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January 24, 2019

Aboriginal lives matter most on Australia Day

Over an hour-long interview, AGSA curator Nici Cumpston gently and eloquently debunks our publisher’s prejudices and preconceptions about the John Mawurndjul exhibition and the great many things we have to celebrate about Aboriginal culture.

  • Interview: Josh Fanning

Australia Day is more interesting than it’s ever been before. Right now we have more engagement, empathy and interest in the Aboriginal experience than I can recall. There exists a true belief by a growing crowd of non-Aboriginals that the day Terra Nullius was proclaimed should not be the day we celebrate Australian values.

Instead of celebrating this discourse though, as part of what it means to be Australian and live in a free and democratic country, I think we feel miserable about it.

CityMag’s co-founder and publisher, Josh Fanning

The side that wants to change the date and the side that wants to keep the date each dig into the validity of their value systems to prove they are more righteous than the other. Winning and ‘being right’ about this matter fuels the misery. We hate our opponents rather than respect opposing thoughts. No one likes to lose.

I used to be for the date remaining (circa 2013). I thought it was the date Cook touched down in Cooktown or something but after only the smallest amount of research, I discovered I was an idiot.

Key among my reasons for now supporting a change of date is the 1992 High Court decision in the MABO case which voided 1788 proclamation of Terra Nullius. Terra Nullius was claimed on January 26th, when the British flag was raised in Sydney Cove by Captain Arthur Philip and the land claimed for King George III.

Lost in this historical dot point, but detailed greatly in the MABO case, is the truth about this country – a truth that’s only starting to filter out and fill out and nourish this country’s identity.

Last year I was dumbstruck by the images from the Art Gallery of South Australia’s (AGSA) new show, John Mawurndjul: I Am the Old and the New.

The artworks stopped me in my tracks. I was in awe. In what James Joyce would call esthetic arrest.


John Mawurndjul: I Am the Old and the New

Final days of exhibition
Closes January 28th
Check AGSA Opening Hours here.

The author, Josh Fanning is a board member of the Art Gallery of South Australia

In the works, I saw Australia – what is, was and could be.

The work was so categorically new to my eyes and – simultaneously – ancient. The figures depicted in Mawurndjul’s work are of a tone and scale that reminded me of the graffiti pieces you might see on the side of a train in Brooklyn . They felt ‘fresh’.

But then they also felt indelible, Mawurndjul’s marks, made forever.

On my first trip through John Mawurndjul’s world, downstairs at the AGSA, I remember commenting to the group I was with, “No contemporary artists could see this show and not be changed.” A weird double negative but I think my friends understood my meaning.

Upon emerging from the basement gallery our group literally bumped into Ben Quilty at the top of the stairs.

Ben was in town ahead of his show in March. I repeated my assumption to him – Mawurndjul’s work would have to affect any contemporary artist, change them, influence them. “Don’t you think?” I asked him.

Ben agreed. And then he shook his head in the way we Australians do.

“Yeah, nah.

“Absolutely,” he said resolutely.

Convinced there was more in this show than I could see on the walls I asked curator and artist, Nici Cumpston for an interview and tour of the show. Such is the privilege of being in the media (and on the board of the Art Gallery) that she consented.

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Warning: Some of my questions may make you cringe but Nici gently guides me past my well-intentioned but misguided affection for Mawurndjul’s work towards a more authentic understanding of the exhibition’s significance, the artist’s work, his language and – ultimately – this beautiful country.


CityMag: So when did the process start for engaging John and the community and thinking about this show?
Nici Cumpston: Three and a half years ago

Was it always to do a retrospective?
Well, yes. To think about doing a survey of the artist’s lifetime, his work. So that’s why we were looking at works from the beginning of his career right up until the present day.

How long is his career? Thirty years? More?
Forty-odd. Yeah, about forty years

So the work’s sort of looking at, you know, his oeuvre and looking at his whole career. He has been recognised internationally with major survey exhibitions, but never in Australia. So it was in response to thinking, you know, we haven’t done this.

