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Mawurndjul : Journey through Time in Northern Australia
John Mawurndjul, Bambil, echidna, and mimih, 1979. Earth pigments on eucalyptus bark, 68.0 x 46.0 cm. Jon Altman. © John Mawurndjul, courtesy Maningrida Arts & Culture. Photo: Michel Brouet.

BASEL, SWITZERLAND.-Museum Tinguely presents « rarrk » – John Mawurndjul : Journey through Time in Northern Australia, on view through January 29, 2006. John Mawurndjul - “John Mawurndjul is an innovator who has revolutionised Kuninjku bark painting”. (Judith Ryan, Senior Curator, Indigenous Art, National Gallery of Victoria).

John Mawurndjul was born in 1952 on his clan territory in Western Arnhem Land in Northern Australia, where the absence of a recorded written form led to the development of a particularly rich iconographical tradition. He learned to paint in the traditional manner, by painting designs on the bodies of initiates during ritual ceremonies. Very early on, though, John Mawurndjul started painting also on the prepared barks of the eucalyptus tree. Inspired by the rock paintings of his distant forefathers, John Mawurndjul developed his own manner and mode of treating the traditional images. He gradually outgrew the motifs of Aboriginal iconography – the lightning spirits or the almighty rainbow serpent as life-giving but also as destructive spirits – to treat it today with entirely new concepts and in a totally new form. His works are imposing by their large scale, and though the eucalyptus bark still furnishes the support for his paintings, the natural earth pigments – red and yellow ochre, pieces of natural chalk and charcoal – are now intentionally mixed with modern, soluble binding agents.

The artist changes the pictorial content in a continuous process of transformation: using a cross-hatching technique (rarrk in Kuninjku) that dominates the entire picture to the edge of portrayability, he integrates images of figurative reality, heightening effect and encrypting meaning.

John Mawurndjul’s artistic development from the beginning of his career in the 1970s until the present day refutes the widespread prejudice in Europe that denies ‘Indigenous’ artists the right to a personified individuality and the capacity to innovate outside the boundaries of the authority of their community. He further demonstrates in his paintings that dealing actively with traditional sources can be a fruitful experience if one is capable of understanding tradition other than as an anonymous and inalterable corset. Our “Journey through Time in Northern Australia” takes us from the rock paintings, some of which hark back 30 000 years and mark the Aborigines’ sacred sites, down to the present day.

The Museum Tinguely and the Museum der Kulturen Basel in a joint project
An introductory section, under the heading “The Museum der Kulturen Basel Guest of the Museum Tinguely” also presents some 35 barks by older painters that were collected in Arnhem Land, on behalf of the Museum der Kulturen, by the explorer and collector Karel Kupka (1918-1993) between 1956 and 1963. He was among the first to attempt to understand the individual Aborigine painters as the conveyors of traditional pictorial knowledge, and to document their oeuvre.

In the art world, doors are slowly opening to an extended and global understanding of art. Old strategies of exclusion and banishment still rule the academic world and non-European art is relegated to ethnographical museums. This collaboration of both museums intends to launch the project of global contemporary art which will be analysed in depth in concrete dialogues.

The exhibition « rarrk » - John Mawurndjul: Journey in Time in Northern Australia may be considered first and foremost as an encounter between a curious public and the works of art.

The aim of this project initiated by the artist Bernhard Lüthi, Guest Curator, and jointly conceived with Christian Kaufmann, a specialist on Oceania, is to present John Mawurndjul and explain his oeuvre as a part of world contemporary art. The analysis of the overall topic will be dealt with in accompanying side events, in particular within the context of a colloquium to be held at the beginning of the exhibition and co-organised by the art historical and ethnographical institutes of the University of Basel.

The exhibition is complemented by two video/film essays produced by Insertfilm, Solothurn: Landscape and rock art will be presented in one, the painter John Mawurndjul and Maningrida Arts & Culture in the other.

This first retrospective show of John Mawurndjul’s work in a European art museum – presents c. 70 works, the great majority of which are bark paintings from the various stages of his career, with a few sculptures and prints.
A second venue of the exhibition will be held at the Sprengel Museum Hannover between 19 February and 5 June 2006.

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