he takes his responsibilities seriously.

This is the old part of Mawurndjul – the guardian of ancient traditions anxious to pass on his knowledge to the next generation. The new part is the cosmopolitan artist and world-traveller who wants to tell his stories to non-indigenous people (balanda), so they can understand and respect his way of life.

In the catalogue Garde relates a story about Mawurndjul’s father, Kulunba. “We don’t reject balanda when they come,” the old man told his son, “otherwise they will return to their place with a feeling of shame.”

This is an amazingly piece of délicatesse: ‘We don’t want the white people to go home feeling ashamed of their ignorance or their awkwardness.’ Mawurndjul has extended that attitude, seeing his paintings as a powerful tool for communication across cultures.

In the course of his travels he has developed a vital sense of himself as an artist among artists. He paints on bark, others paint on canvas, but he recognises a community that transcends language, ethnicity and national boundaries. It was his dawning awareness of what it means to be an artist that prompted Mawurndjul to begin working on large-scale slabs of bark, some of them twice the size of his own body.

He says he had a dream in the late 1980s that prompted him to make bigger bark paintings. This resulted in pieces such as Mimih at Milmilngjan (1989), which is 249 cms tall, or Bulwana, Female Ancestor (1990), at 261 cms.
He also felt that a being such as Ngalyod, the Rainbow Serpent, was so important, that she needed to be depicted on a large scale.

It was also Mawurndjul’s visits to art museums in Australia and overseas that helped inspire him to increase the size of his paintings. In doing so he has taken the artform onto an entirely new level. Never, in tens of thousands of years, had anyone worked on such a scale. Like the very greatest artists, Mawurndjul has reinvented his medium. Even more impressive is that, in the process, he has never deviated from tradition.

Buried in the back of the catalogue there is a line from anthropologist, Luke Taylor, who notes how Mawurndjul’s paintings of Ngalyod may also be perceived as maps, whereby the body of the serpent echoes the twists and turns of the land. This shows how “Country can be conceived as transformations of the ancestral essence, and of expressions of these powers that exist in landscape.”

Although Mawurndjul allows himself the freedom to do the odd still life or animal painting, with no attempt at deeper meaning, his major works are almost too complex to decode. They are simultaneously works of religious art, landscapes and narrative pictures, with a conspicuous degree of abstraction.

They are true conceptual paintings that investigate the border between the visible and the invisible. In numerous images devoted to the Mardayin ceremonies, Mawurndjul conceals as much as he reveals, keeping the secret-sacred aspects of the ritual hidden among motifs and patterns that we see as merely decorative. We should know by now, as we walk though this great forest of signs, that nothing in these paintings is ever so simple as it seems.

John Mawurndjul: I Am the Old and the New
Museum of Contemporary Art, 6 July – 23 Sept.
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 26 Oct – 28 Jan. 2019

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 28 July,2018