Sunday, 8 July 2018

Exhibition review: John Mawurndjul at the Museum of Contemporary Art

Titled ‘I am the old and the new’, this is part of a larger project to give respectability to Aboriginal art. In the catalogue, the artist’s ancestral ties to the land are emphasised (to labour the point being made, “Country” is capitalised in the book that they sell in the gallery shop to accompany the exhibition). He has been painting for about 40 years and the collection on exhibit includes pieces that have been sourced from private collections.

It is a large exhibition with many paintings on eucalypt bark done with the traditional cross-hatched method familiar to anyone who has even the most cursory knowledge of Aboriginal art. The large paintings are best seen close-up in the gallery. In the catalogue, detail is lost because the reproductions are relatively small.

The cross-hatching (known as “rarrk” in the language used in the region, Arnhem Land) is fine and impressive, with sections of the paintings done with lines that are set at different angles to one another. The pigments used in the works are all traditional ones: red and yellow ochre, calcite (white) and charcoal (black). The etchings made on paper that are included in the show are less impressive than the paintings and reveal use of a medium that has not been completely mastered.

The bark paintings themselves are quite a different matter. Sometimes the cross-hatching they involve is set at a more acute angle, and sometimes it is done at a shallower angle. In the latter cases, the effect is not unlike what you see in 1970s abstract paintings, with the surface tending to vibrate as the lines of different colours play off against each other in your visual field. In many of the paintings, sections that are cross-hatched are separated from each other by a grid of channels made with parallel lines that contain additional pictorial elements. The lines that are cross-hatched are often drawn in gentle curves that, seen together as an ensemble, lend variety and texture to a painting. Overall, the delicacy of the effects achieved in each painting provides its subject with a rich foundation upon which meaning might be conveyed to the viewer.

This is a process that is compromised however by the poor curation that has been carried out for the show. The labels attached to each of the paintings often contain titles written in Aboriginal language, so it can be impossible to understand the meaning of an artwork. But because in Aboriginal culture the boundaries lying between art, religion and law are so narrow, or at least so imperfectly-drawn, it is important for the express meaning of the paintings to be articulated adequately to use all the available means curators have at their disposal. The signage uses some English words when trying to convey meaning but more elucidation was needed, I felt, to make the signification embodied in each painting clear for the lay-person.

The exhibition is a good opportunity for ordinary people to learn more about Aboriginal culture. Better labelling would make it easier for the viewer’s mind to gain traction in the exhibition, as without the gloss of commentary your attention tends to slide off artworks the meanings of which are obscure. A rainbow serpent or a barramundi were easy enough to con, but for many other works the meaning was harder to fathom.

Respect for sacred things that is implicit in the operation of such obscurity might be good policy from the perspective of Mawurndjul and people like him, but the uninitiated need a bit more guidance in order to make informed decisions as to the quality of the art, and about whether the things and ideas being represented are deserving of such respect. I won’t outsource my critical faculties to anyone, least of all gallery curators. So, a stubborn veil lies over the secrets the exhibition so tantalisingly invites us to ponder, one that is secured in place by a long legacy of distrust and suspicion. At least with great works of western art like Petrarch’s sonnets everything is out in the open so that anyone who can read can examine it.

It doesn’t have to be like this. In December, I drove my car to Canberra for the sole purpose of attending a talk given by a staffer of the Australian War Memorial about a painting that they had commissioned from artists living in the APY lands in remote South Australia. I stayed overnight in a hotel on Northbourne Avenue. The painting in question was titled ‘Country and culture will be protected by men with many spears’ and the staffer who appeared that morning told the few souls gathered there in the building’s lobby about the meanings that the different parts of it were meant to convey to them.  It wrote about it on 17 December on this blog.

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