This has less to do with the vast underground spaces the exhibition commands at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until Dec. 12, or with the subterranean sheen of its bronzed walls, and more to do with the art. In the first of the rooms, figures flare up like handprints sprayed in ocher across cave walls. But mostly they dance. These figures are the mimih, the devilish rock spirits that are often seen cavorting with Dionysian glee. Well may they be mirthful.
According to the local Kuninkjku, the mimih created the oldest of the rock art that adorns more than a thousand sites in this freshwater region just south of Maningrida. More recently, Kuninjku artists have transposed their mimih to bark, with results no less magical. Comprising nearly 300 works, "Crossing Country: The Alchemy of Western Arnhem Land Art" documents the journey from one of the world's oldest art traditions to one of the newest. It's a landmark show in every way.
With his epic "canvases" of moon dreamings and rainbow serpents, which combine the simple dotted style of rock art with the cross-hatched dynamism of contemporary barks, Mick Kubarkku, at nearly 80, has helped pioneer the new/old movement. As he says in the exhibition catalog, "When we were young we didn't do paintings. We just looked at rock paintings that our fathers did." "Crossing Country" charts this generational shift, which suggests not so much a radical departure as an extraordinary leap of faith.
It's appropriate that a movement which, as curator Hetti Perkins puts it, "morphed from rock walls to gallery walls," should have begun in and around Maningrida, "the place where the Dreaming changed shape." Less than 150 km west, at Oenpelli/Kunbarlanja, in 1912, anthropologist Baldwin Spencer first encouraged Aborigines to put their rock designs on bark in exchange for tobacco. It would be a further 50 years before the Kuninjku language group began to gather at Maningrida settlement. Here a young John Mawurndjul was treated for leprosy, and in 1963, with the Maningrida Social Club, a fledgling art industry began. But the deeply traditional Kuninjku were never happily confined here. As curator Perkins showed so thrillingly in her 2000 Papunya Tula show, a flowering of art in the 1970s was a key resource for Aboriginal people's return to their homelands. Now scattered across 10 outstations, the Kuninjku are small in number (400) but creatively tall, representing a majority of artists at the Maningrida Arts and Culture cooperative.
What has sprung up is less of an art movement than an extended family tree. You get a clear sense of this in the exhibition's central "courtyard," with its forest of mortuary log coffins and sapling-sized mimih sculptures. Visitors are advised to take a catalog, as you can get lost in this forest trying to connect the names. Start with the most mischievous of mimih by the late Crusoe Kuningbal, then jump to the mimih of his late wife Lena Kurinya, daughter Melba Gunjarrwanga and son Crusoe Kurddal. Next, leapfrog to the Lorrkkon logs of Ivan Namirrkki, son of the late bark pioneer Peter Marralwanga, then to those of Namirrkki's sister Kay Lindjuwanga, her husband Mawurndjul, and his siblings James Iyuna and Susan Marawarr.
What electrifies this artistic forest is the use of rarrk. This distinctive cross-hatching is tartan for the Kuninjku clan. It varies from the rougher markings of former rock painter Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek to the increasingly refined rarrk of Mawurndjul, who paints shimmering spiderwebs of yellow, black and red. The technique began with Yirawala (1903-1976), who in the '60s first transposed men's ceremonial body designs to bark. The elaborate cross-hatching also relates to the weaving of the giant barramundi fish traps, mandjabu.
Mawurndjul is the Michelangelo of rarrk. "Through some kind of magic I am a chemist man," he has said.
But it's bark, which he personally harvests and "stretches" over fire and under rocks, that's been the vehicle for his magic carpet ride. Last September, the wily, wild-haired sometime hunter, 52, won the $A30,000 Clemenger Contemporary Art Award at the National Gallery of Victoria. While a bark painting by Central Arnhem Land's David Malangi inspired the design of Australia's first dollar note, the genre hasn't always been a license to print money. When Maningrida barks were presented in Sydney in the early '70s, they were derided as "rubbish." It's taken European eyes to turn them into fine-art gold. Czech artist and anthropologist Karel Kupka began amassing barks in the '50s, and his collection will feature in the African and Oceanic art museum opening at Quai Branly, Paris, in 2006. Meanwhile, a Mawurndjul survey is planned for Basel's Museum der Kulturen next year.
A challenge for curators with their fragile ochers and buckling frames, barks are impossible to restrain, and it's to her credit that Hetti Perkins has liberated many in the show from their 20th century backing boards. It's the perfect medium for the constantly metamorphosing creatures that inhabit them, from yawkyawk mermaid spirits to the rainbow serpent, Ngalyod. Indeed, so warped is the bark of James Iyuna's 2002 serpent that it threatens to lift off the wall. But what is a nightmare for conservators is a thrill for spectators.
These are "canvases" with kick.
Nothing features larger than Ngalyod, the creator and destroyer in Kuninjku culture, and the serpent's twists and turns empower the show. Even when not shown, Ngalyod's presence can be felt in the waterlilies and water holes that are believed to be manifestations of its journey. Ngalyod's appetite is thought to have forged the local landforms, and one gets a sense of this in Marralwanga's Ngalyod and Yawkyawk, 1983, in which the two creatures consume each other. Mawurndjul's brother Jimmy Njiminjuma pushed the concept even further in his large-scale serpents from the mid '80s, which wrestle with the very edges of the frame. But no one inhabits Ngalyod better than Mawurndjul, whose increasingly abstract depictions give an insider view of the supreme being. "Where I live," he has said, "a Ngalyod lives under (water), but I paint her from inside my mind."
In clan lands, Mawurndjul's family mine a pure white clay, believed to be the essence of Ngalyod, which forms the foundation for his paintings. In recent years, Mawurndjul has allowed ever larger swathes of delek to shine through, as bright as the sun or the flick of a rainbow serpent's tail. Perhaps viewers should wear sunglasses to the show. Captured here is the white-hot flash of an art in motion; who knows where it might go next.