Enthusiastic spirit: John Mawurndjul at Tarrawarra

One of the works on display at Earth and Sky:John Mawurndjul’s Mardayin ceremony 2000 (detail). Natural pigments on eucalyptus bark, 170 x 78 cm. Don Mitchell Bequest Fund 2000. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. © John Mawurndjul. Tarrawarra Museum of Art

This is the catalogue essay by Luke Taylor to Earth and Sky: John Mawurndjul and Gulumbu Yunupingu, currently on display at Tarrawarra Museum of Art.

We paint the public aspects of the Mardayin ceremony, but there are also ‘inside’ things. The dangarrk lights [phosphorescent water plant] give off blue light at night in the water at Mardayin sites. At Kakodbebuldi. The dangarrk lights glow under the water. We can see it at night. …This is Mardayin - the glowing of the lights is the spirit essence of the Mardayin. The lights are calling out. I went and saw these Mardayin lights glowing at night. I put the experience in my head and went and collected bark, scraped it down, painted the background until the surface was finished and then painted the same thing I had seen in cross-hatched form. (John Mawurndjul, 2004.)

Anyone who has met artist John Mawurndjul is struck by the energy he projects. His barks take viewers beyond the person to the glow of his Ancestral country. There is a beneficence in this exposure. Mawurndjul is sharing the power of his Djang, the beings that made his world and who persist at important sites in his country.

John Mawurndjul’s early life

The artist is a conduit to a radiating force and he expects that it impacts us – convincing us of the primacy of the Ancestral realm. Mawurndjul’s enthusiasms are born out of his country down to his very soul.

Mawurndjul was born in the freshwater country of western Arnhem Land in 1952. His social identity is marked for life by the fact that he gains his kunmalng or animating soul from his Kurulk clan lands.

He ranged across the lands of many other clans in his youth, was initiated to their sacred significance, and was taught how to paint the appropriate creation stories by his elder brother, Jimmy Njiminjuma, and uncle and ritual manager, Peter Marralwanga.

Indeed it is a landscape already inscribed with paintings. More than a thousand generations of artists have toiled on the rock walls in western Arnhem Land – one of the greatest world contributions to artistic practice.

In 1963 Mawurndjul was encouraged to live in the new settlement of Maningrida on the coast to the north of his country however, by 1973, he was back in his homeland at Mumeka, which was established by his father as one of the first outstations for the Kuninjku language group.

In 1992-93, partly as a result of the income earned from the sale of his art, he was able to establish his own new outstation at Milmilngkan adjacent to a sacred waterhole on his own clan lands. Mawurndjul is now a senior ritual manager and leader in the development of Kuninjku art.

Young artists come to him to receive tuition and guidance in the appropriate representation of important sites.

Much has been written on Mawurndjul’s development as an artist. He has expounded at length about this art history himself and reveals strong understanding of his debt to other Kuninjku artists, including rock artists, as well as the changes he has engineered through his personal innovation.

Earth and Sky at Tarrawarra

Earth and Sky particularly focuses upon the last decade and a half of his work – a time when he stood head and shoulders above those other artists around him. The theme he was developing relates to the Mardayin ceremony and the body designs of multi-coloured cross-hatching that are considered powerful in the context of that ceremony.

The designs can be read in multiple ways. They were first created by the original Djang, the bodies of these beings glistened with the iridescence of these designs. When Djang sunk into the ground to create important waterholes the Mardayin power became fused with the earth and was covered over by its waters.

The ceremony draws this power out into the world. Senior ritual leaders communicate this power to initiates by virtue of delineating the designs on their body. The body paintings identify initiates with their Djang and their country.

At one level the designs can be read as Ancestral landscape, at another level, as showing the features of the body of the Ancestor itself, and still further as revealing parts of the inside of the initiate’s body.

In a visceral way, the use of the design brings the different layers of interpretation together to highlight the spiritual continuities between the different realms.

This was the first secret ceremony that Mawurndjul was initiated into. The themes of Ancestral power flowing through landscape and through generations of humans come to a dramatic point for the initiate who embodies a contemporary expression of Ancestral creativity.

Specifically their own sacred soul kunmalng is animated by the kunngudj or Ancestral power of the Djang. The dazzling designs, passed down through the generations, are touchstones of this power. The very ochres are considered part of the bodily excretion of the Ancestors, a metonym of their presence.

Mawurndjul has explicitly stated that the designs he has painted for sale are not exactly the same as ceremonial paintings. Rather, he takes his inspiration from them. Each work develops a unique expression of radiating power. Mawurndjul was able to produce zig-zag mazes of ultra thin cross-hatching across barks that were taller than a person.

At close focus the works buzz with the moire effects of the overlapping sets of parallel lines. Standing back, there is dynamism across the bark in the changing directionality of the designs as well as the abrupt disjunctures that create contrast.

