Young painters Kenan Namunjdja and Rosina Gunjarrwanga are the first artists from Maningrida, in the northeast corner of the Northern Territory, to exhibit in Primavera, the annual exhibition at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). This year’s curator, Sydney-based artist Mitch Cairns, has brought together a total of seven young artists under the age of 35 from across Australia – Mitchel Cumming, Rosina Gunjarrwanga, Lucina Lane, Aodhan Madden, Kenan Namunjdja, Zoe Marni Robertson and Coen Young. It’s a much anticipated annual showcase, and a huge accolade for all the young artists involved.
Although I have written on the subject of indigenous art before, I must admit that this was the first time I have actually spoken to the artists themselves, rather than working off written information and emails. Chatting to Kenan via Skype from my Melbourne office, I quickly realised that the framework I was using to structure this article – even the questions themselves, like ‘how old were you when you first started painting?’ – were somewhat misdirected. The artists paint subject matter that is deeply connected to their history, lineage and place, continuing the strong legacies that are as old as the land itself. Questions such as ‘What’s your inspiration?’ doesn’t quite cut it.
Kenan remembers being taught to paint at an early age by his father, the renowned painter artist Bulanj S. Namunjdja, who passed away last year. His grandfather was also a painter. If you look closely at Kenan’s work, you’ll notice that what looks like blocks of colour is actually a painstakingly intricate cross hatching-type pattern. This is called rarrk, and is a technique that Kenan’s father was internationally recognised for. I learned from talking with Kenan that families paint the same subject matter – in this case, stories of the kunkurra (wind) and kalawan (goanna) – preserving the legacy of this deep history. Kenan integrates elements of his mother’s family stories as well. He explains this more in his catalogue essay for the Primavera:
‘Kunkurra (spiral wind) is for the Mankorlod area. [It] has songs, so when we sing, kunkurra comes out. Kunkurra is not easy, kunkurra is really hard. It blows everything away, like a cyclone. My father, he painted all these together, kalawan (goanna), ngalng (yabby), narawan (Oenpelli python), the sacred sites, their ceremonies, they are all linked.’
I spoke with Rosina with help from renowned Maningrida elder, MelbaGunjarrwanga (a senior artist and elder from Rosina’s father’s clan), as well as the art centre general manager Michelle Culpritt. Rosina is also the child of a highly respected artist, Susan Marawarr, and similarly to Kenan, paints the stories of her mother’s clan, the Kurulk. A painter and a sculptor, Rosina depicts the Wakwak (crow) story, representing strength, resilience and constancy. As a djungkay – having inherited management responsibility of her mother’s country – Rosina draws on these sacred symbols and sites of this land.
I can’t speak with authority on… almost anything, but in particular, Rosina and Kenan’s work. But what is clear to me is that Kenan and Rosina are doing important cultural work in their communities, and represent a new generation of exciting young artists to come out of Maningrida, following in their parent’s footsteps. Together, these young artists make up almost a third of the Primavera 2019 programming! If you’re in Sydney, make sure you head down to MCA to see the striking works of all seven artists in person, to see how the young artists of today interpret our world.
October 11th 2019 – February 9th 2020
Galleries: Level 1 South
Museum of Contemporary Art
140 George Street
Sydney, New South Wales