Australia hasn’t done it?

So let’s do it. We want to do it with him being able to speak in his first language. So, therefore, what we did was we joined with the Museum of Contemporary Art because we were both having this discussion together at a talk which was part of an exhibition called Luminous.

They have a wonderful digital team, so they came with us… and we traveled up to visit the artist on numerous occasions… and initially, we had to ask him if he wanted us to do this and how he’d like to see it happen.

So [John Mawurndjul] and his wife Kay sat with us, and we talked about it. Then what we did was we engaged a researcher, Genevieve O’Callaghan, to find as many of his works that she could. So she found the 700-odd paintings that we could locate to an owner. So then she gave us the images and that information, and we went up to Maningrida and sat with the artist and his wife and went through each of those works with him.

So it was really wonderful to hear his direct responses in Yimayhyirud. It was just so- it was very moving. So we captured that on film and had a reference back… so we recorded all of his comments alongside of the works.

So he was speaking in Kuninjku. We had an interpreter.

How many people speak that language?
In Maningrida there are 12 different language groups that are spoken.

Kuninjku is just one of those 12 languages. So…

Who translates the Kuninjku to English?
NC: So Dr. Murray Garde, who’s a cultural anthropologist and linguist who has worked with the community for over 30 years. He went to this particular place, Mumeka, which is of John Mawurndjul and his family… Balang is his skin name.

So John Mawurndjul is of the Kurulk clan of Kuninjku people. So he was born quite close to Mumeka. This is where his family lived, his father and mother and extended family. So they had a small school. Murray Garde went to teach at the school. He went there to teach English, but very soon worked out that it wasn’t about him teaching English; it was about him learning Kuninjku and working with the community to see what they needed from this Western education system.

NC: So he’s remained very close friends. Fortunately for us, we were able to work alongside of Dr Garde. So Balang (John Mawurndjul) was able to speak in Kuninjku the whole time. So as we’re looking at these pictures, he’s speaking in Kuninjku, and we’re recording it.

You could tell, I guess, in the moment that it was pretty special still?
NC: Murray would — in instances like with Yimayhyirud, he told us what he’d just said. That was the beauty of this way of working, Balang was able to think and feel in his first language. He wasn’t trying to translate into English, because someone else was doing that for him. So that’s the difference between being able to work with someone in their first language, is that you get the depth of knowledge.

So he also then worked with us to work out what was the best way to present this information to the public. It came from us going out with him out onto different kunred, out onto different sites. It’s really a journey through his country.

So this is Barrihdjowkkeng [Nici points to one of the first paintings in the exhibition]… So in this painting here, this part of the painting, you’ve got the Ngalyod, the rainbow serpent, and at this site is where the rainbow serpent pierced the ground, and that particular waterway began.

The rainbow serpent. Is that across Australia?

It’s a universal form.

Right. Because of rivers and waters, the way they look?
Yeah. Yes, yes. Each language group has a different relationship and has a different name for the rainbow serpent… and even someone within the same family will have a different way of being able to share that story. So it’s very unique to the artist himself and the way that he’s able to depict the Ngalyod, the rainbow serpent.

I have this notion about Aboriginal technology versus Western technology – of the difference between the way first nations around the world sought to develop consciousness and evolution in a different manner, that wasn’t as tools-based but rather, socially-based. This idea of understanding the social was so much more important, in my reckoning.

Just the way you’ve described his (Mawurndjul) depth in terms of skin name and then all these different sites; not just being places, but being a part of him as well. How does that translate for the people of this community? Does it give them a really deep satisfaction, do you think? How does it manifest, this sort of depth of culture?
Well, it’s their everything. It’s absolutely the way they live their life.

