Samuel Namunjdja


Samuel Namunjdja is one of the most exciting artists to come from Maningrida in the Northern territory and is now widely considered by museums and collectors to be the most collectable Kuninjku artist from the area, second only to the great John Mawurndjul in innovation and influence. He is the brother of Mawurndjul?s wife Kay Lindjuwanga and the son of the late Peter Marralwanga who was a huge influence on both Samuel and Mawurndjul.

The town of Maningrida is situated about an hour by small plane in Arnhemland east of Darwin and was founded in the 1940?s. The area is one of great physical beauty situated by the sea with some of the best sunsets in the world. The town itself is somewhat ramshackle and has an unkempt look about it, with many of the houses one-storey concrete affairs, although some are raised up with wooden structures set on pylons. There is a supermarket and a motel that is lately always full up with mostly white Government workers to do with the current Government ?intervention?. The houses in town occupied by Aboriginals, made of concrete, are simply a refuge while in Maningrida and are not part of their ?country? so there is correspondingly little pride taken in them. The people spend most of their time out of doors in any event unless sent inside by strong rain. However, when guided some years ago by longtime resident Murray Garde I realized there was much more to the town that meets the eye. Sitting on the porch of Ian Munro, the CEO of the corporation that administers the town, with a view of the ocean, it was explained to me that every major rock and inlet I could see in front of me had a specific dreamtime story to it. Groups of men sitting around under trees apparently often sit with their backs to the country from where they originate. The days are either hot and dry or hot and wet depending on the season and activity on the part of the Aboriginals is low key and laconic. Near sunset the town comes alive with people coming and going against a chorus of mobs of camp dogs barking and sometimes fighting, vehicles passing and music wafting across the twilight from a myriad of sources. Nightfall brings out an incredible array of stars with the Milky Way so visible it looks like a cloud. One feels fully present.

I had the opportunity to visit Samuel Namunjdja at his house during a recent visit to Maningrida. The house is a couple of doors down from John Mawurndjul?s house in the area of town known as ?side camp? (there is also ?bottom camp? and ?top camp?). The houses are only occupied when family members are in town for business with the arts centre or social obligations and during the wet season when access to the outstations is difficult, so the population varies considerably. Samuel?s outstation and country is about two hours drive from Maningrida and not far again from Mawurndjul?s outstation and the country of Mawurndjul?s older brother, now deceased, Jimmy Njiminjuma. It is at this outstation and country that the inspiration and the stories for the paintings derive. However, many of the works are actually executed in Maningrida either outside or in makeshift studios indoors. The artists sit cross legged and the bark paintings are propped up off the ground by bricks with stone palettes next to them that have indentations to hold water into which the natural ochres are mixed. Tubes of pvc fixative or glue are nearby and added to the mixed pigment.

On this occasion last August I took the short walk over to Samuel?s house from the arts centre and found him sitting on his front porch with an enormous hollow log propped up beside him. The log has been well prepared with a smooth surface and evenly primed with white. The first lines of raark in ochre have been applied at one end and although I can only speculate on the finished work in my imagination, the sheer scale of the log indicating a potentially great work in the making. The final result is in the current exhibition and is in my view one of the finest ?lorrkons? or ceremonial logs Samuel has ever done. Several children are playing nearby under a large shady tree ? it is quite hot - and the usual array of ?camp dogs? are milling around and eyeing me suspiciously. Other small children are playing naked with a water hose out back and squealing in delight. There are a number of groups of people nearby spread out on blankets or mats. Everyone is friendly, although not particularly curious at my presence. A number of four-wheel drive vehicles in various states of repair stand out back. Inside the house a television has a video playing and there are a number of people gathered around watching intently. The interior of the house is quite untidy with dogs and children coming and going.
Samuel is wearing a straw fedora and has cut his hair short since I last saw him in while we were travelling together in London. He sits cross-legged on the ground as we chat ? his English is very good - occasionally throwing his head back in laughter at which time his eyes literally dance. Samuel is immensely curious about other cultures and he leafs through a catalogue I have brought to show him on the art of Vanuatu, immediately recognising the importance of the works and the fact that they are ceremonially derived. Later, we go back to my accommodation so I can show him some more photos I took in Vanuatu. When we were together in London we visited a number of museums and galleries and I am always amazed at the response to other art by artists like Samuel and John Mawurndjul, men who live largely outside in remote communities in the bush. However, when confronted by work as diverse as the Chinese terra cotta army figures in the British Museum to 20th century modernism, they are able to both understand the work to some degree from a Western perspective and also bring their own world to bear. They somehow accurately divine the role of the artist in society as being central to the culture and therefore share an affinity with other artists, whether it is Picasso or a sculptor from Vanuatu.

The Aboriginals have in some sense a tripartite view of the world. The sky is where the spirit resides, the ground ties them to the earth and it is the wind that connects the two realms. Ceremonial initiation ground paintings often have this tripartite form, as the initiated have the ability to travel freely between the three realms.

The key story in Samuel?s mature works is ?Gungura? or wind dreaming, with some of the works also featuring a near geometric vertical section called ?Kalawan tracks?. This patchwork of ?raark? or crosshatching depicting the wind dreaming is unique to his work. A mature work by Samuel is immediately recognizable due to the colour sense and the design. The colour employs a combination of red and yellow ochres with the overall effect a unique hue of orange. This colour is absolutely unique in my experience to the work of Samuel.

The wind is depicted as a patchwork of white and ochre bands, somewhat geometric in execution but becoming more organic in feel due to the overall execution over the surface of the painting. Careful scrutiny reveals an individuality that clearly separates one work from the next. It is not formulaic but rather felt by the artist and encourages us as viewers to take away different sensations according to the work.

It is with great pleasure that Annandale Galleries present this solo exhibition of new paintings by Samuel Namunjdja. His work is in all major public and private collections of Aboriginal art in Australia. He began painting in the 1980?s, has won numerous prizes and exhibited overseas since 2001.

? Bill Gregory, Sydney October 2008


Samuel Namunjdja
10 Mar - 28 Mar 2009

Exhibition features:

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