Financial Times: Rock-Solid Abstracts

Aboriginal Art Directory | 07.09.07

Jeremy Eccles, Financial Times (UK) 7 September 2007

“Are you ready for London?” Apolline Kohen asks artist Samuel Namunjdja. “What time we going?” is his eager response about a visit that is still a month away.
Time has an elastic quality out here in Kunwinjku country. We’ve driven for a couple of hours down a dusty road from the Aboriginal community of Maningrida – where Kohen is art director of the community art centre – on Australia’s northernmost coast to Namunjdja’s remote outstation, housing 30 members of his family.

Beyond is the empty, rocky escarpment of Arnhemland, where Rainbow Serpents (potent mythological beings in Aboriginal creation stories) lie curled beneath the waters of glittering billabongs, where Mimi spirits – the ancestors who, according to Aboriginal myth, taught them how to paint – slip into gaps between the rocks, and where the stories that sustain Kunwinjku mythology can be found painted on cave walls.

Namunjdja and the 14 other Kunwinjku artists whose work will be shown in London from September 20 represent a staging-post, both geographically and metaphorically, between the aeons of The Dreaming and the far-off modern world. A negotiation between tradition and the present day is taking place in their work. You rarely see Ngalyod the Rainbow Serpent or those slippery Mimi spirits painted on the sheets of flattened eucalypt bark that make up the Kunwinjku canvas.

Artists such as Namunjdja, “Number One” John Mawurndjul and James Iyuna have moved on from the poetic realism of their early story-telling; they have added, in their terms, spiritual strength by making increasing use of coloured criss-cross patterns – or rarrk – borrowed from the designs painted on bodies for their most secret of initiation ceremonies, Mardayin.
The result in western eyes may be pure abstraction, or the expressionism of “Munch, Rothko or Pollock”, as the academic Anthony Downey puts it in the Rarrk London catalogue. But for both artists and initiated Aboriginal male viewers, those minimal lines still represent the Mardayin phenomenon and the “inside” power of the ceremonial designs.

“I’m leading this movement – Samuel and Ivan [Namirrkki] are both following,” declared Mawurndjul in a 2001 interview with Kohen. Born in France, she has been art director in Maningrida since 1998 – a long time for a demanding post, in which she and a colleague serve 790 artists – and has undoubtedly played a part in developing Mawurndjul’s sense of “the role of the artist” in western terms.

It was certainly this changed perception that allowed Mawurndjul to relish winning Australia’s top contemporary art prize in 2003, the Clemenger.

But Mawurndjul’s star status is only part of the story that has brought 110 bark paintings, sculptures of mythic spirits and lorrkons– the decorated hollow logs that would once have contained a dead person’s bones – to London. Also important has been the enthusiasm of the art dealer Josh Lilley, organiser of the coming show at London’s Bargehouse Gallery. For barks still have an ethnographic taint in Britain, something that the brilliant acrylic canvases of the Central Desert Aboriginal artists have overcome.

“London is risky for us,” admits Kohen. “We could only attempt such a big show there because Josh Lilley has bought all these works over in the past two years.”

Lilley, 26, is the godson of the Sydney art dealer Bill Gregory. While working for him in 2004-05, Lilly secured a trip to Maningrida. “There, I saw such great art,” he says. “It overcame my scepticism about an industry that was churning out such quantities of work. And it made me determined to challenge the Eurocentricity of contemporary art collectors in London.”
To test the waters, Lilley had a trial exhibition at his Notting Hill home last year which garnered good publicity and sales. And to back up this year’s 17-day show, Lilly has produced a substantial catalogue and is having a symposium to talk through many of the issues involved.
Kohen is keen for Arnhemland art to have a continuing presence in London, for she fears that the limited number of enthusiasts in Australia could “run out of steam”. “And as prices go up, it’s hard to explain to new markets like London why one painter is a star, doing better work than the others,” she adds. “We have to expand globally while prices are still affordable.”

Another fear is that the Australian government’s proposed package of land, welfare and other reforms to tackle the social ills endemic in many Aboriginal communities will undermine artists’ livelihoods. Kohen hopes that the London exhibition will draw people’s attention to the threat.
“The government’s intervention is so unacceptable, we have to use this show to talk politics,” she says. “For what they’re doing will affect the art. The push to close the outstations so people can pursue non-existent jobs would mean, as John Mawurndjul puts it: ‘I wouldn’t be able to hunt, maintain my country or make art’; for they’re all intrinsically interlinked.”

Namunjdja is clearly ready for London, but is London ready for him? “People buy different dreams,” says Kohen, philosophically.

‘Rarrk London’ will be at the Bargehouse Gallery in the Oxo Tower, Southwark, from September 20 until October 7, tel: +44 (0)20-7401 2255;

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Gallery: Annandale Galleries
Contact: Bill Gregory
Telephone: +61 2 9552 1699
Address: 110 Trafalgar Street Annandale Annandale Sydney 2038 NSW



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