It connects as well to what you’re saying; that two people can have different relationships to the same myth. I mean, that’s so foreign to our Western mindset, isn’t it?
It’s not a myth because it’s an absolute truth. It’s the centre of the universe. It’s about how people will be able to respond within that kunred, within that particular sacred place. So through the words of the artist, we’re able to learn about Barridjowkkeng, about this particular site. So he spoke and shared with us this story about Barridjowkkeng and that then the works of art within this particular kunred play out that story for us. So it’s wonderful for the visitor to be able to have the artist’s voice on the wall. Because more often than not, it’s the curator’s voice.

Language and art seem to be this new force for Aboriginal identity and culture in Australia. They’re persistent.
I think for Aboriginal people it’s that connection to language that gives us our connection to our place. That we’ve always wanted to be known by who we are as our language groups. So for me, for example, I won’t say, you know, I’m an Aboriginal person. I would much prefer to say I’m a Barkindji person. Because that’s my language group, and it’s not about generalising as such. It’s more about specifics.

I think some languages have a much more poetic way of expression that we don’t have in English either. Like some of the words that you hear in Kuninjku, like Djang – the power – it’s the power of the ancestral beings that’s evoked within the painting itself.

It’s got a feeling, doesn’t it, when you say that word? Djang!
Yeah. It’s a great word.

This painting is ‘Mardayin at Mumeka’. Mardayin is the ceremony for the young men being initiated into manhood. There are many different levels to that ceremony.

There’s a huge amount of satisfaction in that journey [initiation] that I think is not really paralleled anywhere in our Western culture… even the Western religions, the Judeo-Christian, Muslim traditions, it’s always a very different binary; good versus evil, child versus adult etc…
Yeah. I think that that’s something that quite often within Western society we feel that unless we fully understand something that it’s not worthy. That is such a misnomer within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture.

It’s about respect; the respect to allow that other person to have that knowledge and that that’s not for you to ever be privy to. Because that’s…

Because your secrets are precious?
It’s about honouring your own knowledge and honoring when you are given additional knowledge. That all comes at a time when you’re ready for it. It’s not up to you to decide. It’s about you being respectful enough to gain that knowledge. So it’s a completely different way than we have in the Western world.

I think that giving over to that and allowing that to be the way it is, is part of your understanding, and part of a way of being able to get a deeper understanding of Aboriginal culture.

Yeah. Totally. You can feel that in this show perhaps more than if it was a group show because the layers – as you walk through – you can feel the artist’s story because it’s not chronological, is it?

It’s sort of place-driven. So you can see all the works, but there is something in that togetherness that you can see if you spend enough time here with the works.
No, absolutely. I think knowing that for the Mardayin ceremony that I’m not able to interpret this work. It’s not for me to interpret. When I look at it, and I see that intricate line and the fineness of that rarrk [cross-hatching], the power that’s exuded from that — so he very precisely talks about, as I mentioned before, the Djang. Also, there’s another word, and it’s about the rarrk jumps off the bark. It jumps off and jumps out at you. So he will paint up to a point where he thinks, okay, I feel like it’s got what it needs. Then he’ll go and place it at the edge of the camp and go away and then come back later and look at it. If it’s jumping out at him, it’s okay. It’s good. That’s ready to go. If not, he’ll keep working [the painting].

So he’s very much assessing the work that he’s making. Because, as I mentioned earlier, it’s about exuding that power. The bark itself- he looks at the actual shape of the bark. He works with the shape of the bark in order to give you the movement that’s required to- that’s evoked within that particular site. The energy centres… the circular shapes, it’s about energy. It’s about power. Like I said, that’s as much as I can tell about this particular work. That’s all I need to know. That’s all.

It’s an incredibly powerful painting, and when you think about the way that each of the colours- the black is charcoal, the red, the yellow, and the orange ochre… So yellow ochre, if you heat it, it changes colour and gives you different shades of orange into red. Then there’s a particular place where the red ochre here is sought. It’s not that you just go outside and grab a bit of colour. It’s about going to a particular place and whether or not-

Then you’re painting with that place?
With that place. So you’re taking from- and you can’t just go to any old place and get the ochre, because you have to be either a custodian for that site or you have to get permission to go to that site.

