Archive for July 15th, 2018

Exhibition: John Mawurndjul: I am the old and the new

Installation view Milmilngkan
John Mawurndjul

Mardayin at Milmilngkan (2006)
John Mawurndjul

Recently opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art, this exhibition, a comprehensive survey of the artist’s work, is huge.

Just after it opened I was lucky enough to go to a day of events at the MCA – first a discussion between the artist and curatorial advisor Keith Munro with interpreter Murray Garde, then a panel discussion including curators of the exhibition, Mawurndjul and Garde.

The presence and charisma of John Mawurndjul was commanding, mesmerizing. He could sit quite small and quiet, sometimes watching what was going on, sometimes apparently far away in thought, but when he was active, listening or speaking, and especially when he stood up and moved around as he spoke, there was an energy, force, strength. He communicated with his whole body. His hands were beautiful to watch.

Mardayin at Milmilngkan (2006)
detail of rarrk
John Mawurndjul

In that description above I’m sure there are cultural assumptions that I’ve made, interpretations of expression that are unfounded. At this point knowing my ignorance and having an intention to listen deeply seems the best I can do.

Language was a major focus of the day, and is in the exhibition. Translation is difficult – see https://www.creativespirits.info
/aboriginalculture/language/why-translating-english-to-aboriginal-languages-is-so-hard
for some of the reasons. Murray Garde did an amazing job as interpreter, including stepping out of that role at times to give the audience some context, then back into Mawurndjul’s words. In the exhibition most of the signage is in Mawurndjul’s words together with a translation into english.

Thylacine (c. 1995)
John Mawurndjul

There are untranslateable concepts and entire contexts. Plus there is the responsibility to look after special places. The paintings have layers – a surface which I can see and appreciate, the aesthetics, but more layers that remain hidden, that relate to cultural knowledge that can only be shared with a restricted group – based on age or gender or participation in particular ceremonies or kinship… Painting these works has been dangerous, and has taken a toll on Mawurndjul and his health.

Place is the other strong element of the exhibition. Focal places for spiritual essence. The artist directed placement in both exhibition and catalogue, “with works grouped by kunred (places), then animals and spirits, mimih spirits followed by lorrkkon and etchings” (from catalogue). And known place can be very specific – for example a photo of a fish trap fence, in the particular place in a creek where the zones of brackish/salt and fresh water mix, where tides and flow and water levels combine.

Birlmu Barramundi (1996)
John Mawurndjul

Mardayin is a special, secret ceremony, held in special places. There is a gravitas, a weightiness, power. There are emblems, such as dilly bags with tassels. There are protocols. Public and private knowledge must be maintained. Mawurndjul wonders who will take on stories after him. And he has to balance the secret nature of topics, the toll they take, with the pressure on an artist to make work to request, churning it out.

Mawurndjul’s father taught him it was OK to teach non-aboriginal people, to facilitate communication, to share the great intellectual achievements of aboriginal culture. But coming from my culture it’s hard to listen properly. I think of the binary abstract | figurative. But something can be wholistic (be careful of the spelling), not abstract but hard to see, involving ideas, people, relationships. Garde explained learning about this culture as being like walking towards the horizon. You see something interesting you want to learn about and walk towards it, and when you reach it you are still far from the horizon. There’s always further to go.

Birlmu Barramundi (1996)
detail
John Mawurndjul

The Breaking Ground panel discussion was more focused on the current exhibition. The curators didn’t have an idea or plan of the show before setting out. They followed the artist’s leadership. He wanted to give a legacy of understanding of his paintings. Here is his language, his words, his thoughts.

The different curators spoke of the arc of a practice, deep time, here and now. The innovative style, breaking ground, showing multiple hierarchies of time in one narrative. The contemporary in conversation with the past.

Mawurndjul was asking us to listen deeply, just as in his culture he listens to their old people, their ancestors. Listen and learn. Plus the concern to do his best to make sure his own people, children, learn the stories about who they are.

The process of building the exhibition wasn’t easy. The artist and curators wanted to show to a western audience, through the eyes of the people who live the culture. There were politics. There’s always the need to make money – Mawurndjul talked about the hard work and travel making and sharing his art, and then his pockets are empty.

Mimih Spirits installation view
John Mawurndjul

It was an inspiring, thoughtful day. Mawurndjul and the curators were so positive, emotional, about what had been achieved. So when I actually visited the exhibition a week later I was taken aback. I couldn’t find that sense of the personal, the voice. When I saw signs in two languages I just read the english. The original words didn’t seem to register with me, get beyond my eyeballs. I knew the ordering and placement of the works was deeply considered and significant, but I couldn’t see it. I felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work. I saw a sameness instead of appreciating difference. I wanted maps at the beginning of each section, to get a better sense of place. I wanted to hear the sound of language, not just in the resource space. I wanted …

After leaving the exhibition I realised I hadn’t listened. I hadn’t given time. I hadn’t let go of expectations.

I wanted him / them to make it easy for me. I demanded.

I’m not happy with myself.

Time to start over.


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