Born: 1952 in Mumeka, Northern Territory
Representation: Maningrida Arts & Culture
John grew up at Mumeka and surrounding Tomkinson, Liverpool and Mann Rivers seasonal camps with only sporadic contacts with non-aboriginal people. In the late 1970’s he was tutored in painting by his elder brother Jimmy Njiminjuma and uncle Peter Marralwanga, from whom he learned to use rarrk, the cross-hatched infill in new and innovative ways. He started to paint on small barks generally depicting natural species and mythological beings such as Ngalyod the rainbow serpent that guards sacred sites called djang in all western Arnhem Land. During the late 1980’s he started to produce large and more elaborate paintings with complex arrangements of figures.
His work rapidly captured the attention of the critics and he won in 1988 the Rothmans Foundation Award for best painting in traditional media at NAAA and the first prize at the Barunga Festival Art exhibition. Since then, his work has been included in numerous shows and Gabrielle Pizzi gallery held his first solo show in 1991. During the 1990’s his work was included in major overseas exhibitions dealing with Indigenous Australian art such as Crossroads in Japan (1992), Aratjara: Art of the first Australians in Germany and UK (1993-94), My country in Denmark (1999) and In the heart of Arnhem Land in France (2001). In 2000 his work was featured at the Sydney Biennale and in 1999 and 2002 he won the bark painting prize at the Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award. Mawunrdjul was awarded the prestigious Clemenger Contemporary Art Prize in 2003. “Rarrk – John Mawurndjul : Journey through Time in Northern Australia” was his first retrospective solo-exhibition in a Europe and was shown at the Museum Tinguely in Basel, Switzerland in 2005 and at the Sprengel Museum in Hanover, Germany in 2006. Mawurndjul was also commissioned to produce new work on site for the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, France which opened in 2006.
John Mawurndjul’s work has always dealt with themes of spirituality, mythology and life cycle. Ngalyod has remained a central theme in his work but over the last few years he has concentrated on what appear to be more abstract works associated with the Mardayin ceremony, a now rarely performed ceremony with clan identity and mortuary themes. The Mardayin ceremony also involves the initiation of young men by showing them sacred objects and painting their chests. He now often depicts in his work a large billabong at Milmilngkan which is a very important Rainbow serpent sacred site.