Glen Namundja: Radical rarrk - Art Collector

Issue 57, July - September 2011

Glen Namundja is a slow and deliberate painter known for his exquisite rarrk cross-hatching and deft colouration. Maurice O’Riordan surveys his practice.

Glen Namundja is a Kunwinjku artist who resides in the Aboriginal community of Gunbalanya (Oenpelli) in Western Arnhem Land. His painting career began with the establishment of Injalak Arts and Crafts in 1989, the art centre at Gunbalanya which still represents him. However, his artistic training began much earlier under the tutelage of his father, the revered artist Peter Marralwanga, who was also an uncle and early influence for John Mawurndjul. Marralwanga was at the forefront of brokering a broader appreciation of Kunwinjku cultural identity through his innovations of Kunwinjku artistic traditions, most notably through his radical rarrk-based compositions. Marralwanga was also encouraged by another great artistic visionary, the late Billy Yirawala. In the early 1970s, these two men established the outstation of Markolidjban which is where Namundja spent his youth and which remains a key spiritual and mythological source for his art.

Namundja works in a variety of media, including sculpture (of long and lean mimi figures, for example) and printmaking, but it is painting, primarily ochres on bark or Arches paper, which has been at the core of his practice. Despite such a longstanding career, it wasn’t until 2008 that he held his first solo exhibition, Lineal through Linear, at Mossenson Galleries in Melbourne. The exhibition title was a nod to his rich artistic heritage and the graceful, meticulous line work in much Kunwinjku art. Prior to this he had shown in group and award exhibitions throughout Australia and in Italy and The Netherlands, and in the Namundja Brothers exhibition at Sydney’s Bandigan Art gallery in 2006, alongside brothers Samuel and Johnson. “These artists,” declared the exhibition’s publicity, “are alchemists of tradition and innovation.”

Namundja paints two main styles of imagery. The first is figurative and relates directly to the region’s famous x-ray style rock art, typically emphasising this connection through a bare background in a rock art-like wash of ochre colours. These paintings include a wide range of subjects from examples of local fish including the prized barramundi, to ancestral figures either in isolation or as part of a symbolic narrative. The second style is also figurative but is charged with much more abstract and sacred/ceremonial import through complex rarrk patterning within and around the figures. It is the latter style which has consolidated Namundja’s reputation and led to his growing collectability, particularly in recent years. It has also led him to produce more ambitiously abstract paintings such as those on the subject of the wind (or wind djang).

Namundja’s entry in last year’s National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award, Kunabibbe Ceremony at Manmoyi, is a good example of his semi-abstract, rarrk-rich style. It shows an artist in the peak of his conceptual and aesthetic knowledge and it was duly awarded winner of the bark painting category, the judges Sylvia Kleinert and Djambawa Marawili praising its “sensitive placement of figures within the overall composition and the impeccable rarrk”. This award complemented a string of comparable distinctions at the NATSIAAs. In 2007, Namundja was highly commended, and in 2009 he won the works on paper category with his painting Likkanaya and Marrayka which, like Kunabibbe Ceremony at Manmoyi, depicts a story where two women – in this case yawkyawk spirits (sometimes referred to as freshwater mermaids) – have invoked the wrath of Ngalyod, the rainbow serpent, to the point of being swallowed. Whether this year’s NATSIAAs delivers a hat-trick for Namundja (represented by another bark painting) is yet to be seen. What is perhaps most surprising about his work is its very modest pricing in view of his remarkable artistic stature.

Glen Namundja’s solo exhibition at Mossenson Galleries in Perth is on view until 23 July 2011.

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