Midawarr | Harvest: The Art of Mulkun Wirrpanda and John Wolseley

The National Museum of Australia in Canberra celebrates the diverse stories of Australia with a focus on Indigenous history and culture, European settlement and the land. Until 18 February in the Studio Gallery the museum is showing the work of artist John Wolseley and Yolŋu artist, Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda. This is a collaborative exhibition between two senior practitioners with an extraordinary friendship and a shared enthusiasm for traditional Yolŋu plant use.

In 2009, Mulkun adopted Wolseley as her wäwa (brother) and in the following years they harvested, painted and illustrated over 40 species of edible plants. The specially commissioned works will take viewers on a captivating exploration of Wirrpanda’s country with Wolseley’s vast panoramic scroll painting of a floodplain and 60 paintings and memorial poles by Wirrpanda, which intricately depict Yolŋu plants from the north-east of Arnhem Land.

Artists Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda and John Wolseley with their work for the ‘Midawarr Harvest’ exhibition. Photograph: Joseph Brady. Courtesy the artists and National Museum of Australia, Australian Capital Territory

Mulkun Wirrpanda said, ‘Once I started painting food plants without reference to their sacred identity, I had to find a new way to paint. I could not use the miny’tji (sacred design) or steal the sacred identity of the plants which belonged to clans other than my own. So I had to find a marwat (crosshatched background) which was just wakinŋu (ordinary) but not just infill. So I had to let the plants tell me what their secular identity or character was.’

Wolseley said ‘I have tried to find a way in which a painter from another culture could make a work about a site of great power and sacred importance and do so with reticence and reverence. Over the years I have drawn the distant floodplain of Garanarri through the trees and hanging vines on the edge of the rainforest. I have painted the land at one remove, as seen through a veil.’