John Mawurndjul: Modern master - Art Collector

Issue 35, January - March 2006

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Among his many accolades, Arnhem Land artist John Mawurndjul has been credited with creating a significant regional art movement. Now his breakthrough bark paintings are receiving sensational acclaim across Europe. Jennifer Isaacs has tracked Mawurndjul’s steady rise to prominence over two decades.

John Mawurndjul lives at the small family outstation of Milmilngkan close to a sacred billabong in which the revered Ngalyod, or rainbow serpent, lives. This site is the subject of much of his painting. He drives in to visit his community art centre, Maningrida in central Arnhem Land, often. The sacred places in the landscape of his open air studio are reflected in the titles of his works which mostly depict sacred (mardayin) matters that are concerned with events that link these places with creation and which are sung in the continuing ceremonies of the area. Heir to a long tradition of painting on bark, Mawurndjul has been actively working in the top echelon of artists based at Maningrida for over two decades.

When I visited in 1983 he was based at Maningrida and in the process of completing a number of quite large and detailed paintings with James Iyuna, mostly depicting Spirit Creatures and Rainbow serpents in tightly composed mazes of rarrked patterning. The paintings of this period were plentiful but even then highly regarded and in the higher price bracket for Maningrida paintings. The heads and faces in these early works made them distinctive due to their thickly applied white pigment which contrasted with the fine dark cross hatching of the bodies. Mawurndjul was emulating and learning from many of the very well known Kuninjku painters of the previous decade – a time when this art form had much more clearly articulated links to the practice of painting on cave and rock surfaces. Collectors sought animal paintings or spirit figures with a high degree of technical artistry in placement, form, movement and body paint. It is also true to say that art collectors at this time also valued “body painting” allover abstracts that appeared on the market from time to time – but they had not become a standard type of work. Mawurndjul’s serpents and spirits often appeared like an entwined, enmeshed mass of pattern – and these pointed to his move later to simplify and purify his oeuvre into strong beautiful visual statements, meditations. In the intervening years Mawurndjul explored and pioneered a new direction in his art – lifted off from the fulcrum of tradition into visual play and metaphor.

His solo exhibiting career began in 1993 at Gabrielle Pizzi Gallery in Melbourne. In Sydney for a long period he was shown and highly valued by Hogarth Galleries and in the 80s by Aboriginal Arts and Crafts and Gabriella Roy’s gallery, Aboriginal and Pacific Art, but he drew maximum public attention when Maningrida Arts agreed to a move to Annandale Galleries. This brought a whole new set of clients in touch with the art of bark painting as an aesthetic tour de force. Almost immediately Mawurndjul became the most sought after artist in Arnhem Land. The escalation in value of his paintings now began to give him increased time to make each painting sing. His work is now truly abstract yet at the same time he employs a set of historical motifs, methods and materials that resonate with power and land-based meanings.

In the past few months Mawurndjul’s story has been written up in numerous newspapers with sensational accolades – a major exhibition in Switzerland, and signature commissions for the new Museum on the banks of the Seine in Paris; he was even deemed a “modern master” in The Sydney Morning Herald. The acclaim is justly deserved yet it is actually only six or seven years ago that Gabrielle Pizzi had to report to him the indignity of the refusal she received from the organisers of the Cologne Art Fair to exhibit his paintings as they were deemed to be folk art rather than artworks suitable for a major contemporary art context. Much has changed and now Mawurndjul is a pathfinder for the many other artists who favour the medium of bark and earth pigments in their attempts to be recognised in the world of contemporary art.

In September 2005 Mawurndjul was honoured with a retrospective at the Museum Tinguely in Basel, Switzerland. The occasion drew a phalanx of respected critics, intellectuals and academics to the forums. The discussion topics give a good indication of the range of issues that seem to attach to the question of indigenous art and artists, particularly in Europe where theories proliferate despite, or perhaps because of, the evidence before their eyes. The curator chose a representative set of works showing Mawurndjul’s changing corpus of art over his painting life. To some contemporary collectors this may have skewed the response. The word that is now deemed offensive – ethnographic, was muttered. Collectors of outstanding contemporary art may have felt the academic interest focused rather too much on context rather than letting the works speak, especially the breakthrough rrark abstracts of the past six years which indeed have been responsible for the escalation in the attention being placed on Mawurndjul.

For this writer, with a foot in both camps, Art and Context, it seems only to add to the visual interest if the intention, background and meaning are also known. This at last seems to be the trend in art commentary too. (Bernard Luthi, to whom we owe thanks for the splendid Aratjara exhibition and through whose influence and advocacy Aboriginal art continues to gain attention in Europe, emphasises that Australia is not Europe and while much has changed in Australia in regard to the veracity of the claim of indigenous artists to contemporary acceptance, Europe remains stuck in past modes of thought.) Contemporary art history and theory professor Kitty Zijlmans of the University of Leiden in Holland posed that the idea forward might be to “extend art history to include the intercultural”. The content of Aboriginal bark paintings is so far mostly esoteric, a further fact that places the work in the realm of the so called “Other” in art discourses. Jean-Hubert Martin, curator of the landmark exhibition Magiciens de la Terre in Paris in 1989, put it succinctly when he claimed that the old pattern of thinking in western art discourse was to “leave mysticism and nature to ‘others’ while claiming politics and a critical conscience for ourselves”.

Mawurndjul’s recent paintings engage with all of these criteria: nature, mysticism, politics and critical conscience. They are both about and part of nature in their physical forms of tree bark; the surface designs also give visual expression to belief systems that explain natural phenomena. The aesthetic leaps Mawurndjul has made have been both intuitive and deliberate. He states himself that he intentionally “leads the way for others to follow” and by this refers to abstracting sacred vibrating patterning and excluding visually apparent animal forms, leaving the meaning within the rrark and the divisions of the surface zones in the design. But his reference to “leading” may also be more directly political.

The curators of the Australian contributions to the new Museum being built in Paris, the Musee du Quay Branly, Hetti Perkins and Brenda Croft, have happily remarked that the impact of the special public artworks incorporated into the fabric of the new building by Aboriginal artists dominate so much that it is a sort of colonisation in reverse. Mawurndjul is one of eight indigenous Australians whose works are featured in this museum, the dream of French President Jacques Chirac to create a museum of “contemplation, discovery and research” dedicated to non-Western art from Oceania, Africa, Asia and the Americas.

Mawurndjul will paint a massive pillar himself (indeed has done so already) and his painting will grace the ceiling over the bookshop.

Mawurndjul has opened a new genre, or movement, which is now being followed, amplified and referred to by the other Kuninjku artists in this small community. He has in a sense created a regional art movement of international repute which is also bringing economic results as the market benefits of international fame begin to be felt in this remote region of Australia.

A retrospective of John Mawurndjul's work is showing at Musée Jean Tinguely, Basel, Switzerland until 29 January 2006.

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