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John Mawurndjul

“The old ways of doing things have changed into the new ways. The new generation does things differently. But me, I have two ways. I am the old and the new.”

John Mawurndjul

By Anna Dowd

Internationally renowned artist John Mawurndjul AM of western Arnhem Land is one of Australia’s greatest living contemporary artists.

This month, CDU Art Gallery opens a landmark survey exhibition of the Kuninjku master bark painter, including over 50 works spanning 40 years of prolific practice.

Developed and co-presented by the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) and Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) in association with Maningrida Arts & Culture, the show has toured regionally, with an award-winning website, video, and catalogue.

AGSA curator Nici Cumpston OAM says it was a three-and-half-year process of learning deeply about the work by Mawurndjul to get to the point of being ready to exhibit.

“We asked if he’d be interested and he said ‘yes’, and so we said, ‘let’s see how many of your works we can find, we’ll bring them back to you, and you can decide what you want in the show.’”

Coming back with photos of over 700 works from collections around the world, Cumpston says going through them was like an emotional reunion with old friends for the artist, and he led the process from there.

“At that first sitting he said, ‘I need to take you to the kunred, to the sacred sites.’ So we started the journeys out to his country [in west Arnhem Land], to feel it and understand it, so we could do justice presenting it through the works.”

Cumpston says the exhibition is a rare opportunity to feel the depth of the artist’s connection to place, as well as the ways in which Mawurndjul is an innovator within his technique of rrark, the traditional cross-hatching style of painting.

“You can feel that country through the way he applies those sacred colours, the ochre painted onto the bark. So the energy of that country is embedded within the works of art, quite literally.”

After launching in Sydney and Adelaide to great acclaim, a scaled down version of the show has toured regionally over the past two years, a process that MCA curator Clothilde Bullen says was critical.

“He’s an internationally renowned artist, so given the gravitas and impact of his work, the MCA felt that’s what it deserved,” she says.

“We also know people in regional areas don’t get to experience this kind of show, a major survey, often, so this was our chance to bring something really special.”

Darwin is the last stop on the tour, and after needing to postpone during a time of health pandemic restrictions, CDU Art Gallery Curator Dr Joanna Barrkman says they are delighted to be hosting the exhibition in 2021.

“The MCA worked so hard – there was a lot that had to go on behind-the-scenes to extend the loans, and get it up here,” says Barrkman.

“This is the closest the exhibition will travel to where Mawurndjul lives, so with so many more of his extended family being able to visit the exhibition, this is going to be a real celebration of this great artist and his extraordinary accomplishments.”

John Mawurndjul - I am the old and the new

Header: John Mawurndjul, ‘Kamarnbun bim, Making a work’, still from video filmed in western Arnhem Land, Northern Territory in July 2016 and July 2017, produced by the MCA Digital Media department, in collaboration with the artist and Dr Murray Garde. 

Thumbnail: John Mawurndjul, Maningrida, 2016. Photo: Jean-Pierre Chabrol.

Inset top: John Mawurndjul, 'Milmilngkan', 2007, earth pigments and on Stringybark (Eucalyptus tetrodonta), Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. Gift of Susan Armitage through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation, 2016. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program © John Mawurndjul/Copyright Agency, 2020. Photo: Saul Steed.

Inset bottom: John Mawurndjul at Milmilngkan, 2016. Photo: Tristan Derátz.

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