World of Dreamings
Traditional and modern art of Australia
An exhibition held at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg | 2 February - 9 April 2000
- Dr Brian Kennedy, Director, National Gallery of Australia
- An introduction to Aboriginal art by Susan Jenkins and Carly Lane
- The Aboriginal Memorial We have survived, by Djon Mundine
- The Aboriginal Memorial 1987-88 A description
- John Mawurndjul The resonating land by Luke Taylor
- All the world The paintings of Nym Bandak by Kim Barber
- 'Who's that bugger who paints like me?' Rover Thomas by Wally Caruana
- The enigma of Emily Kngwarray by Jenny Green
- High art and religious intensity. A brief history of Wik sculpture by Peter Sutton
- Laced flour and tin boxes The art of Fiona Foley by Avril Quaill
- The memory theatre of Tracey Moffat by Gael Newton
John Mawurndjul: The resonating land
John Mawurndjul is a Kuninjku artist who lives at Milmilngkan and Mumeka outstations in his clan lands in Western Arnhem Land. When he was young, Mawurndjul was initiated by the Mardayin ceremony and, for the first time, saw the brightly coloured ochre designs that represent sites in his country, painted on ritual objects and on participants' bodies. Some 30 years later the power of this experience is still driving him to create ever more dramatic works about these themes.
Mawurndjul was born in 1952, five years before the government established the small town of Maningrida as a trading post on the northern banks of the Liverpool River. For most of his life, however, Mawurndjul has preferred to live on the lands of his people, where he can hunt, collect bush foods and paint pictures. The ancestrally-created lands not only sustain life through food, they provide the religious inspiration for his art. Artists of Western Arnhem Land commonly paint on the bark of the stringy-bark tree or on the hard and curved surface of hollow log coffins. Success as an artist in recent years has allowed Mawurndjul more time to concentrate on the development of his painting and he has been able to establish a studio. The support of the local art centre - Maningrida Arts and Culture - in distributing the art has allowed Mawurndjul to establish a high profile in the Australian and international art scene even from this remote location.
Mawurndjul's home at Milmilngkan is adjacent to a deep waterhole created by the ancestral Rainbow Serpent called Ngalyod. Kuninjku people believe that the world began with the birth of all the ancestral beings, in human and animal form, who came out of the body of the Rainbow Serpent. These beings went on their separate journeys and moulded the shape of the world through their creative actions. Where one of these beings spilled their blood, for example, we now find large bodies of red ochre; where the being dived into the earth, now there is a large waterhole. At the end of these creation journeys the Rainbow Serpent swallowed the beings back into the earth.
Kuninjku call the particular sacred sites where these beings entered the earth djang and these places emanate the everlasting power of the original beings. The Rainbow Serpent guards these sites and punishes those who damage them by sending a cyclone to kill them. In this sense the land must be understood as animate, the Rainbow Serpent can be imagined as a force that ties all living things to the earth. Mawurndjul once described the nature of this ancestral inspiration: 'Sometimes that Ngalyod gets inside my head and makes me go mad.'
Kuninjku gain their very being from the sites created by Ngalyod; one manifestation of ancestral power can cause women to conceive. The conception spirits can be understood to be like small fish that swim in the waterholes at sacred sites. A person's spirit ties them, body and soul, to the land. This identification with ancestrally-created lands is also enacted in ceremony.
The earliest painting by Mawurndjul in the exhibition is Rainbow Serpent (with buffalo horns) 1990.Here the artist shows the transformational potential of Ngalyod. To the Kuninjku, this major creator figure takes on many different body shapes. As the androgynous parent of all life, Ngalyod may be shown to look more or less like any of its progeny. Buffalo were first introduced to Western Arnhem Land after 1827 when the British brought them from Indonesia as a meat supply for the short-lived settlement on the Cobourg Peninsula. When the settlement was abandoned the buffalo were left to run wild. Their numbers steadily increased and they became a staple food for Aborigines in the region. In time the buffalo became incorporated in Kuninjku mythology and Mawurndjul says that a buffalo-headed Rainbow Serpent made sites in his clan lands. The power and danger associated with buffalo is particularly apt in relation to other beliefs surrounding Ngalyod, who uses its horns to dig tunnels under the ground between sacred sites.
While Mawurndjul distinguishes the figures quite clearly in Rainbow Serpent (with buffalo horns), in later paintings he weaves his figures into much more complex arrangements. Works such as Rainbow Serpent's Antilopine Kangaroo 1991 depict the tangle of figures associated with ancestral creation. Mawurndjul often represents the moment when the Rainbow Serpent swallows another ancestral figure, in this case the Antilopine Kangaroo, to effect the creation of a site. In essence these paintings show the merging of beings, the kangaroos or buffalo with the serpent, which is a metaphoric expression for these creatures entering the earth at this place. The circles in these pictures are the present-day waterholes that result from these events.
Kuninjku artists maintain an extensive repertoire of figures. In Birrlmu (barramundi) 1998, Mawurndjul has painted a subject of major importance to the outstation hunting and fishing lifestyle. (Barramundi fish can grow quite large and in certain seasons Kuninjku specialise in fishing with lures or spears). The fish is shown in association with a depiction of a waterlily to indicate its presence in a freshwater pond.
