The painted barks of Arnhemland continue to lack the popular accessibility of the Deserts’ acrylic canvases – as reflected in both market prices and curatorial enthusiasm in institutions. And this is despite the clear emergence of real artists – in the full Western sense – during the 21st Century at art centres such as Maningrida and Yirrkala. This process was undoubtedly helped by the clear encouragement of centre coordinators who’ve lasted the often trying course and therefore gained an understanding of the strict rules that govern cultural transmission in these proud and remote places – sufficient to allow them to guide their artists into pushing boundaries.
And the place to observe these dynamic developments in Sydney has been the inter-cultural Annandale Galleries, where Bill Gregory has switched between world artists such as William Kentridge and Robert Motherwell and bark stars like John Mawurndjul and Lofty Bardayal with ease and, often, important catalogues. The radical Guynbi Ganambarr’s career has been played out at Annandale every time he took another step into the Yolngu unknown.
Now Bill Gregory has revealed that some of his finest offerings marked with red stickers in his shows were actually picked off by him and wife Anna. Interestingly, he tells me that early on, he only bought that which others rejected for himself. Later, he jumped in first when his eyes were better attuned to the cream of the crop.
A faint sense of winding down is in the air at Annandale. But it doesn’t feel like that in the current exhibition of works dating between 1996 and 2009 on show and for sale. They’re as fresh as daisies, and some of the linkages that Gregory has brought out in this selection are intriguing.
There are the great clan leaders from the Yolngu world – Dula Nurruwuthun, Gawirrin Gumana AO and today’s mighty man, Djambawa Marawili AM – ritual and power figures even more than they are artists; but all were associated with the ‘Saltwater Barks’ efflorescence that used the power of painting the land (and the sea) to win an important legal battle known as the Blue Mud Bay Case.
Then there’s the growth of Guynbi Ganambarr’s art – showing the clear influence of Djambawa Marawili, his adoptive father early on. And that man would later give him permission to break free from some of the Yolngu culture’s traditional shackles.
And then there’s the difference between the east Arnhemland school with its deep reliance on clan symbols, designs and rituals, and the western Kunwinjku people with their roots in rock art painting telling stories more about food resources, the Mimi who slipped between the rocks in their craggy world and the Rainbow Serpents who carved it out. Three barks by Gunbalanya’s Lofty Bardayal bring us close to this mysterious world, and the mastery with which the old man could translate millenia of figurative rock art to bark is offered at generous prices.
So different from the more sophisticated folk up the road in Maningrida. There the appreciation of the spiritual world was no less; but the art that developed to reinterpret it for a non-indigenous audience was quite different. Artists such as Johnny Mawurndjul and Samuel Namundja appear to be offering abstraction to our eyes, while evoking ritual stories and places to their own people. Mawurndjul’s development from the figurative to abstraction is displayed in a series of barks at Annandale from 1997 to 2009.
And then there’s the sculpture – larrikitj and lorrkon, and spindly Mimi figures – where, amazingly, an artist like Owen Yalandja can come up with a style that, time after time, is instantly recognisable as his own. A mokuy figure by Bakulanay Marawili has an irresistible face; the mysterious Henry from Elcho Island has created one of the most beautiful Morning Star Poles I’ve ever seen.
Finally, there’s a selection of what might be called the quiet artists. Their finely detailed work doesn’t hit you in the eye on a first circuit of the exhibition. But I found myself often drawn back to artworks such as Terry Ngamandarra Wilson’s ‘Gulach‘ works and the oddly-named Tommy Gondorra Steele’s repetitive ‘Water Lily‘ pattern. Perhaps my favourite in this class was Wanyubi Marika’s ‘Mumutthun‘ – simply black and white lines in horizontal and vertical juxtaposition. Mesmerising.
Artist: John Mawurndjul, Lofty Bardayal, Guynbi Ganambarr, Dula Nurruwuthun, Gawirrin Gumana, Djambawa Marawili, Samuel Namundja, Owen Yalandja, Bakulanay Marawili, Henry, Terry Ngamandarra Wilson, Tommy Gondorra Steele, Wanyubi Marika,
Gallery: Annandale Galleries ,