Paint jumping out at you

John Mawurndjul, Mardayin ceremony 2000. Natural pigments on eucalyptus bark. 170 x 78 cm. Don Mitchell Bequest Fund 2000, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. © John Mawurndjul. Tarrawarra Museum of Art

Kuninjku have a term kabimbebme to describe the effect of “paint jumping out at you”. Apart from this dynamic use of contrast, Kuninjku also speak of issues such as rhythm, balance and symmetry as well as the qualities of fine linework that make for effective cross-hatching.

Although he departs from using the standardised grids of actual body designs, Mawurndjul is exploring the aesthetic potential of components of Kuninjku painting that have a deep history of use in other ways, in other contexts.

Mardayin ceremony (2000) is an excellent example of such exploration. The composition of the work comprises a rectangular grid complete with concealed triangles at the top in the manner of the original body painting for the Kakodbebuldi region.

However the primary focus of the work is not this framework so much as the dynamism of the cross-hatching. Brilliant white banding helps the yellow and red banding jump forward and fine white and black dotting on the grid makes a contrast with the cross-hatching. The cross-hatching varies from striking chevron patterns to flowing parallel waves.

In some x-ray paintings, chevrons are used to indicate slabs of flesh, indeed the flesh of barramundi and muscles of some reptiles and other animals are striated in a similar way. However, in Mardayin designs, such features are often interpreted as the transformed features of the Djang that created sacred waterholes and then became rocks inside or around the waterhole. In developing the Mardayin theme Mawurdjul paints many of these important waterholes and the focus of the work is the enduring Ancestral energy flowing out of them. The flows and movement in Mardayin ceremony (2000) give form to this highly abstract conceptualisation.

John Mawurndjul, Billabong at Milmilngkan 2002. natural ochres on bark. 186 x 78.5 cm. Santos Fund for Aboriginal Art 2003. Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. © John Mawurndjul. Tarrawarra Museum of Art

In other works such as those representing his home at Milmilngkan, the waterholes are explicitly depicted as circular motifs and the grids can be interpreted as water courses or even underground tunnels that link the different waters.

Kuninjku say that Ngalyod the Rainbow Serpent lives with the Djang inside the earth at these places and tunnels between different locations in order to protect them all. Mawurndjul built his own family outstation at Milmilngkan in recognition of the importance of this place to the Djang and Rainbow Serpent that lives there.

A comparison of the earlier work Billabong at Milmilngkan (2002) with a later work Milmilngkan (2006) reveals some of the changes Mawurndjul introduced in developing his Mardayin theme.

The intricate cross-hatching and dotting of the earlier work gives way to the use of undotted black grids. In the later works there is less complexity in the banding of the cross-hatching and the quiet wave forms and saturated warmth of the red and yellow ochres comes to the fore.

Important features at the site are sometimes represented as a slash of brilliant white that is not cross-hatched. Mawurndjul is thus experimenting with a variety of techniques to create surprise and energy even while he returns repeatedly to paint the same important site.

Sacred earth and waters

John Mawurndjul, Milmilngkan (2006). Natural earth pigments on bark. 160 x 70 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Annadale Galleries, Sydney. © John Mawurndjul. Tarrawarra Museum of Art

Taken together Mawurndjul’s work reveals his sense of country as sacred earth and waters: the skin of the visible landscape effectively hides the complexity of multiple different Djang and Ngalyod who exist inside. Certain sites are like portals between the Ancestral realm and that of contemporary people. Mawurndjul’s bark paintings reiterate the continuing interactions between these realms.

Mawurndjul’s belief is not fixed in anachronistic time. This poisonous characterisation has infected dealings with Aboriginal people for centuries and plays out through current policies, as represented by the Northern Territory National Emergency Response, designed to enforce mainstream cultural and social norms.

In this context Aboriginal beliefs and the desire to practice culture on country are undermined rather than cherished as an important and distinct feature of the Australian nation. One Northern Territory Government policy, designed to support the broader Federal Government framework, involves redirection of monies that would have supported new outstation communities into development funding for the towns.

This represents a march toward dispossession even for people who now own their traditional lands under Australian law. Such policies roll over the spiritual concerns that inspire the sublime paintings in this exhibition.

Rather, Mawurndjul is eloquent in expressing the relevance of his understanding of country to contemporary life and contemporary art. The powers of his hand are intended to convince us of the powers of Djang. He connects with country body and soul. The message has been heard at the highest levels across the world.

That Mawurndjul can engage with a world audience in his own language and through works painted in ochres on bark means that, at least among some people who matter, there is an acceptance of multiple forms of spiritual belief and, necessarily, of multiple trajectories in world arts.

The energy of spirit takes many forms in many locales although it requires that we open our hearts and minds to enjoy the realisation.


Earth and Sky: John Mawurndjul and Gulumbu Yunupingu is on display at Tarrawarra Museum of Art until June 8. Details here.

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