John Mawurndjul’s contribution to the arts goes well beyond his own work. He inspires and mentors other artists and plays an influential role within Maningrida Arts and Culture (MAC), the art centre that represents his work.
When I first met Mawurndjul in 1998, he was a star in the making, on a trajectory that made him a few years later an artist of international reputation, travelling to Europe on a regular basis to present his striking bark paintings and lorrkons (hollow logs). The impact of his success on other artists from the Maningrida region is evident, and at MAC not one day goes by without an artist enquiring about Mawurndjul and his work. He has introduced new standards of quality and professionalism to art in the region and inspired artists to find their own individual styles. Mawurndjul has also been instrumental in raising the profile of other artists at a national and international level by exhibiting his work with theirs. There is a strong feeling of community pride in Mawurndjul, who is an ambassador for all artists – and people – from the Maningrida region.
He is a great teacher and mentor within his family. I have seen him instructing others in the many and various skills needed for art: selecting trees suitable for barks or lorrkons, curing and preparing barks for painting, gathering and mixing ochres, making brushes, and the finer points of crosshatching. In the late 1990s he taught his wife, Kay Lindjuwanga, and eldest daughter, Anna Wurrkidj, to paint. He was one of the first Kuninjku artists to support the idea of women making art independently, and was instrumental in the quiet revolution that led more conservative Kuninjku men to accept Kuninjku women as painters in their own right. He is now closely monitoring the career of his niece Irenie Naglinba, daughter of his late brother Jimmy Njiminjuma, and teaching another two of his daughters: Semeria Wurrkidj and Josephine Wurrkidj. He is generous and unselfish in his promotion and support of MAC and its projects, including the funding and building of a new arts centre. Through his knowledge and leadership a new generation of artists is at work, ensuring the future of the Maningrida art movement.
Mawurndjul still has the desire and energy to remain what he calls ‘the number one artist’ of MAC. There is no doubt that he will keep finding new ways to give expression to his subjects and thus continue to lead and inspire this vibrant contemporary art movement for a long time to come.
John Mawurndjul grew up in country that is alive with the art of previous generations and was surrounded by relatives who were expert painters. Changes to the Western Arnhem Land lifestyle, including the support of Maningrida Arts and Culture, have enabled Mawurndjul to perform on a world stage like no other Kuninjku artist before him.
Mawurndjul is a member of the Kurulk clan of Kuninjku speaking people. There are about ten identified Kuninjku clans whose lands form a mosaic between the vast floodplains of the Liverpool and Tomkinson rivers in the north, to the freshwater escarpment country of the upper reaches of the Liverpool, Mann, and Tomkinson rivers. Mawurndjul was born in the bush in 1952 as his family moved between favourite camping sites. Some of these places are rock shelters, painted by hundreds of generations of Mawurndjul’s ancestors.
Maningrida was established at the mouth of the Liverpool River as a permanent settlement in 1957 and, as the closest town to their country, is now a focus in the lives of Kuninjku. Mawurndjul went to live there as a young man in 1963. His early interest in painting was encouraged by his father, who taught him the Kuninjku techniques of rarrk designs for the Mardayin ceremony around 1968. In 1973 an insightful change in government policy saw Mawurndjul and his family return to their lands at Mumeka on the Mann River. At Mumeka outstation he was encouraged to paint on bark for the market, and his elder brother Jimmy Njiminjuma was particularly influential in training him in the iconography of representing ancestral subjects. Mawurndjul married Kay Lindjuwanga at this time and his father-in-law, Peter Marralwanga, also became influential in his ceremonial and artistic tuition.
Mawurndjul travelled to the National Gallery of Australia for the first time in 1983 and to galleries in other cities, and became familiar with the scale of works on display. As a result, he increased the size of his paintings and experimented with more complex figure compositions. The first key phase was his labyrinthine paintings of the Rainbow Serpent Ngalyod. For Kuninjku, important features of their lands were created through the transformational powers of Ngalyod, who dwells in life-giving waters and brings the monsoon rains that transform the landscape in the wet season. Mawurndjul captures the vast energies of this being in tumultuous overlapping figures, and is a master at working the rarrk patterns to echo the body shapes, to delineate form, to create rhythm, or to create disjunction and points of surprise across the painting.
A later phase of Mawurndjul’s art has seen experimentation with wholly geometric compositions of rarrk, such as Billabong at Milmilngkan 2006, a large picture that hums with patterns of multicoloured banding. Kuninjku may use the term kuk-mak(good body, shape, form) to describe the best works, and the best effects of the paint may be described as kabimbedme (shining paint), the effect of the bright paint jumping out at the viewer. For Mawurndjul, these vibrating fields of ancestral light and energy suggest the power invested in landscape.
At the opening of the Musée du quai Branly in Paris in 2006, in the presence of Kofi Annan, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Secretary-General of the United Nations, the President of the French Republic Jacques Chirac introduced John Mawurndjul to his wife, Madame Bernadette Chirac, as a ‘maestro’. This acknowledgment by the head of state of one of the world’s eminent cultural powerhouses was a critical moment in the engagement of the western world with Aboriginal art from Australia. It occurred beneath Mawurndjul’s installation Mardayin at Milmilngkan 2006, occupying over 100 m2 ceiling space on the ground floor of the museum building on rue de l´Université. This work is one of ten by eight artists, including a monumental lorrkon sculpture by Mawurndjul, that together comprise the Australian Indigenous Art Commission, a project initiated by architect Jean Nouvel and facilitated by the Australia Council for the Arts at the invitation of the French Government.
