John Mawurndjul: I am the old and the new

John Mawurndjul, Ngalyod (detail), 2012A masterful fusion of traditional and contemporary art from the sedge-grass brush of one of Australia’s greatest living artists, the Art Gallery of South Australia presents John Mawurndjul: I am the old and the new – currently on display until 28 January 2019.

John Mawurndjul has been celebrated internationally for his groundbreaking approach to bark painting and for the dazzling radiance of his meticulously painted rarrk (cross-hatching), a tradition shared by generations of Kuninjku artists.

Developed and co-presented with the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), in close association with Maningrida Arts & Culture, the exhibition includes over 160 works, spanning forty years of the artist’s practice.

Presented bilingually in Kuninjku (pronounced Goo-nin-goo) and English, the exhibition illuminates Kuninjku culture and the dynamic connections between land and ancestral power in Mawurndjul’s home in Western Arnhem Land. It also reveals the mastery of an artist who vividly provides a narrative thread linking the past to the present and beyond.

Defying boundaries and containment, the master bark painter creates work that is traditional yet innovatively contemporary, located specifically in his homeland but relevant to the world, and founded on beliefs that are ancestral but transcend time. We also encounter the animals and spirit beings that populate these locations including female water spirits (yawkyawk), rainbow serpents (ngalyod) and mischievous mimih spirits.

The collections of the MCA and Art Gallery of South Australia form the genesis of the exhibition. Two barks – Nawarramulmul (Shooting Star Spirit)and Ngalyod (Female Rainbow Serpent) (both 1988) were the first artworks accessioned into the newly-incorporated MCA Collection in 1989; and NamanjwarreSaltwater Crocodile (also from 1988) is a cornerstone piece from the Art Gallery of South Australia Collection – representing a watershed moment in the evolution of the artist’s aesthetic.

In close collaboration with the MCA and Art Gallery of South Australia curatorial teams, John Mawurndjul led curatorial decisions and assisted in selecting the most significant artworks from his career. He was instrumental in determining the exhibition structure, which is grouped by places – or kunred – then animals and spirits, mimih, lorrkkon and etchings.

The concept of kunred informs the artist’s practice, both in the materials used such as the bark of the tree, natural earth pigments and charcoal, and in the representation of ideas critical to an understanding of Kuninjku culture.

Language is an important component of this presentation, with bilingual texts embedded throughout the exhibition design – from the didactics and labels available in Kuninjku, to translated texts featured in the catalogue and on the website.

“John Mawurndjul is an artist who calls up centuries of art making to create contemporary art,” said exhibition co-curator and TARNANTHI: Contemporary Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art, Artistic Director, Nici Cumpston. “Through this exhibition he has generously shared the bounty of his cultural inheritance while challenging the notions of old and new, local and global.”

Born in 1952, John Mawurndjul lives and works in Milmilngkan in western Arnhem Land and Maningrida in central north Arnhem Land. Since his first exhibition in 1980, he has become one of Australia’s most widely recognised artists.

In 1989 his work was included in the ground-breaking exhibition Magiciens de la Terre at the Centre Georges Pompidou and Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris, and his works have been included in numerous solo and group exhibitions in Australia, America, Germany and Japan.

He was the recipient of the Clemenger Contemporary Art Award in 2003, has received the Bark Painting Award at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory four times, and in 2010 was awarded an Order of Australia.

In 2018 Mawurndjul received the highly prestigious Red Ochre Award at the Australia Council for the Arts, National Indigenous Art Awards, for his outstanding lifetime achievement in the arts.

John Mawurndjul: I am the old and the new
Art Gallery of South Australia, North Terrace, Adelaide
Exhibition continues to 28 January 2019
Free admission

For more information, visit: or for details.

Following its display in Adelaide, a smaller version of the exhibition will tour regionally to seven locations across Australia throughout 2019 & 2020: Murray Art Museum Albury (NSW): 8 March – 26 May 2019; Glasshouse Port Macquarie (NSW): 26 July – 22 September 2019; Blue Mountains Cultural Centre (NSW): 7 December 2019 – 19 January 2020; Cairns Regional Gallery (QLD): 7 February – 29 March 2020; Charles Darwin University Art Collection & Art Gallery (NT): 17 April – 28 June 2020; Tweed Regional Gallery (NSW): 10 July – 20 September 2020; and Bunjil Place Gallery (VIC): 2 October – 29 November 2020.

Image: John Mawurndjul, Ngalyod (detail), 2012. Earth pigments on Stringybark (Eucalyptus tetrodonta). Museum of Contemporary Art, purchased with funds provided by the MCA Foundation, 2015. © John Mawurndjul/Copyright Agency, 2018 – photo by Jessica Maurer.