Portrait of an artist John Mawurndjul
Portrait of an Artist
I am the Old and the New
The Art Gallery of South Australia, in particular the Collection and Exhibition Galleries on the Lower Level is where the ethos of John Mawurndjul and the collaboration between not only Bininj and Banadu but also men and women on the Gallery staff is epitomised in John’s fine and beautiful artwork. The photos hardly do justice to the delicacy of the brushwork. Sometimes brushes with just one hair are used and with such a steady hand the result has the intricacy of fine weaving, lacework and needlecraft.
John led the exhibition team after deciding on the artworks he would display and just look at the list of gallery staff who assisted him. A clear display of the concept that if equality of cultures and genders works then use it as it certainly does here.
From the little time we had in Australia we saw that Bininj are really a valued part of the modern Australian art and culture scene but in politics and education, just as in New Zealand with the Maoris, they are on the outside looking in. The art that John uses to show the ways of the past preserves those beliefs and practices for history so the knowledge of them will not be lost even if they are no longer part of their way of life. He is like a conduit between the old and new cultures.
It was warming to see that the ancient cultural beliefs and ways of Aborigines spanning 65,000 years at the latest count in the form of the funeral customs and spirit world of the Dreamtime as shown here is being preserved and taken forward by people like John.
Dreamtime stories that have been told in the past are still being learned and enjoyed by new generations and are now spreading across cultures with the dissemination of published book versions to children from all over the world.
When we were at the Arboretum in Canberra with Tyronne we bought two of the Dreamtime stories told by his father, Ngunawal Elder Don Bell to read to our grandchildren here in the UK, ‘Dyirri the Frog’ and ‘Mununja the Butterfly’. One page in ‘Dyirri the Frog’ has a picture framed by two trees with multi coloured barks. Between them and next to a billabong (pond or lake permanently filled with water) sit a group of women resting from a day of food gathering for supper. I asked grand-daughter Ruby what she thought the colourful lines on the barks might represent. “Rainbows because it rains there and the sun is shining.” Next time we see Tyronne I will see what he thinks of her interpretation.
The aboriginal love of nature and the world of country is something children can really relate to.
When people die they are buried for some time or laid in a cleft in rocks or a cave and then their bones are placed in the tall tubes made from trees hollowed out by white ants. These moiety log coffins are finely decorated before being buried upright in the ground so the deceased can return to the spirit world. I am not sure if this is a current custom but the colourful tubes have certainly become part of the contemporary indigenous art world.
While we were absorbed in the gallery the temperature was rising outside. Australia was on the fifth day of the 10 hottest days on record. Noona had a night time temperature of 35.9’, Tarcoola reached 48.9’ in the day and Cobar’s Empire Hotel reached 50’ a few days ago. There are forest fires raging across Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales causing extensive loss of flora and fauna. These fires travel so fast the animals have no chance of escape and firefighters risk their lives trying to save people and property.
When we finally left the Art Gallery we caught the free culture loop bus and did one and a half circuits to bring us back to the YH area. From there we walked to the highly acclaimed market only to find it had closed half an hour before. Never mind, a single dish supper in China town called for and after that we wandered slowly back to the YH via a bar. It looked very welcoming but the people were dressed unusually smartly. I sat on a bar stool and Rob was just about to order when a voice said over our shoulders “Have you been invited?”
“Oh no, we are so sorry are we gate-crashing?” A pretty young lady told us it was her engagement party and there was a sign outside saying ‘private function’. We apologised and wished her every happiness and yes there was a sign but it was much smaller than all the other signs and we missed it.
Back to our room to pack ready for our trip on the Ghan, we could hardly wait!