John Mawurndjul

As John Mawurndjul's retrospective 'I am the old and the new' hits South Australia, Artist Profile looks back to Issue 28, 2014, when Colleen O'Reilly wrote about the innovative blend of contemporaneity and tradition that marks the vigorous practice of this master Australian bark painter.

Striking concentric circles and rarrk cross-hatched designs hypnotise and enthral within John Mawurndjul’s bark surfaces. They resonate with energy. The Australian bark painter’s works are imbued with a sacred reverence – physical objects whose form reveal the secret truths and power inside Kuninjku ceremony. Both traditional and contemporary renderings of Kuninjku spiritual culture, the works unwind the threads of family, land and the Dreamtime that define Indigenous culture. However it is Mawurndjul’s outlook that is intriguing; acknowledging the past and looking to the future, his practice is fuelled by the desire to invoke a cross-cultural conversation that blurs the boundaries between Aboriginal and Balanda. His works evoke a shared Dreaming of contemporary Australia.

Throughout his career, Mawurndjul has employed traditional and contemporary techniques to create artworks that engage with Kuninjku spiritual landscapes, history and intellectual life. His work, which has received extensive national and international attention, grows from customs that go back generations, but is strongly of the present in its exploration of how the visual can traverse and open up spiritual and cultural meanings.

Mawurndjul was born in 1952 in the Mumeka region of Arnhem Land, and currently lives at his outpost in Milmilngkan as well as at Maningrida. Mawurndjul began painting small barks in the 1970s with his brother Jimmy Njiminjuma and uncle Peter Marralwanga, who painted with celebrated artist Yirawala.  Throughout the 1980s he explored the use of larger bark surfaces, and painted ancestral beings with bodies filled with rarrk cross-hatching designs. In the 1990s, Marwurndjul developed his strategy of covering large bark surfaces only with rarrk designs associated with the Mardayin initiation ceremony, and the djang, or sacred sites, of his country.

Like other Kuninjku artists, Marwurndul’s use of and interest in rarrk grew over time, from being part of the depiction of the body of Ngalyod, the rainbow serpent, to gradually becoming the main subject of the work. Rarrk conveys the presence of ancestral beings symbolically and employs the communicative strategy of the Mardayin ceremony, both public and secret. The designs present not the bodies of ancestral beings, but their power or essence. They are not the exact ceremonial designs painted on the bodies of initiates, the knowledge of which is said to have been passed to humans from the creator beings at the end of the creation time, but rather extensions of a formal technique that accesses the power of these secret meanings. Made with the traditional sacred materials of white delek and red and yellow ochre, Marwundjul’s delicate, meticulous rarrk accumulate into immersive, undulating visual fields. The large-scale barks take the place of the body in being marked by, and made of, the power of ancestral beings and the creation time. The paintings are material instances of the interrelationship between individual, the land, and of the divine.

Marwurndjul’s works relate in complex ways to his experience of his country and the aspects of this that he and other Kuninjku artists wish to share. In a 2003 interview with Luke Taylor, Marwundjul explained, ‘We paint the public aspects of the Mardayin ceremony, but there are also ‘inside’ things. The dangarrk lights [glowing plants that grow in watering holes] give off blue light at night in the water at Mardayin sites. At Kakodbebuldi. The dangarrk lights glow under the water. We can see it at night. I was living at Mumeka, I was doing crosshatching. I […] came to the big body of water at Kakodbebuldi and I saw in the water the dangarrk lights glowing all over, here, there. Glowing and flashing. It has small lights. Under the water the lights flash. They glow over a larger area, many of them. Just like the light in a house. Red, white, green. It glows until they all finish, then this yellow one. Two lights glow [burn] at the same time. This is Mardayin – the glowing of the lights is the spirit essence of the Mardayin. The lights are calling out. I went and saw these Mardayin lights glowing at night. I put the experience inside my head and went and collected bark, scraped it down, painted the background until the surface was finished and then painted the same thing I had seen in cross-hatched form.’

Marwurdjul has explored rarrk as an optical tool and a specifically visual medium, and for Kuninjku artists, the visual effects of rarrk, described as shimmering, shining, and as emanating energy, are in fact their spiritual content, and imbue the bark painting with the significance of visual religious experiences in djang sites. They reference visual and sensorial phenomena, but also internal states of being and a sense of historical time. In recent works such as Milmilngkan, 2009, the fine rarrk appears as a subtly textured surface. Each bark section is its own construction, fitting together as an organic but structured whole that seems to operate as a unit even as the separate parts insist on their own internal logic, much like forms in nature. The eye follows bands of colour that seem to weave forward and back in three-dimensional space. The composition is built around two bands of white delek and two sets of concentric circles. In Kuninjku works these forms often represent sacred traces of ancestral beings in the landscape at Mardayin sites, here a deposit of delek and the glowing danggark, leading to an understanding of the layered and swirling rarrk as representative of the Mardayin phenomena under the sacred watering hole. It is also possible to interpret the circles as the watering holes themselves, which along with delek sites are understood as the marks made by ancestral beings as they were swallowed by, or emerged from the earth during the Dreamtime. The painting thus becomes a symbolic landscape laced through with rarrk signifying Mardayin power.

In Dilebang, 2009, white and dark bands swirl and twist amongst the red, and one band of white divides the whole in two, here the soft curve of the crosshatched sections emphasised by the straight white section. In Billabong at Milmilinkan, 2004, lines in ovoid formations organise the surface, arranged in varying sizes inside of each other and all connected. The rarrk works within the shapes in complicated ways, creating the powerful sense of optical play with surface and depth, regularity and energy that Marwurndjul has become known for. Mawurndjul is very interested in the role these works play in the intellectual life of his community, which traverses the boundaries of Aboriginal or Balanda (non-Aboriginal or of European descent).

In the 2003 interview with Taylor, Mawurndjul commented, ‘The Balanda stands next to the painting and looks at the painting at an exhibition opening in an art gallery. They stand alongside the painting and examine it and think about it. I’ve seen many of them applying their minds to the paintings. Some white people have their own ‘crosshatching’ in every city…’ and later, ‘You know, it’s good that we, [the] new generation of Bininj people, [that] our culture is travelling to places where Balanda live, and they are thinking hard about it with their minds. They think about the cross-hatching. And we can all think about it, have knowledge of it, even Balanda. But maybe they don’t fully understand it. Balanda also paint things they have dreamed.  They paint their dreamings too.’

Marwurndjul’s works are meant to be contemplated so as to access both on conscious and unconscious levels, spiritual meanings and connections to culture and nature, past and future. It is clear that Mawurndjul intends for his work to have an impact both within his immediate community and in the world more broadly that comes simultaneously from the spiritual exploration of form, and of the socio-cultural significance of representational practices. The distinctive way in which he negotiates communication across cultural difference and the visual power of his work have earned him acclaim both at home and on a global stage.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 28, 2014

John Mawurndjul: I am the old and the new
26 October 2018 – 28 January 2019
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

A smaller version of the exhibition will then tour regionally to seven locations across Australia until 2020:

Murray Art Museum Albury (NSW): 8 March – 26 May 2019
Glasshouse Port Macquarie (NSW): 26 July – 22 September 2019
Blue Mountains Cultural Centre (NSW): 7 December 2019 – 19 January 2020
Cairns Regional Gallery (QLD): 7 February – 29 March 2020
Charles Darwin University Art Collection & Art Gallery (NT): 17 April – 28 June 2020
Tweed Regional Gallery (NSW): 10 July – 20 September 2020
Bunjil Place Gallery (VIC): 2 October – 29 November 2020


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