The bark painter John Mawurndjul was born in Western Arnhem Land (Northern Territory, Australia) in 1952. His works lead us on a voyage of discovery to a fascinating world and culture that are still unknown to many, a culture that developed a rich iconographical tradition to compensate for its lack of a written language. The main section of this exhibition, about 75 selected works by the artist, introduces a mature personage of the contemporary art scene. They depict the extraordinary personal development from the 1970s to the present of an artist whose activity at some remove from the centres of the art establishment generates a fruitful tension. Mawurndjul’s visually appealing works both question western approaches to working and seeing and present the Aborigines’ indigenous cultural traditions in new colours. The artist changes the pictorial content in a continuous process of transformation: using a cross-hatching technique (rarrk in Kuninjku) that dominates the entire picture to the edge of portrayability, he integrates images of figurative reality, heightening effect and encrypting meaning.
The development in John Mawurndjul’s oeuvre refutes the widespread prejudice in Europe that indigenous artists are incapable of developing their personal individualism or innovating outside of a collective authority. His work also demonstrates the fertile consequence of proactive interaction with tradition and convention once artists cease to treat tradition as an anonymous and unchanging corset. Our «Journey through Time in Northern Australia» takes viewers from rock paintings of more than 30,000 years ago, denoting the Aborigines’ sacred sites, to the present.
In addition, the Museum der Kulturen Basel Guest of the Museum Tinguely project also includes about 35 works by different artists acquired by Karel Kupka in Arnhem Land for the Museum der Kulturen Basel between 1956 and 1963. This researcher and collector was one of the first people to seek to grasp Aborigine artists as repositories of knowledge of traditional imagery and to document their work.
The collaboration between the two museums highlights the «World Contemporary Art» project conceived and realised by the artist Bernhard Lüthi and the Oceania scholar Christian Kaufmann to launch a fruitful interdisciplinary dialogue between art historians, art theorists and ethnologists. A symposium will provide a forum for specialists from Australia and Europe to elaborate on this theme.
Two video and film essays produced by Insertfilm of Solothurn supplement the exhibition: the first looks at rock paintings and landscape, while the second is devoted to the painter John Mawurndjul and Maningrida Arts & Culture.
An exhibition catalogue in German and English with contributions by well-known specialists and edited by Dr Christian Kaufmann will be published by Verlag Schwabe AG: c. 200 pages, with 160 coloured and 40 black and white illustrations; price: CHF 42–.