Current Issue #488

John Mawurndjul, old and new

John Mawurndjul, old and new

Deeply connected to country and ancient cultural practice, yet utterly contemporary, the work of Arnhem Land master bark painter John Mawurndjul is a beautiful contradiction.

It is in an interview with his longtime friend and translator Murray Garde that Kuninjku artist John Mawurndjul places himself in time.

“The old ways of doing things have changed into the new ways,” he says. “The new generation does things differently. But me, I have two ways. I am the old and the new.”

It is a nexus of the past and present that Mawurndjul operates in. His masterful, unique style of rarrk (traditional cross hatching) hails from the rock and body art of his people’s past, yet the way he has developed this art form and his global popularity (paradoxically greater outside of Australia than within) are deeply contemporary.

Mawurndjul is aware of this, reputed to be calmly confident in the intense beauty and historical significance of his work, even comparing himself to the likes of Picasso. The exhibition, John Mawurndjul: I am the old and the new, does not feel like a survey or retrospective of the artist’s work, but an intimate insight into his life, practice and work.

“This is not a selling show or a promotional show,” says co-acting director of the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) Lisa Slade. “They’re [the artworks] all sold and have homes in public institutions or private collections. To bring them together is an enormous act of faith and commitment – and a costly one at that. But it’s such a culturally enriching one. “If this show was about John Olsen or Ben Quilty, no one would ask why you’re doing a show about them,” Slade continues. “Our people have not spent the time – and I mean my kind of people, art gallery people and historians and art curators – have not spent sufficient time tracing the life’s work of Aboriginal artists… Here is an artist who has this incredible vision, sustained over more than 40 years. As you can see, it has shifted despite the consistency of the materials that he works with.”

Image credit: Jessica Maurer

Like the cross-hatchings of Mawurndjul’s shimmering works, the pieces have myriad layers to explore in visual and spiritual terms as well as in their craft.

They are engrossing, pulling the eye all over the enormous barks that Mawurndjul harvested from Darwin stringy bark (eucalyptus tetradonta). Composed of materials sourced in sacred sites, the pieces are intimately connected to country, and depict figures, locations and ceremonies of Kuninjku culture.

Mawurndjul selected the works for this exhibition, after a research team tracked down hundreds of his pieces from across the planet. He chose to include more than 160 works made over 40 years and decided just how they would be organised for showing.

“We presented him with 700 [works] when we went on one of those trips up north,” says AGSA’s Nici Cumpston, cocurator of the exhibition who travelled to meet with Mawurndjul on many occassions. “He went through each and every one of those and made a comment about whether he wanted to include them in the exhibition and so we went about sourcing them, photographing them and pulling it all together.

“It was a matter of how do we make sense to an audience to be accessible so people can learn from it? [John] said it’s [to be organised] by kunred – by sacred site – and the importance of these locations.”

Image credit: Jessica Maurer

While it is difficult for anyone not deeply involved in Kuninjku culture to understand these pieces and stories on Mawurndjul’s level, he wants outsiders to be exposed to the work and stories and glean some appreciation for them. The exhibition is bi-lingual, with written descriptions and audio in Kuninjku throughout, as well as audio-visual elements demonstrating the incredible craft of Mawurndjul’s work. It is also complemented by an impressive online exhibition at

Image credit: Jessica Maurer

One of the paintings in the exhibition that strikes The Adelaide Review also happened to be a “lightbulb moment” for Cumpston. It is a painting of a thylacine, a Tasmanian tiger, thousands of miles and years from where the beast last roamed, itself a testament to the enduring legacies and stories of Mawurndjul’s people and culture.

“It’s that important story of how the land once was, and then how old that makes one particular painting on that wall,” says Cumpston, referring to both rock art depictions of the thylacine and Mawurndjul’s piece. “It really did just completely change my world view on who we are as Aboriginal people and how very, very long we have been here, and how that’s passed on until today… It says so much more than words can say about that ongoing and deep connection – that deep time connection to place.”

“I want people to listen to the good things that someone from a different culture can teach them,” Mawurndjul tells Garde. “They have ears to hear and they can think about what they see. They can think, ‘Here is an opportunity’.”

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

The author travelled to the Museum of Contemporary Art (Sydney) for a preview of this exhibition courtesy of AGSA.

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