A talking point with the Tony Tuckson show at the Art Gallery of NSW is that the artist’s first solo exhibition came at the age of 48. Most of today’s art students would probably think anyone who leaves it so late must be doomed to failure. At nearly 50, surely one should be thinking about retirement, not starting a career.
What then are we to make of the adjoining exhibition at the AGNSW – Nongirrna Marawili: From My Heart and My Mind? Marawili’s date of birth is given as c.1939. Her first solo exhibition came along in 2013, when she was (at least) 74 years old, but somehow this is seen as an entirely respectable launch for an indigenous painter. The museums are full of works by artists from remote communities who didn’t begin to paint until late in life.
There are pros and cons with this phenomenon. Artists that emerge in their old age are not going to have lengthy careers, but they do have enormous life experience. With indigenous artists this is especially important as it is virtually impossible to separate their lives from their art, or from a deep-rooted relationship with country.
A western artist may be born in Australia, study in Paris, and pursue a career in New York or Beijing. For an artist such as Marawili such a path would be unthinkable because her work is vitally dependent on her connection with the place she was born and where she has spent her life. The features of that landscape in Yirrkala, in the Gulf of Carpentaria, recur again and again in her paintings and works on paper. She doesn’t experience the landscape solely through its surface features, but through deep time, in its living connection with the ancestors and spirits that created the land.
We should not imagine these paintings to be records of an historical or mythical past. For Marawili and her peers what happened in the distant past is still happening today and will continue to happen in the future. The land is alive with spiritual presences that must be respected by the artist. Different clans are assigned custodianship of particular motifs, which cannot be depicted by outsiders without permisssion.
Marawili began painting in the 1990s, as an assistant to her husband, Djutjadjutja, adding cross-hatching and in-fill according to his instructions. Her breakthrough came with a two-metre-tall bark painting called Mäna (The Shark) (1992), which Djutjadjuta found too difficult to finish. Marawili completed the picture, demonstrating her powers of application and her willingness to work on a large scale.
Over the next decade she would continue to collaborate on reasonably conventional bark paintings with Djutjadjuta. Marawili didn’t begin to emerge in her own right until 2005, but her most original works have appeared in the past 5-6 years. A painting such as Thunderman raining down (2012) would be a stand-out in most exhibitions, but it doesn’t hint at what comes next. Within 12 months Marawili produced the series of paintings called Yathikpa, which refer to a particular location where Bäru, the crocodile, transformed himself from human to animal form, plunging into the water in a blaze of flames. Think, by way of comparison, of Arthur Boyd’s paintings of a fiery Nebuchadnezzar hurtling across the sky.
Marawili’s most radical Yathikpa paintings resemble a mesh or net that covers the entire sheet of bark, each diamond shape representing a tongue of fire. Marawili is cautious not to overstep the mark, unsure whether she is allowed to tell Bäru’s tale. She calls it “a painting with no story, only flames.”
This sense of caution is one of the defining features of Marawili’s late work, but it is not necessarily a negative gesture. Her respect for the judgements of the elders, and her implicit acceptance of male dominance in these matters, may seem like passive traits, but the problem of remaining on the right side of an unwritten law has led Marawili to some inspired creative solutions.
The inventiveness of the Yathikpa paintings is continued in Mundukul (2014), which depicts the lightning snake as a sinuous, swollen red form set against an irregular pattern of black lozenges. The snake’s story is staged at a small promontory called Baratjala, that provides a title for a subsequent body of work. Mundukul’s lightning tongue soon gives way to images of bolts of lightning that hurl themselves against a rock.
Three paintings titled Baratjala, from 2014, are almost without precedent in the way they isolate contrasting motifs within different compartments in the same composition.
Lightning in the rock (2015), which won the bark painting prize at that year’s National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, is a stark and powerful picture in which lines of electricity crackle between two white monoliths set against a dark ground. Although the title sounds like a line from the Old Testament, Marawili describes her lightning works as “meaningless” (mayilimiriw). They are not intended as story paintings, but, in the words of curator, Cara Pinchbeck, as evocations of “the spirit and energy of a life lived on country”. For one of the Yolngu elders, Djambawa, “her paintings cry for the land.”
These pictures may be “meaningless”, but they are not examples of abstract art. It would be more appropriate to call them schematic landscapes, as all the motifs – rocks, lightning, even barnacles – come from the natural world. It’s only the absence of an ancestral story that allows Marawili to disavow a deeper meaning. In purely formal terms she is a tremendous innovator, with her own language of visual signs. Like that other prominent Yirrkala artist, Gunybi Ganambarr, she is also willing to experiment with materials. Two of her Lightning pictures in this show are painted on sheets of aluminium.
Djambawa describes Marawili as a “quiet custodian” of a part of the country that has been neglected by local artists, but there is nothing quiet about the works themselves. In seeking out subjects that don’t generate conflicts with her neighbours, Marawili has found a remarkable creative freedom. Working in a medium in which tradition reigns supreme she’s as dynamic as those lightning bolts that surge and shudder through her paintings.
Nongirrna Marawili: From My Heart and Mind
Art Gallery of NSW, until 3 November, 2018 – 24 February, 2019
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 19 January, 2019