Review: Noŋgirrŋa Marawili - from my heart and mind, AGNSW

Gina Fairley

A contemporary take on a very old tradition speak both of legacies and a very energised and personalised future.
Review: Noŋgirrŋa Marawili - from my heart and mind, AGNSW

Installation view Noŋgirrŋa Marawili - from my heart and mind at AGNSW; photo Artshub

This exhibition, curated by Cara Pinchbeck, coincides with the most comprehensive survey of Tony Tuckson’s work presented by the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW). Why is that of interest?

When Tuckson was deputy director of AGNSW (1950-1973) he was visionary in cementing the first commission ever of an Aboriginal artwork for an art museum. It was an idea propositioned by surgeon and art collector Dr Stuart Scougall, who paid for Tuckson to visit Merville Island in 1958 to arrange for a suite of 17 Pukamani Posts to enter the Gallery’s collection.

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Seizing the success and momentum of that commission, Tuckson then turned his attention to Yirrkala – described as the epicentre of Arnhem Land - for the Gallery’s second commission, an “epic” series of bark works. Yirrkala is the ancestral Country of Noŋgirrŋa Marawili – the two exhibitions reaching and connecting across time.

It is that very visionary journey to embrace the stories and context of this unique area – Yolngu knowledge – that connects the works Tuckson collected in the late 1950s and early 60s to these works collected and presented today by the Gallery, made by Noŋgirrŋa Marawili.

Putting this exhibition of Marawili within sight of the Tuckson narrative offers a curatorial continuum that remains important to the AGNSW. It also speaks of the vibrancy of Yirrkala culture that has sustained time, and so much change.

Installation view Noŋgirrŋa Marawili - from my heart and mind at AGNSW; photo Artshub

Noŋgirrŋa Marawili (born c.1939)  is one of the most distinctive Aboriginal artists working today. While her early career focused on printmaking (from 1989), it was in 2012 that she turned to painting with a feverish interest, reimagining her practice. This is not always common in the trajectory of the career of an Aboriginal artist working remotely.

This exhibition, from my heart and mind, focuses on the last five years of Marawili’s practice and includes works on paper, large and small scale bark works, and painted poles.

As the curatorial team at AGNSW describe: ‘Noŋgirrŋa has not arrived at this point of innovation by accident. She has followed a careful trajectory over the course of her career, cautiously navigating inherited traditions and accepted modes of representation to arrive at her singular vision.’

Walking into the space one can’t help but be touched by the beauty of this work – its palpable, and feels fresh and exciting to view.

Perhaps that may be because Marawili does not typically just retell a story of Country, but has a contemporary approach in the way that she is more open to interpretation. The gallery describes: ‘Hers is not an art of precision and exactitude, but one of verve and vigour… Noŋgirrŋa Marawili paints with courage and conviction’

Marawilli seemingly moves with ease between the finest rraking (cross hatching) – a tradition she learnt from her husband Djutjadjutja Munuŋgurr (whom she assisted on his bark paintings for many years), and a kind of open restraint, as she pares back her imagery and, in turn, gives her line and narratives greater clarity and impact.

Pinchbeck says that while Marawili does not break with tradition, she certainly pushes at its boundaries. I'd have to agree.

This is a stunning exhibition – it takes you on a journey through different mediums and energy – simply it is full of life and embraces a very personal language. Brave and beautiful - what a combo!

Rating: 4.5 stars ★★★★☆

Noŋgirrŋa Marawili - from my heart and mind

Art Galley of NSW

Sydney

3 November 2018 – 24 February 2019

About the author

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years.

She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW, and you can follow her on Twitter @ginafairley and Instagram at fairleygina.