Either way, it has meaning.

And presence?
A special meaning and presence.

If you could put it against something in Western contemporary art, you might say it’s abstract, but I feel like this is far from abstract. Almost the opposite of abstract. It’s completely literal. Am I on the right track with that idea?
Yeah, yeah.

That this is literally a painting of this place, not an abstraction?
Yeah. It’s hard within Western terminology to come up with a genre, you know? It’s…

That’s why it’s called It’s Old and New. It’s not contemporary.
Exactly. Yeah. That also reflects back into that sense of time for Kuninjku people; that time is ever-present. The ancestral stories are present in the work that’s being made today. So it’s the old knowledge that’s been handed down to the artist, but it’s also the knowledge of a particular kunred and the ancestral story that goes with that kunred that’s then the contemporary experience of the artist of that kunred. So it’s the past; it’s the present. It’s also about the future and about sharing that with the next generation, bringing the next generation along. So the artist is really adamant about including children and grandchildren.

I mean, obviously the title of this exhibition is about dissolving this binary of opposites, you know, the good and the evil; it’s to be both things at once. It has so many correlations with some Eastern religions with Buddhism, and Hinduism where you know Brahma can be both good and evil. Like, there is no bad or good; it’s all the same thing – it’s all Brahma.

This idea seems deeply spiritual to me. Would he be considered a leader in that realm, as someone who’s leading his community towards thoughts like this and to enlightenment? I mean, the way he’s speaking and your recounting of him, it’s sort of about a journey inwards as much as it is outwards.
There are different stories within the different spirit beings throughout this exhibition. There are spirit beings that are terrifying. There are stories that share moral outcomes, and there are stories that are shared throughout people through the Kuninjku language and culture. But very much so. Yes, he is someone who is looked up to, you know, through his practice but also through who he is as a person as well.

How old is he? 60?

This exhibition is a great follow-up to Colours of Impressionism isn’t it? That’s what I felt. The abstraction of style, the use of colour and shape to invite reflection rather than evoke desire in the audience… to create peace in a moment.
Oh good.

Because his work is masterful is – I guess – what I’m saying.
It absolutely is, isn’t it?

Well, just the thing that probably struck me was how easily I could see this 10 storeys high on the side of a building. 

It’s got that real urban street feeling to me. Not the cartoon-ness, but the proportionality of the figures is very contemporary. That was the moment where I could really see this was every bit as contemporary as anything you’d see, you know, on the street, in a gallery, anywhere. 

Where is that connection? How is that happening? How can Mawurndjul be defining an aesthetic almost, being so remote and removed from commercial art and culture and things like that?
That’s the thing; he’s not.

He’s absolutely not.

He’s a man of the world. He’s had two major survey exhibitions; one in Basel… You know, he painted his work into the fabric of the Musée du quai Branly in Paris. He was one of the Australian artists who were commissioned to do his work there. He met Jacques Chirac, the president at the time; he called him a maestro.

Jacques Chirac did?

He has travelled the world with his works of art. He said specifically to Diane Moon – or she said to him – ‘Oh, I’m looking at an exhibition of Picasso. One day, one day you’ll have a show like this.’ He said, ‘Yes, I’ll be as famous as he’.

He sees himself as a… He knows he’s a major artist. I was with him in Berlin earlier this year, and we went to look at a couple of major, big galleries. He intently looks at the works of art. He talks about the Djang in those works of art.

He can feel that- he knows that power of a good work of art because he truly – he positions himself in the world.

So he’s not someone who – yes, he lives in a very isolated location within Australia that you can only access by road during the dry season, but he’s traveled the world. He’s a man of the world.

I understand.
He knows about nice clothes. So you can’t just presume because someone lives in a place like that that they don’t have aspirations.

When you meet people like John Mawurndjul, they blow your mind to any of those preconceived ideas.