Mawurndjul’s commitment to Kuninjku culture and his unwavering pursuit of excellence in its contemporary expression was clearly demonstrated during the process of realising his installations. The execution in-situ of his towering five-metre-tall lorrkon, Mardayin 2005, required incredible physical stamina and powers of concentration. The Commission is intended to be viewed from the street twenty-four hours a day, and in so doing visitors can now see Mawurndjul’s work set against the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower.
Mawurndjul grew up in the (literally) painted landscape of Western Arnhem Land, the latest in a lineage of visionary artists. More than any other he has successfully brokered acceptance and respect for bark painting as a contemporary medium. The art of this small and disproportionately gifted group was the inspiration for the major exhibition Crossing country: the alchemy of Western Arnhem Land art, presented at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2004 in partnership with Maningrida Arts and Culture. From playing a starring role in this event, Mawurndjul subsequently exhibited in Rarrk, a retrospective hosted by the Musée Jean Tinguely in Basel, Switzerland.
A self-professed member of the ‘new generation’, Mawurndjul continually stresses the inventiveness of his work and takes great satisfaction in his skill in preserving the ‘inside’ meaning of his Mardayin paintings, yet allowing its powerful essence to infuse the works with a sparkling brilliance.
Mawurndjul’s home at Milmilngkan on the Tomkinson River is an infinite source of inspiration, while his art is a key element in the renewal of Kuninjku culture. His pulsating surfaces contain multitudes: waterholes, Mardayin lights, body designs, all the hallmarks of the Kuninjku cultural realm embedded within a meticulously rendered field of rarrk that infers the corporeality of the omnipresent Ancestral Being, Ngalyod. Equipped with a mind ‘full of ideas’ and armed with skinned tree bark, reed brushes and locally mined ochres, Mawurndjul is at the avant-garde of asserting Kuninjku and more generally Indigenous culture’s status as a powerful force in international contemporary art.
My first clear recollection of John Mawurndjul is from 1992, when I was organising the construction of outstation housing for the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation (BAC). John was in line for a new house, and the two of us travelled to the place where it was to be built. This was Milmilngkan, later to become ground zero for a series of extraordinarily powerful paintings, and central to John’s connection with his Kurulk estate. At the nearby creek a slab of rock caught my eye. In passing, on some former visit, John had painted a simple but beautiful image of a long-necked turtle, using a finger dipped in red ochre. It had remained there, an ephemeral work of art, testimony of his irresistable urge to paint. Fifteen years later there
is no sign of it.
John was already a star of Maningrida Arts and Culture, but few realised how successful and famous he was later to become. His work was produced in basic conditions, generally sitting cross-legged on the ground under a bough shelter. With the exception of PVA glue, he sourced all of his materials from the bush. He now spends most of his time at Milmilngkan, and hunting remains part of John’s daily routine. He is an exceptional bushman, and is noticeably happier when he is on his country. John is a small wiry man, fit and in good health. His commercial success means that he is rarely without a vehicle, the white troop carrier being the truck of choice. He is generally in the company of his wife, Kay Lindjuwanga, and a varying number of his children. He has a keen, if unconventional, sense of humour, and a distinctive laugh.
John’s older brother, the late Jimmy Njiminjuma taught him to paint. John’s composure and air of command at Jimmy’s funeral was a powerful reminder of his traditional authority. He was magnificently decorated from head to toe in white ochre, wearing a red loincloth, and clutching a shovel-nose spear. His appearance was imposing, and his management of the occasion was both dignified and inspiring. His ceremonial authority allows him to assert his right to paint the powerful and secret Mardayin images which have dominated his production recently.
Milmilngkan is one of thirty-two outstation communities established by the BAC, which provides services such as the repair and maintenance of buildings; the installation of solar power for lights and refrigeration; the construction of bores and water reticulation systems; a mobile shop; road maintenance; and support facilities, such as mechanical repairs, personal finance and banking. BAC also assists the Maningrida clinic to extend services to bush people. Conventional job opportunities are few, but BAC is actively developing opportunities for its members to participate in the economy. John sometimes takes a break from painting to work as a land management ranger for BAC and his bush skills and knowledge are a welcome inspiration to younger rangers. Bawinanga’s art centre, Maningrida Arts and Culture (MAC), provides services to bush artists. MAC purchases, promotes and markets the work of local artists and artisans. John’s career is managed by MAC, and his considerable success is the product of his prodigious talent and the efforts of MAC over many years.
While John enjoys a secure life at Milmilngkan, there are fears that it will not be so for future generations. Shifting government policy on outstations threatens their existence. Governments need to be periodically reminded that the nation has an obligation to accept the right of our Indigenous people to reside on their country. The inspiration for much of the art produced by Kuninjku people comes from the extensive rock art galleries of the sandstone country. John and his countrymen are the descendants of the artists who painted these images, and their connection with the ‘old people’ is tangible and robust. However, this connection relies on occupancy of the country. Strong organisations like BAC, backed by understanding and supportive governments, are a means to ensuring continued occupancy of this distinctive landscape.