John Mawurndjul was born c.1952 at Mumeka, prior to the establishment of the government settlement at Maningrida some 50 kilometres to the north. He grew up with his family, outside the sphere of European influence, living according to the rhythms of nature. The family moved camps with the changing seasons, from Mumeka to Maningrida during the wet season and on to the Tomkinson flood plain in the dry season. With his mother, Mary Wurrdjedje, and father, Anchor Kulunba, Mawurndjul continued this pattern into in adulthood, later accompanied by his wife, Kay Lindjuwanga, and their seven children. However, in the 1980's he followed his older brother, Jimmy Njiminjuma, and relocated more permanently to an outstation at Milmilngkan.
It was under Jimmy Njiminjuma’s tutelage that John began bark painting and the mythology of his new surrounding environment at Milmilngkan became the primary subject matter for his work. Thus, throughout the1980's, Mawurndjul painted small barks of Ngalyod, the Rainbow Serpent keeper of the nearby billabong, as well as various depictions of the local natural species, such as fish, bandicoots, and possum with precise attention to anatomical detail. The figurative elements of his work served as a compositional vehicle to support a complex array of cross-hatching, or ‘rarrk’, derived from the body painting designs of the Mardayin ceremony.
Mawurndjul’s work at this time reflected his position as heir apparent to a long painting tradition, both emulating and learning from a lineage of Kuninjku artists whom had created magnificent bark paintings over the previous decade. However, unlike Yirawala, Peter Marralwanga, and Mick Kubarkku, who shared a close association to the ancient practice of painting on cave and rock surfaces, John forged a new form of artistic expression. Most obviously the x-ray depiction of the internal organs of the body prevalent in stone country rock and cave paintings are absent in his work. In their place is an emphasis on a complex repertoire of rarrk. Though artists like Yirawala had incorporated rarrk designs into their art, this ‘design element’ remained secondary to the figurative elements and rarely left the interior of the figure, leaving a plain background. This came in time to be thought of as the quintessential Central and Western Arnhem Land style. Mawurndjul, in contrast, increasingly allowed the rarrk designs to dominate, filling both the interior and surrounding space of his figures.
In 1988 Mawurndjul abandoned figurative iconography all but completely, creating an abstracted vision of country. This development was a logical extension of his experimentation with rarrk designs, more intimately related to the bark painting tradition of the Yolngu people of Eastern Arnhem Land. However, it was also a very deliberate move on Mawurndjul’s behalf, as he explained: ‘I am the person who instigated this style and others are copying it… I am leading this movement and they are following. I am going first‘ (Ryan 2004: 64). Quite clearly, Mawurndjul saw himself as the pioneering artist in a new movement in Kuninjku bark painting. Certainly, he played a formative role in shaping a new direction for Kuninjku women artists when he taught his wife, Kay Lindjuwanga, and daughter, Anna Wurrkidj, to paint. Maningrida Arts and Culture can now boast of no less than sixteen women bark painters. He also encouraged Ivan Namirrki, Samuel Namunjdja, and Timothy Wulanjbirr to emulate his style.
Mawurndjul’s art continued to evolve throughout the 1990s as he perpetually simplified and purified his style to create an increasingly ‘metaphysical form of abstraction with a compelling and esoteric geometry that has a three-dimensional quality' (Ryan 2004: 64). In addition to paintings on bark, he has created sculptures, specifically wooden Lorrkon (Dupun) hollow logs. In these, and in fact all of his art, the designs mirror his development of increasingly graceful mazes of rarrk patterning, which have attracted exponentially growing attention from curators and collectors.
Unlike most of the great bark painters who preceded him, perhaps with the exception of Yirawala, John Mawurndjul’s career has been handled professionally and carefully. Since his first solo exhibition at Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi in 1993, he has had numerous solo shows, been in art competitions, and participated in dozens of group and institutional exhibitions. His 2004 exhibition at Bill Gregory’s Annandale Galleries in Sydney introduced his work to collectors outside of those specifically interested in Aboriginal art. This was remarkable for an artist whose primary medium is not clearly understood or accepted in the contemporary mainstream. His star status, partly the effect of his contribution to Crossing Country at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2004, saw him paint the ceiling and pillars of the Musee du Quay Branly in Paris while still fresh from a retrospective at the Jean Tinguely Museum in Basel, Switzerland. It led Art Collector magazine, in 2006, to refer to him as ‘the artist of the moment in Australia' when listing him in its 50 most collectable artists.
As an almost direct consequence of Mawurndjul’s success, Gregory and others have hailed a renaissance in bark painting, certainly delighting those long-time admirers who have believed that contemporary Arnhem Land art has been sorely neglected when compared to the acrylic paintings of the Western Desert. Though historic artists such as Yirawala do attract high prices for seminal works, equally deserving early bark painters such a Mick Kubarkku, David Milybuma, and Wally Mandark still do not receive comparable prices at auction. Despite Gregory’s enthusiastic assertion, it is far more likely that the current hype surrounding Mawurndjul’s art is due almost entirely to its distinct aesthetic leap from traditional figurative and iconic bark painting and his professional representation. If this is so, just as the development of aesthetic minimalism by Papunya artists in the early to mid-1990s did little to alter perceptions about their more ethnographic 1980’s works, Mawurndjul’s abstracted geometric cross-hatching is unlikely to spark a re-evaluation of the more figurative paintings of early bark artists.
Regardless of whether or not he has sparked a revolution in bark painting, John Mawurndjul has already earned himself an enduring place as one of Aboriginal Australia’s greatest bark painters. He won the Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award for painting on bark in 1999 and in 2002; was awarded the prestigious Clemenger Contemporary Art Award, at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2003. 2018 was a big year for John Mawarndjul's reputation and standing and, concurrently, the value and collectability of his works. Sydney's Museum of Contemprary Art held a major retrospective, which began its tour nationally. He looks likely to produce wonderful works of art and participate in important projects for many years into the future. He is, without doubt, one of the most successful Australian artists of the millennium.