Ngununggula is the very Aboriginal name of a new public gallery at Bowral – utilising a converted milking shed on the grounds of the National Trust’s Retford Park. And indeed, it turns out to mean ‘Belonging‘ in the local Gundunggurra language. Now, all our early histories of colonial Sydney saw the Gundungurra people as the worst of the worst – a warlike mob who came down from the mountains only to attack whitefellars. Clearly, they’ve quietened down a bit these days.

Despite it’s name, Ngununggula isn’t an Indigenous gallery. It’s the Southern Highlands artistic showplace, and Djon Mundine’s current show, ‘The Dingo Project’ merely takes advantage of his local residence, his descent from a Gundunggurra grandmother and the fact that nearby town of Mittagong can be translated as ‘plenty of native dogs’.

Not that the irrepressible Mundine hasn’t used his curatorial commission to imprint himself and his First Nationality on the walls of the gallery as visitors’ first taste of the show. He hopes his marks survive the ‘Project‘. For his act of hurling his own ochre-coated body at a pristine white wall was his way of imprinting ‘Always Will Be!’ (as in Aboriginal land) on the whole institution. Mind you, the sheep that Mundine brought provocatively into the opening – representing us imported whitefellars – were less than impressed by his antics.

But of course, those simple ovine creatures were intended as a counter to the native dingo – representing his mob. For there’s little doubt that both native man and native dog have been seen as a) in need of civilising by b) fencing in or out, or c) assimilating, or d) exterminating. That last thought allows Mundine just a little excursion into the sad world of another native carnivore – the thylacine, courtesy of Tasmanian artist Julie Gough.

At some stage on the exhibition tour I did with him, Djon Mundine referred to his artist selection as “my theatre group of artists”, and when you read names such as Karla Dickens, Blak Douglas, Fiona Foley, Warwick Keen, Teena McCarthy and Jason Wing, you might quickly jump to the conclusion that this is exclusively an urban Blak show. But never forget that Mundine earnt his stripes initially as an art coordinator at Ramingining in Arnhemland. So his exhibition begins up there with barks that illustrate Johnny Malibirr’s stories of the Dog who pushed the rock that released the water that became the Arafura Swamp.

More pointedly, the story of ‘The Wunggun (Dingo-man), the Macassan and the Matches‘ is a key wall-text for Mundine. When Macassans first arrived, Wunggun went to investigate, and was offered rice, tobacco and matches to light his fire. Wunggun rejected all of the offerings, and the Macassan demanded to know “What is wrong with you – don’t you want all the things you don’t have?”. Wunggun replied: “It’s because I am an independent Aboriginal Man. This is my land and I have lived here for tens of thousands of years. If I took these things from you, I would become a White Man and dependent”.

Arnhemland’s last contribution to the show is film of a woven mat shelter, invisibly inhabited by the increasingly performative Mundine. A dingo cross was let loose on him, loudly holding a conversation with his late Gundunggura grandma – causing the dog to respond with his howls. The filmed result adds both a tribute to Joseph Beuys’s ‘Coyote Work‘ and aural atmosphere to the show. BTW, the Yolngu word for the shelter/mat is the same as that for the womb.

The non-Indigenous contributions to the show start with a print of a 1795 Dingo Dance performance on the site of the Sydney Conservatorium – a key ceremonial site – and a JW Lindt photograph from the next century of Aborigines with their dogs. Later, Jenny Sages is there with her ‘Black Dog‘ painting, adding nightmares and depression to humans’ associations with the poor old dingo, confirmed by Mundine’s textual links to Freud, Jung, Jean Genet and Ingmar Bergman.

From such European heights to the Southern Highlands – two local First Nations artists have been nurtured into the show. Tallulah McCord tells a hybridised animal/human werewolf story over three canvases, and Peter Swain boldly declares, “I am not to blame” across his canvas, not to blame for all the intergenerational shit his family has suffered.

This makes for a good blend with stars such as Daniel Boyd, Danie Mellor and Lin Onus – given a room of his own to display his Japanese orientated ‘X & Ray’ suite, which has somehow escaped from his big solo show currently in Shepparton. X, of course, is his self-identified dingo. It turns out that Fiona Foley is also a Batjala Dingo Hunter, and so called to demand to be in the show. And, in a simple work specifically made for this show, Daniel Boyd has conjured some dingo footprints in his trademark glue-stick, accompanied by a text saying that his father told him “part of my story was the journey of the dingo”.

‘The Dingo Project’ is full of fascination and discoveries like that. Oddly, my favourite work was an atypically allusive work by Blak Douglas – a winsome dingo’s head looking helplessly up at what the artist calls “an all-absorbing mass”. The reference is to one of Goya’s Black Paintings, ‘The Dog‘ – now surely the Blak Dog! How could I not fall for this work when Spanish painter Antonio Saura has declared that Goya’s original was “the world’s most beautiful picture”.