Samuel Namunjdja, Goannas at Bilwoyinj site (1569-10), 2010, ochre pigments with PVC fixative on stringybark, 139.5 x 49.5cm
in association with Maningrida Arts and Culture
Samuel Namunjdja is a prolific and prominent Kuninjku artist who has a long association with Niagara Galleries. Namunjdja had his first solo show at Niagara Galleries in 2004, the year he also participated in the landmark exhibition Crossing Country - The Alchemy of Western Arnhem Land, held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. These two major exhibitions gave Namunjdja the impetus and confidence to further experiment with the use of rarrk - crosshatching - and complex compositions. In 2006, he won the Telstra Bark Painting Award at the 23rd Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award, which further positioned him as one the major artists from the Maningrida region.
Born into a family of artists in 1965, Namunjdja is the son of acclaimed artist Peter Marralwanga. He spent his formative years watching his family painting important stories associated with the Kardbam clan estate. The rock art sites located on his clan lands also greatly influenced Namunjdja and are still today a great source of inspiration for his work. Early in his career Namunjdja, a skilled and talented draughtsman, often painted animals and spirit beings in the X-Ray style reminiscent of the rock art paintings found near his outstation Mankorlod. His work was first exhibited in 1988 and he won his first award in 1993 at the tenth National Aboriginal Art Award for best painting in the traditional media category. Throughout the 1990s his work slowly evolved as he started to paint more complex themes and also watched the work of fellow Kuninjku artists such as John Mawurndjul becoming increasingly focused on representations of djang - sacred sites. In this new style instigated by Mawurndjul, figures and animals slowly disappeared from the paintings and were replaced by flows of rarrk, which cover the entire surface of the bark to create abstract looking representations of places filled with power and spirituality. Namunjdja started to experiment with representations of sacred Kardbam places in 2003 and his first painting of Bilwoyinj site was immediately spotted by Indigenous art curator Judith Ryan from the National Gallery of Victoria and included in the exhibition Living Together is Easy, which travelled to Japan. Namunjdja's use of soft red and white rarrk to depict gungura - spiralling wind - associated with Bilwoying site enchanted viewers of all cultures. Soon after, Namunjdja started to create more works in this style, which were exhibited as part of his first solo show at Niagara Galleries.
The success was immediate and Namunjdja realised that he had invented his own style and was now free to further experiment with representations of other sites and associated stories. However, Namunjdja still loved figuration and also continued to paint small bark paintings featuring animals and spirit beings in the more conventional X-Ray style. Until 2009, he happily worked in both styles. It seemed unlikely that he would ever amalgamate his figurative representations with his abstract looking depictions of his country. I clearly remember Namunjdja bringing one day in 2008 two pretty pictures of barramundis and a Gungunra painting. He got quite upset as the barramundis clearly did not command the same price and attention compared to the other painting. We ended up having a long conversation in my office about his work. I explained the best I could that, whilst the barramundi paintings were pretty, they lacked the vibrancy of his other work. Most importantly, they lacked substance and power, energy and emotion. He accused me of disliking figuration. I replied that I loved figuration as long as it had some 'guts'. I left the arts centre soon after but still continue to follow his work. I can see Namunjdja's work maturing and morphing into a new direction.
In this exhibition, his fourth solo show at Niagara Galleries, Namunjdja is presenting bark paintings, lorrkon -hollow logs - and sculptures of mimih spirits. What I find interesting in this new body of works is the subtle yet powerful integration of figurative elements within abstract representations of the spiralling wind. Goannas at Bilwoyinj site (1569-10) features two goannas embedded in an intricate depiction of Gungunra, the mini-cyclones common during the wet season in Arnhem Land. Gungura also relates specifically to Bilwoyinj site. At this site, two of the most important Kuninjku creation beings, a father and son, hunted and ate a goanna. They left some of the goanna fat behind, which turned into the rock that still stands at the site today. The word 'Bilwoyinj' also refers to the goanna fat. The Bilwoyinj site is also a ceremonial ground for Yabbadurruwa, a major ceremony owned by the Yirridjdja patrimoiety. The Yabbadurruwa ceremony is primarily concerned with initiation, land ownership and promoting the cyclical regeneration of the human and natural worlds. In this painting, by representing the goannas, Namunjdja depicts another layer of the story. In Gungunra with goanna tracks (1791-10) the goannas are gone but the sinuous fat tracks left in the sand by the goannas are accurately represented in the painting. Namorrorrdo - a profane spirit (584-10) unlike Namorrorrdo - a profane spirit (3022-09), which depicts Namorrorrdo against a plain background, shows the spirit figure emerging from a body of rarrk. Namorrorrdo is a profane spirit of the Yirridjdja moiety, associated with the Yabbadururruwa ceremony. He is often, like in these two paintings, depicted with long, claw like hands and feet and emanates light from his head. Shooting stars seen at night are Namorrorrdo travelling across the night sky. They are representations of Namorrorrdo in some of the rock art galleries located on Namunjdja's clan estate, which Namunjdja often visits.
Three-dimensional works, especially in the form on lorrkon - hollow logs - are also very strong in this show. The same shift in style can be seen in the stunning Lorrkon (1436-10). This work reminds me of a hollow log he did a few years ago, which also had representations of bones and skulls emerging from the body of rarrk. In all works,his use of colours is superb and his fine rarrk enables splendid renditions of gungunra - spiralling wind.
This exhibition reveals the work of a mature, confident and serene artist. Namunjdja's happiness and attachment to his country is present in all the works. His role now goes beyond painting. He also teaches his family how to paint and helps record and document rock art sites with scientists with the view of ensuring that future generations understand the importance and meaning of these galleries. Namunjdja can no longer be described as belonging to the new up and coming generation of artists from Western Arnhem Land. He is now a leader and younger artists seek his guidance and look at his paintings with admiration and respect. Similarly, we are enjoying and learning from Namunjdja's artistic endeavour.
A fully illustrated catalogue is now available for $11.00 plus postage and handling. The exhibition is also available for viewing on the website.
Please contact the gallery to obtain a complete list of works or to arrange for a preview prior to the opening.