John Mawurndjul is one of the leading Indigenous Australian artists, receiving world recognition for his work. Kuninjku bark painter and sculptor he was born in 1952 at Mumeka, an important camping site for members of the Kurulk clan on the Mann River some 50 kms south of Maningrida settlement. He grew up at Mumeka and surrounding Tomkinson, Liverpool and Mann Rivers seasonal camps with only sporadic contacts with balandas (non-aboriginal people). In the late 1970’s he was tutored in painting by his elder brother Jimmy Njiminjuma and uncle Peter Marralwanga, from whom he learned to use rarrk, the cross-hatched infill in new and innovative ways. He started to paint on small barks generally depicting natural species and mythological beings such as Ngalyod the rainbow serpent that guards sacred sites called djang in all western Arnhem Land. During the late 1980’s he started to produce large and more elaborate paintings with complex arrangements of figures. His work rapidly captured the attention of the critics and he won in 1988 the Rothmans Foundation Award for best painting in traditional media at NAAA and the first prize at the Barunga Festival Art exhibition. Since then, his work has been included in numerous shows and Gabrielle Pizzi gallery held his first solo show in 1991. During the 1990’s his work has also been included in major overseas exhibitions dealing with Indigenous Australian art such as Crossroads in Japan (1992), Aratjara: Art of the first Australians in Germany and UK (1993-94), My country in Denmark (1999) and In the heart of Arnhem Land in France (2001).
More recently, in 2000 his work was featured at the Sydney Biennale and in 1999 and 2002 he won the bark painting prize at the Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award. He was awarded the prestigious Clemenger Contemporary Art Prize in 2003. He is today influencing other Kuninjku artists to paint in his style and is teaching his wife Kay Lindjuwanga and daughter Anna Wurrkidj to become accomplished painters. In doing so he has created a whole school of artists and is leading an exciting and contemporary Australian art movement. In 2000, his work was featured at the Sydney Biennale and in 1999 and 2002 he won the bark painting prize at the Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award. He was awarded the prestigious Clemenger Contemporary Art Prize in 2003. In 2004, his work was included in the landmark exhibition Crossing Country, the alchemy of Western Arnhem Land held at the AGNSW. In September 2005, Mawurndjul opened the first retrospective of his work at the Musee Jean Tinguely in Basel Switzerland. More recently, he has worked on a major commission for the new Musee du Quai Branly that opened in June 2006. His work features in the bookshop and is integral part of the architecture.
Recent paintings and new developments
John Mawurndjul’s work has always dealt with themes of spirituality, mythology and life cycle. Ngalyod has remained a central theme in his work but over the last few years he has concentrated on what appear to be more abstract works associated with the Mardayin ceremony, a now rarely performed ceremony with clan identity and mortuary themes. The Mardayin ceremony also involves the initiation of young men by showing them sacred objects and painting their chests.
It was the first secret cult ceremony into which John Mawurndjul was initiated and has left a lasting impression on Mawurndjul (Garde: 1997) . His paintings depict the ceremony as a whole at particular sites located in his clan estate, including elements of his ancestral landscapes and the stories which are not in the public domain. He now often depicts in his work a large billabong at Milmilngkan which is a very important Rainbow serpent sacred site. Much of his paintings are based on the mythology of sites in this area of the Kurulk clan estate where he lives with his family. Visually, in Mawurndjul’s recent works, fine cross-hatching now dominates the entire surface of the painting and encrypts various secret meanings. The direction of the cross-hatching changes constantly and unpredictably. In innovating both in the treatment of rarrk and in the iconic representation of the Mardayin themes, he expresses in a dynamic way his strong connections to the land and ancestral power. His sculptural work also incorporates Mardayin themes. He mainly concentrates on the representation of Mimih
figures or Duwa moiety female creator beings called Buluwana. They comprise in their body decorations elements borrowed from Mardayin body designs and painted wooden sculptures used in the ceremony. He was one of the first Kuninjku artists to use rarrk instead of dotting patterns on his Mimih carvings, making again the path for a new trend in Kuninjku art.
Always looking for new ways to express his preoccupations with land and spirituality he summarizes his artistic quest by saying My head is full up with ideas (Kohen: 2001)