"Sometimes I think about this crosshatching and it makes me cry.
I'm a magic man, I dream and I understand." John Mawurndjul, 2003
The Aboriginal artists of western Arnhem Land are alchemists of tradition and innovation. Crossing Country reveals this potent chemistry - an inspired fusion of country, culture and community, of the human and the supernatural. "This is an art movement that confounds the conventions of Western art in simultaneously invoking the customary and the contemporary," says curator Hetti Perkins.
Crossing Country is the first major survey of Kuninjku and related key artists from Aboriginal communities to the west of Maningrida in Arnhem Land. Featuring early and contemporary bark paintings, fibre art, works on paper and sculpture, this landmark exhibition traces the figurative and abstract representation of the pervasive integration of human, natural and supernatural worlds.
This is revealed in the depiction of benign and malevolent beings, creative ancestors and their epic travails, skeletal remains, hand and footprints, body paint, enigmatic ceremonial objects and sacred sites.
Yet perhaps nowhere is the merging of the human and natural worlds so beautifully expressed as in the art of weaving. The artists of Arnhem Land are renowned for their mastery of natural fibres and dyes, creating dilly bags, string bags and an incredible array of other objects - for example the distinctive, voluminous mandjabu (fish traps), which bear an uncanny, mirage-like resemblance to the human form. In recent years these weaving traditions have been translated into the print medium with spectacular results.
"Our spirits lie in the water ... When we camp by the creek it soothes our spirits and keeps us cool. We understand it at places where my father took us, and my grandfather, mother's mother and father’s mother. Today we want to continue to teach each other these things so we can understand. My father told me these true things and I hold on to them forever. I now understand. Today I will continue like this. I won’t stop. I want to paint. It is in my spirit." Ivan Namirrkki, 2003
Crossing Country focuses on significant bodies of works by key individuals, tracing an artistic legacy from Yirawala to John Mawurndjul and other leading artists including Peter Marralwanga, Wally Mandarrk, Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek, Mick Kubarkku, Crusoe Kuningbal, Jimmy Midjawmidjaw, Anchor Kulunba and their families. "These senior ceremonial leaders and artists have successfully negotiated the transition from rock art to contemporary installation, from making works for ceremony to exhibiting works in international Biennales," says Hetti Perkins.
The artists of today proudly acknowledge their debt to the creative pioneers Yirawala and Marralwanga, and those foundational artists of the early 20th century whose works mostly remain unattributed. Yet, as Mawurndjul asserts, "We are the new people. We new people have changed things."
Crossing Country is presented in close collaboration with the artists of western Arnhem Land and Maningrida Arts and Culture, as well as the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University.
Lenders to the exhibition include the National Gallery of Australia, Djomi Museum, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, National Gallery of Victoria, Art Gallery of South Australia, Art Gallery of Western Australia, National Museum of Australia, South Australian Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art, Melbourne Museum, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Queensland Art Gallery, Australian Museum, Holmes à Court Collection, Berndt Museum of Anthropology and Museum der Kulturen, Basel.
On view from 25 September until 12 December 2004, Crossing Country – the alchemy of western Arnhem Land art will only be seen at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and will be accompanied by an extensive schedule of public programs, including the artists' participation, films, public lectures and floor talks. This exhibition follows the internationally acclaimed Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius, also curated by Hetti Perkins, Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
In Crossing Country history comes alive. With each painterly stroke, the artists are not only adding further layers to this history, they are documenting the present and foretelling the future.
IMAGE: Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrk Kabirriyalyolme (The discussion) 2003
Don Mitchell Bequest Fund 2003, Art Gallery of New South Wales.