He did this thing in Germany and he just sort of tapped his head with his finger and he said, ‘This is my knowledge. This is not for other- this is just for me, not for balanda.’ So balanda, meaning non-Kuninjku speaking people.

CWell, that’s a philosophy in itself isn’t it, you know? It’s also not philosophy. That’s the interesting thing that I have, is that it’s not understood in that way, but it totally is that. Again, that duality kind of disappears because it’s just life for him. I guess it’s not written down, but it’s understood, and it’s process after process like you’re saying; those inductions that happen over a lifetime.  It’s all a system.
It’s deeply philosophical because it’s… without knowing one part of the story, you’re never going to understand the next part.

What does he call us again? Non-Kuninjku speaking people?


It almost sounds like foreigner doesn’t it? Balanda.
Yeah, it comes from the word Hollander.

So it comes from the Makassan interaction between Kuninjku and central and western Arnhem Land.

When they would travel down to come and collect the sea trepang, the sea cucumber. Trepang; sea cucumbers. So that happened for over 700 years. Every season, seasonally, they would come. So throughout the whole of Arnhem Land and across, into Western Australia, there are stories where Aboriginal people would have had exchange with Makassan, people from Sulawesi. So they would refer to an outsider as a Hollander, from New Holland.

So that was then translated as balanda within language across the top end of Australia. So really what it means when John Mawurndjul says the word balanda, he’s referring… not to white and black.

He’s referring to a Kuninjku person and a non-Kuninjku.

How old are these stories the artist is telling? 50,000 years?
NC: Well, the rock art from not far Milmilngkan is dated back 40,000 years.

So I don’t know, but you feel the- you can feel the weight of time, I guess.

Australia has that doesn’t it?
It absolutely has that, yeah. It’s really hard to comprehend that much time ago, that long ago.

Nobody seems to- it’s almost like it’s not- I don’t know. I get a sense that because it’s so hard to comprehend, that people don’t quite get it.

Yeah. Don’t value it. 
It’s not valued also because of that. It’s sort of bandied around, this amount of time but, people wonder, ‘What does that actually mean?’ Well, that means that this family [Mawurndjul’s family] has a connection going back to this exact kunred, this exact location for 40,000 years.

The idea of staying put and having an identity through place is much more interesting to me going forward. I truly feel I would be happy doing whatever here in South Australia, because actually when you look at this country that we have here, it’s so incredible. Like, I’m starting to see my own stories unfold in this place, because the next generation, they’re growing up and I’m sharing places with them that are important to me and my life.

I think, you know, putting language with these works of art might have that potential to bring us together, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal – Kuninjku and Balanda.

To help us… I don’t know, meet up? Meet in the middle?
Absolutely, and that’s why I do what I do because it’s through art that we’re able to have a commonality and a way in for people to have — to be able to hear the voice of an Aboriginal Australian. For a lot of people, there are no other ways in. So it’s about empowering the artist to have their own voice.

It’s also about bringing the general public along and giving them a chance to learn and to have a deeper understanding. Because I think that that’s the only way going forward that we’re going to be able to have a society that has a more fuller and richer and deeper understanding of one another.

Do you think that… that we still have a prejudice in Australia of… well, I mean, not against… but when it comes to Aboriginal art? John has had exhibitions around the world, huge solo shows and his work is in significant private collections, globally, but this is his first significant solo show in Australia?
Yeah… and that is the history of Australian art. A lot of it has been written… A lot of the historiographies have been written about men, and not Aboriginal men. So that that’s where I think there’s been a shift recently, where people are appreciating the careers of individual Aboriginal artists. Which is fantastic. Not collectively putting all Aboriginal art together.

Can you see change though?

How things are connected and we’re building better representation and understanding of what the Australian experience truly is?
Yeah. No, absolutely. It all takes time and it takes trust and relationships. You can’t… Just don’t believe that you can do anything without having that connection with people to start with. Connection and trust.

John Mawurndjul: I Am the Old and the New

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