Exhibition News

John Mawurndjul at Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, December 2007 - Review

story illustration
Published Sunday, December 9, 2007

Mawurndjul's work is known for being visually complex, multilayered and well crafted. But, in all fairness it is quite feasible to walk into this exhibition and be simply blown away by the visual energy of his latest work.

The remarkable career and life of John Mawurndjul has been amplified over the last decade with the steadily growing body of literature following from his prolific creative outpourings. He was selected as the winner of the 2003 Clemenger Contemporary Art Award and more recently in 2006 was honoured with a big commission to decorate a portion of the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris. Over his career he has so far won three major awards in the prestigious Telstra Art Awards at the Museum and Gallery of the Northern Territory and featured in numerous important local and international exhibitions.

Mawurndjul continues to push the boundaries of rarrk on bark. His work has moved to brighter, cleaner, shinnier and more abstract – the visual balance of his work is more reliant on a contemporary visual idiom rather traditional ethnographic symbols. While the surface employs a more global view Mawurndjul continues to remind us of his Aboriginality employing bark painted with traditional ochres and colours. There is less to confuse an international market that this is anything art.

But, there is a story behind the evolution of Mawurndjul's work - a story that extends thirty years and beyond to the settling of Maningrida and the commercialisation of the indigenous peoples' artefacts.


The township of Maningrida sits on the red baked shores of the Liverpool River which feeds the nearby Arafura sea. It is the heart of Kunibidji people's country. Maningrida, the noun derrives from the (Kunibidji) word Manayingkairra and is translated as meaning 'the place where the Dreaming changed shape'. (Ref. essay by Judith Ryan, p.17 of "In the Heart of Arnhem Land", Musee de L'Hotel-Dieu, 2001).

Maningrida Art and Culture now has over 500 practising artists - it is a thriving art centre which emerged from the early craft centre established in the mid 1960's by a Methodist minister. Maningrida was first established in 1949 as a trading post where supplies were traded for locally produced arts and crafts.

John Mawurndjul doesn't live at Maningrida, but prefers the relative quiet and tranquility of Milmilngkan (still in Arnhem land) on his clan's lands.

He continues to work within the Maningrida artistic community and to play an important role mentoring younger artists. His immediate family are artists: his wife Kay Lindjuwanga, and his eldest daughter, Anna Wurrkidj are both established artists; his brother and mentor, the late Jimmy Njiminjuma was a master artist and now two of his younger daughters and a nephew are emerging as artists of some promise.

Bark Paintings

The earliest commercial bark paintings were commissioned by Spencer Baldwin in 1912 when he commissioned artists from Arnhem land to paint images from rock walls and bark shelters onto bark sheets that could exchanged for supplies. With the consolidation of art centres throughout northern Australia bark paintings became an acceptable method of making indigenous art from this area collectible.


The key figures in the evolution of rarrk are described by Judith Ryan (p.23 of "In the Heart of Arnhem Land", Musee de L'Hotel-Dieu, 2001) as follows:

"Mawurndjul received instruction from his father Anchor Kalunba (1920-96) and elder brother Jimmy Njiminjuma, who had also been taught by Maralwanga at Marrkolidjban. The work..particularly the cross-hatching style, follows from that of senior master Marralwanga and of Yirawala before him, but Mawurndjul has progressively moved towards a form of minimalist abstraction in both painting and much more recently in sculpture, in which the subtle modulations of rarrk envelop, virtually obscure and even transcend the animate form. " (Essay by Judith Ryan, p.23 of "In the Heart of Arnhem Land", Musee de L'Hotel-Dieu, 2001).

The rarrk pattern originated with the designs painted on ceremonial participants’ sacred body designs used in the Maradayin ceremony. The rarrk patterning and designs could be used to infill shapes in the bark paintings providing it didn’t display the sacred designs and that the artist was entitled to paint it.

 John Mawurndjul - image  John Mawurndjul - image

John Mawurndjul then describes the application of rarrk in the following passage:

"They took the rarrk from the Maradayin ceremony…they all do the same pattern, white background, red hatching, internal lines of division and then red, white, black and yellow stripes. The duwa moiety rarrk is generally finer annd the yirriddjdja moiety tends to be wider. These are not hard and fast rules though. We do a different kind of rarrk, we duwa people to the yirriidjdja people. I can help paint the chest of men in the appropriate style for their moiety." (Interview with John Mawurndjul "In the Heart of Arnhem Land", Musee de L'Hotel-Dieu, 2001p.55).

This Exhibition

The works selected for this exhibition cover the past 17 years or so - whilst most of the work is current there are a few pieces from 1990's. Mawurndjul's compositions have progressed from the primarily earthy brown tones to these brighter, lighter airier compositions. The compositions of the late nineties were an astonishing array of rarrk panels where he pushed the rarrk out to all four corners. This was a major development in aligning his commercial work with his growing sophistication. While the incredible work from earlier this decade will always be appreciated by collectors, the growing commercial trend for all indigenous art is to be brighter and more abstract. In effect, Mawurndjul has been able to control the light and atmosphere of his works by reducing the complexity of the compositions, abstracting the forms and lightening the palette.

The works in this exhibition are also glossier which is attributable to the artist using a denser mix of pvc as a binder. The total visual effect of these large bark paintings, full of light and shimmering tones is very impressive.

 John Mawurndjul - image  John Mawurndjul - image

In the colour catalogue accompanying this exhibition Mawurndjul is quoted as saying "They [some Aboriginal people and some Balandas (non Aboriginals)] reckon I paint Maradayin at the moment, but, in fact, I am only painting the land. I paint the power of that land. They are big places, sometimes dangerous and have a lot of power. I paint Milmilngkan, Kakodbebuldi, Mukkamukka, Dilebang, Mumeka, Kurrurldul, Mirelk and Kudjarnngal." (Samantha Pizzi ed. "John Mawurndjul" ex.cat. @ Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, Melbourne, 2007, p.6). One could be forgiven for thinking that he is painting the surface of the water rather than the land. These works are bright and light and resonate the artist's vibrant confident control of all the elements at his disposal.

Subtle palette shifts that would otherwise be hidden in his earlier works now shift and sparkle. Borders between rarrk facets that were once white bands are now thin black lines that run the length of the composition over a rarrk field. White circles represent waterholes while the black lines represent channels carrying water to water springs.

The degree of difficulty of painting on the uneven surface and applying the shimmering effects of rarrk cannot be understated and his technical achievements testify Mawurndjul's growing mastery over medium and composition. Looking at the works by younger artists from Maningrida, it is little wonder that his style of painting has become so influential amongst the younger artists at Maningrida.

By Martin Shub, Dec. 2007

© Discovery Media 2000 - 2011. To syndicate our stories call 61+(0)412 477 556.

Related Stories