At Kurdjarnngal in Mawurndjul's clan lands the Rainbow Serpent killed some young women called Yawkyawk. In Rainbow Serpent at Kurdjarnngal 1991, Mawurndjul shows this event in another characteristic painting of interwoven figures. The Rainbow Serpent is emerging from waterholes, depicted as small circles, with waterlily leaves streaming from its back. The women are encircled by the snake just prior to being swallowed. Ngalkunburriyaymi or Yawkyawk 1991 is an elaboration of a similar idea; the same figures are represented in an even more cryptic fashion, and the focus is upon the more geometric elements of the design that represent features of landscape at this place.
In recent years Mawurndjul has perfected the creative technique of submerging figurative forms into coloured bands of cross-hatched lines. Various language groups in Arnhem Land call this style of painting rarrk. These rarrk designs are the body paintings worn by the (male) initiates in the Mardayin ceremony. The act of painting the initiate with the designs is like mapping their body to their ancestral lands. The designs comprise a geometric framework that is painted on the thighs and chest of the initiates and then filled in with bands of lines that alternate in colour. These lines are very finely painted with a special brush that only has a few very long hairs. On close inspection, the designs appear net-like in form and create an optical play between the different surfaces of the design. This can lead to moiré effects created by the intersection of different layers of hatched lines, and the designs have a certain translucence as one sees through the surface webs of paint to those beneath.
Artists use dots of contrasting colours to enliven the borders that comprise the outline grid for these designs. The effect created by layering the myriad of parallel lines, and combining them with dotted dividing lines, gives the painting dynamism and brilliance. This is an important aesthetic effect that Kuninjku seek in their ceremonial designs, and the application of them in the context of the ceremony is said to transfer ancestral power to the initiate and to release power into the world. As the senior artist Peter Marralwanga once explained:
Dreaming man [his name is secret] made rarrk for djenj [fish] and mankodjbang [wild potato], karrbarda [long yam], ¼ [the list goes on]. Anything has got rarrk. Mankung [wild honey]. If we paint rarrk there will be more djenj and more manme [vegetable food]. We make rarrk before wet season to make sure we have this fruit. We didn't use rarrk before in painting. Milingimbi and Elcho people used it. They painted it on dead bodies. The fish are namarnkol [barramundi], ngaldadmurrng [saratoga], … [the list goes on]. He made all the djenj and manme. We make rarrk like he did. In some dolobbo [bark paintings] it's the same. That man is same like God, he made this world.
The ancestral beings are said to have worn designs just like these on their bodies and to have passed knowledge about how to produce these designs to humans at the close of the creation period. As Mawurndjul explains:
Long ago I've seen how they used to paint on rock, showing the bones and the organs such as the heart. They used to paint the underlying white ochre silhouette but they didn't put cross-hatching ¼ People like Kodjok from Kakodbebuldi long ago. They showed him how to do it. Those who used to paint on the rock and the first to do cross-hatching [on bark] was that old man long ago Mandarrk. He was the first to use rarrk. He showed people like Mick Kubarkku and Njiminjuma at Kurrurldul. Cross-hatching is from a very long time ago. It has been there from the beginning. But we only use it to paint in a non-secret or public context.
In the past 30 years, Kuninjku artists have increasingly used rarrk as a creative technique in bark paintings. Mawurndjul explains that a number of senior artists have taught the younger generation how to do this without revealing the full meaning of sacred designs. As a senior artist himself, Mawurndjul feels free to be highly innovative with this technique. His paintings from 1997 through to the present show the artist revelling in the possibilities of creating large works that rely on a geometric grid and the dynamic effects of swathes of rarrk to achieve their aesthetic effects.
Importantly in paintings such as Crow Dreaming from Kurrurldul 1997, the grid in the background is not a rigid rectangular frame; it has an irregular, hand-drawn quality with a number of idiosyncratic variations as the artist works with the undulations of the bark and lets the painting unfold. This is not a rigid symmetry so much as a more casual striving for dynamic balance across the bark as a whole. Very fine rarrk with surprising changes of colour add further excitement to the work. In these paintings inspired by religious designs we can see the elements that refer to ancestral waterholes scattered throughout. However there is considerable playfulness in such works too. Mardayin at Mukkamukka 1998 reveals flows of energy through the painting as the small boxes of rarrk lean and twist around the central line of waterholes. In Mardayin at Kakodbebuldi 1998 and Mardayin 1999,the outlines appear to refer to the shape of sacred woven baskets, called wongkorr, that are also painted with rarrk and are important artefacts carried by dancers in the Mardayin ceremony. In this case the rarrk on the painting is a visual pun referring both to the weave of the basket and to the designs painted on the weave.
Mardayin at Mumeka 1999 is a stunning reference to the artist's homelands. The framework of this painting is much more regular and conforms strongly to the body painting style. However the cross-hatching creates a dazzling array of patterns that oppose and converge, hum with waves of rhythm, or radiate in starbursts. The painting combines a sense of the human body with an understanding of the powers of the ancestral landscape and the ultimate relatedness of these different layers of experience.
For Mawurndjul the themes and artistic forms of the Mardayin ceremony have become the ground for an elaborated creativity. Mawurndjul is an artist deeply imbued with knowledge and love for his country - through his vibrant paintings the viewer is invited to experience the spiritual resonances of the land.
Garde, M., 'Ngalyod in my head: The art of John Mawurndjul', in John Mawurndjul, John Bulunbulun, exhibition catalogue, Sydney: Annandale Galleries, 1997.
Taylor, L., Seeing the Inside: Bark painting in Western Arnhem Land, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.