Kuninjku (Eastern Kunwinjku) people
Mumeka, near Mann River, Central Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia born 1952
Mardayin at Mumeka
[No title Mardayan at Mumeka] 1999
Maningrida, Western Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, bark paintings, natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark
In Mardayin at Mumeka, John Mawurndjul provides a masterly example of his very particular and innovative development of Western Arnhem Land bark painting. The subject of the painting is linked to ‘outside’ or public representations of Mardayin, among the most sacred Aboriginal ceremonies and now rarely performed in Arnhem Land. Mawurndjul grounds the ceremony at a particular place, Mumeka, a significant locality on the Mann River crossing on his Kurulk clan land. Mumeka today is a small outstation community; the last big Mardayin ceremony was performed near here by the Eastern Kuninjku speaking community in the late 1970s.
When Mawurndjul participated in this Mardayin, he was a young man in his early twenties, an apprentice artist, ritual novice and fine hunter. Now, some 25 years later, he has established his credentials as a senior law man and in the top echelon of bark painters; at times he is referred to, like his deceased relative Yirwala, as ‘the Picasso of Arnhem Land’. It is this status that provides him with the authority to take an established art tradition onto a new plane, breaking out of a style that usually encapsulated meanings within representational borders of animals, reptiles, fish and mythological creatures, to more abstract forms within a rectangular border.
The rarrk or crosshatching in this work is similar to the body paintings worn by creation ancestors and painted onto the chests of participants in Mardayin; the circles depict sacred pools in the ancestral landscape, as well as important sites on Kurulk land. Within the painting are broader geometric forms, stylised versions of sacred emblems from the ceremony. The exceptionally fine rarrk is distinctly Mawurndjul, proof, along with the subject matter, of his originality and authorship. Today, there is an emerging trend towards family collaboration among the most senior bark painters, owing not only to the work intensity of crosshatching but also in order to assist the passing of skills inter- and cross-generationally. At times, Mawurndjul works with his wife and daughter and a few panels in the lower left of Mardayin at Mumeka hint at such collaboration.
Jon Altman 2002.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002