John Mawurndjul
Mapping Djang [2006]

'I always think of new ways to paint, always look for something different. My work is changing.' From interview with Apolline Kohen 2003

John Mawurndjul is, in western parlance, quite simply a star. A glance at his bio in the back of his catalogue confirms his status. He was the first Aboriginal artist to win the coveted Clemenger prize for contemporary art at the National Gallery of Victoria, the first Australian artist - period - to have a major retrospective in an important overseas museum in nearly thirty years and was on the cover of Time magazine in April this year. He did not accomplish all this by standing still and has always been an innovator. A look back through his oeuvre over the last twenty years shows extraordinary change. For those who know the work well, all periods may be recognised either from a stylistic viewpoint or his signature 'rarrk' brushstroke that is as readily identifiable as handwriting to the aficionado. However, it is the last decade in particular that has borne witness to amazing growth in his painting.

The new works for this exhibition stand apart from other shows in that the container from which the artist is creating is more tightly focussed. The subject matter is entirely Mardayin, a ceremony that we know almost nothing about. We do know that Johnny began to paint as a result of body painting for Mardayin ceremony. He has stripped the
work down to bare essentials and this comparatively minimalist approach gives the exhibition a flow and continuity displaying a confidence of style and sureness of hand. An exhibition by American Robert Ryman or Melbourne's Robert Hunter might come to mind. By limiting the quantity of information he has somehow managed to increase the quality of what emanates from the paintings. There is a sense of grace about these works, a spiritual element that captures the sacred stories and the spirituality coming from the land.

From a technical standpoint, Mawurndjul has added more fixative pvc binder to his work, which give the paintings a bit more shine. The palette of stronger red and yellow ochres and the saturated quality of some of the thicker lines of rarrk give some an almost orange glow. The work gains force by the waves of rarrk that run across the un-dotted grid. Gone is the patchwork of the pre 2003 Mardayin paintings. Gone also are the dots placed in the dividing lines. Indeed he has imposed an almost minimalist grid in black line as the basis of the image. Gone too, is the tumultuous interlocking of multi directional rarrk. The lines of rarrk are horizontal and underscored by light blacks and whites. They move gently across the surface in a manner which recalls musical notation for me. Art is like music here in that a great piece of music, whether classical or pop, improves with listening. The sometimes cacophonic interlocking, almost cubist grids of earlier work have now moved on to a calming, spiritual experience, and remind me of the words of Matisse that, '?a good painting is like settling into a favourite arm chair'. The change has been about five years in gestation and now we are seeing the fruits of the previous work. Perhaps we are also witnessing a turning point where new directions will become apparent. Time will tell.

'I am the person who instigated this style and others are copying it: they follow what I am doing. I am leading this movement?I am going first' - 2001 from an interview with Apolline Kohen

John Mawurndjul has indeed had an enormous influence on the art in the Maningrida area of Arnhemland. He is the undisputed leader of what is becoming known as the 'Rarrk style' and includes other artists such as his wife Kay Lindjuwanga, Ivan Namirrki, Timothy Wulanjbirr, Samuel Namundja, James Iyuna, his wife Melba, Crusoe Kurddal, Owen Yalandja and others. These artists were the core of the landmark 'Crossing Country' exhibition at the Art Gallery NSW in 2004 and will be featured again in what promises to be an extraordinary exhibition overseas in 2007 through Josh Lilley Fine Art, London, in association with Annandale Galleries and Maningrida Arts & Culture.

Artists are historically measured by their influence and although it is easier to recognise this among his peers, it is my belief that Mawurndjul's influence extends much further. Non - Aboriginal artists watch his work carefully and inevitably absorb the experience into their own work. His recent column erected at the Quai Branley Museum in Paris, and the ceiling design, will reach an ever-widening audience and it will be interesting to see how other artists respond to the work. The column, at over five metres in height and nearly a metre thick is the largest area of crosshatching or rarrk ever done to my knowledge and was completed by Mawurndjul on site in three weeks ? an extraordinary display of focus and perseverance.

Mawurndjul is an innovator not only in terms of his own culture but also to visual art in general in Australia and around the world. The materials, such as bark, may be traditional but his is a living, breathing contemporary art. It may come from a sacred/secret source and this inevitably leads to a powerful presence. As another writer
put it; 'with each brushstroke, the artists are not only adding to their history, they are documenting the present and foretelling the future. They have a spiritual faith in not only their cultural foundations but faith in the eventual validation of the changes made
by the current generation ? well on its way ? by a wider audience'.

Indeed, I believe there is a renaissance happening right now in Arnhemland led by John Mawurndjul in the Maningrida area and - in a different style ? Djambawa Marawili in the Northeast. I believe this period to be of great importance to Aboriginal art. When the Papunya movement started in the early 70's we lacked the prescience and the knowledge to understand its significance. Indeed, our own museums only began to acquire the work in the mid-eighties. In the case of the great bark painting movements afoot today, museums, the public and the market are better prepared. It is a time of seismic change in Maningrida by artists who, led by Mawurndjul, are not afraid to experiment. The art is full of surprises, both raw in its energy and polished by its traditions. We are witnessing the culmination of long years of work and the birth of something new and lasting that is reaching out to the world.

What are some of the hallmarks of great art? Kandinsky had three criteria that I often think of as a dealer when trying to ascertain quality in contemporary art: the first thing to look for is the strength of the creative urge in the art and the artist - the font if you will, from which the work springs. This urge is presumably stronger in artists who produce great art than in the rest of us and may border on obsession. Secondly, the work must be part of its time, reflecting and contributing to the culture from where it comes.

Thirdly, and this is the tricky one when assessing new art, the contribution the art will make to the overall human creative continuum, an assessment that Kandinsky suggests should be allowed a period of fifty years. Needless to say, I don't have the luxury of fifty years of hindsight when looking at contemporary art or choosing an artist for my gallery. However, I can readily see if the first element, the creative obsession is present, and the second element of cultural contribution may always be judged to some degree providing one is aware of the pitfalls of short lived fashion. When thinking of the third element, the possibility of overall contribution to the creative continuum, I may only speculate. When pondering this possibility it is easier to see what will NOT stand this test of time as work that is merely clever, work that is mostly about art world fashion, has a hard time disguising its limitations. I believe also that art that is not connected in any way to nature and its processes but only to perceived current culture will not last long as we are all a part of nature in the end. What I can see is if there is any possibility that the work may contain an element of the third criteria. When I look at the continually evolving nature of the art of John Mawurndjul and the vast influence he is having not only on his peers but on artists well outside his specific culture, I feel as sure as I can reasonably be that I am witnessing great art in the making.

I would like to thank John Mawurndjul and his wife, the artist Kay Lindjuwanga, for their visit to Sydney as well as Apolline Kohen, arts advisor and Ian Munroe, CEO of MAC Corporation in Maningrida for their intellectual stimulation, vision for the future dissemination of this art both in Australia and abroad, their soothing sense of humour in the face of difficult challenges and their ongoing support of Annandale Galleries.

- Bill Gregory Sydney September 2006


John Mawurndjul
Mapping Djang [2006]
An exhibition of bark paintings and ceremonial poles.

John Mawurndjul is, in western parlance, quite simply a star. A glance at his bio in the back of his catalogue confirms his status. He was the first Aboriginal artist to win the coveted Clemenger prize for contemporary art at the National Gallery of Victoria, the first Australian artist - period - to have a major retrospective in an important overseas museum in nearly thirty years and was on the cover of Time magazine in April this year.
7 Nov - 9 Dec 2006

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Please note, works in previous exhibitions may no longer be available, please visit our stockroom for available works