John Mawurndjul: I am the old and the new

‘I am the old and the new.’ What a marvellously biblical statement by the Western Arnhem Land artist, John Mawurndjul. He made it boldly in accepting this year’s male Red Ochre Award at the Sydney Opera House in May, and the once-shaggy bushman – who lives 50 kilometres from the township of Maningrida on his own Milmilngkan outstation, hunting, caring for his Country and painting – had a new confidence in his hand-in-pocket stance, neatly trimmed hair and beard, in response to this important recognition by his peers.

John Mawurndjul, River Whale Shark, 1989, ochre on wood, 19.5 x 233 x 23cm. Australian National Maritime Museum collection, Sydney © John Mawurndjul. Licensed by Copyright Agency, 2018. Courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney

But the quote is also the title of his second institutional solo show – the first was at Basel’s Museum Tinguely in 2005 – at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA). This is co-curated with the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA), where it will be staged in October before a slightly reduced version of the 165-work exhibition tours the country until the end of 2020.

The presentation is also co-curated with the artist himself. MCA Curator Clothilde Bullen comments, ‘He’s just so charismatic, and knew precisely which of his babies were important and which less important. ‘This one such a good one,’ he’d announce. And our exhibition will be fully bilingual, thanks to the heroic efforts of translator Murray Garde.’

‘We’ll be looking at 35 years of Mawurndjul’s practice,’ Bullen continues; noting the shifts across that time. He studied the ancients like Yirawala and Midjawmidjaw, but was taught to paint by his uncle Peter Marralwanga and elder brother Jimmy Njiminjuma. His early works – seen in the landmark ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ exhibition in Paris in 1989 – were mainly figurative representations of mythic figures like female Yawkyawk water-hole spirits or Mawarrmulmul, the shooting star spirit. Then he carved sculptural figures and lorrkons, adding the finest lines of cross-hatching for the first time in Kunwinjku art.’ ‘I changed the law myself,’ Mawurndjul once boasted.

John Mawurndjul, Ancestral spirit beings collecting honey, 1985-1987 Museum of Contemporary Art Australia and Maningrida Arts & Culture with financial assistance from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Board of the Australia Council, 1994 © John Mawurndjul. Licensed by Viscopy, 2017. Courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney

‘Finally,’ concludes Bullen, ‘as his knowledge of ceremonial matters grew, he’s concentrated on the Mardayin ceremonies that are the foundation of Kuninjku law and culture. These works appear abstract to us, because he can only show the public aspects of the ceremony.’ But Mawurndjal points out that there are ‘inside’ matters too for initiates: ‘The dangarrk lights in the water give off a blue colour at night in the waterholes at Mardayin sites. This is Mardayin – the glowing of the lights is the spirit essence of the ceremony. I saw these lights glowing at night. I put the experience in my head and went and collected bark, scraped it down, and then painted the same thing I had seen in cross-hatched form.’

Former Art Gallery of New South Wales Curator Hetti Perkins describes Mawurndjal’s process as ‘a kind of alchemy. The essence of the original is there in the new – which shines and glows.’ This is amplified in the words of the artist himself: ‘Through some sort of magic, I am a chemist man myself. I am the Number One chemist man.’ He is also the senior djunkay, or ceremonial manager, for the Mardayin ceremony – which is rarely performed these days. He is keeping it alive through his art.

John Mawurndjul, Milmilngkan, 2008, earth pigments on Stringybark (Eucalyptus tetrodonta), 171 x 71cm. Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, Gift of the Santos Community Fund, 2009 © John Mawurndjul. Licensed by Copyright Agency, 2018. Photograph: Saul Steed. Courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney

It’s not all been plain sailing, though, for this great artist. In 1998, his work was rejected at the Koln Art Fair as ‘folk art’ – which must have made his 2003 victory in Australia’s Clemenger Contemporary Art Prize all the more satisfying. And Melbourne Professor Jon Altman, who has spent much time in Kuninjku Country with Mawurndjul, believes that the artist has ‘quite consciously scrambled the generations of rock art in his Country to find an aesthetic that pleases the Western eye.’ Not that this helped when the Global Financial Crisis cut sales from Indigenous art centres nationally by 50% between 2008 and 2011. And then there was the Intervention, which replaced the management of Maningrida’s Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation, which owns the Art Centre, with people so inexperienced that funds were denied to it to post paintings out of Arnhem Land. Meanwhile the Community Development Employment Program, which gave art centre and outstation workers a basic income, was ‘demonised and demolished’ according to Altman.

Ceasing to have an art income, a dispirited Mawurndjul ceased to paint. This internationally recognised super-star could no longer afford to access his outstation, moved into a Maningrida town camp and looked for a job as a tyre-repairer. In 2015, Mawurndjul admitted that he’d ‘taken a break’ from bark painting, and ‘it may be some time before I go back to it.’

Fortunately, he has – winning the 2016 Best Bark in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA) and completing two major commissions for the MCA and AGSA. Mind you, the now-66 year old Johnny Mawurndjul did tell the Red Ochre audience that his visit to open the MCA show on 6 July ‘may be the last time I leave my Kuninjku Country.’

‘I am the old and the new’ will be touring nationally on conclusion at the MCA.

Jeremy Eccles is a specialist arts commentator who has been writing, broadcasting and filmmaking in Australia since 1983, with a special interest in Indigenous culture.

Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
6 July to 23 September 2018

Art Gallery of South Australia
26 October, 2018 to 28 January, 2019

Murray Art Museum Albury
8 March to 26 May 2019
New South Wales

Glasshouse Port Macquarie
26 July to 22 September 2019
New South Wales

Caboolture Regional Art Gallery
4 October 23 November 2019

Blue Mountains Cultural Centre
7 December, 2019 to 19 January, 2020
New South Wales

Cairns Regional Gallery
7 February to 29 March 2020

Charles Darwin University Art Collection & Art Gallery
17 April to 28 June 2020 (postponed)
Northern Territory

Tweed Regional Gallery
10 July to 13 September 2020
New South Wales

Bunjil Place Gallery
26 September to 29 November 2020