Important Australian Aboriginal Art
17 March 2021


born 1952

natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark

148.0 x 63.0 cm (irregular)

bears inscription on label attached verso: artist's name, medium, size, language group and Maningrida Arts and Culture cat. 757 - 04

$80,000 – 120,000

Maningrida Arts and Culture, Maningrida, Northern Territory
Private collection, Melbourne, acquired from the above in 2004


John Mawurndjul: I am the Old and the New, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 6 July – 23 September 2018; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 26 October 2018 – 28 January 2019


Altman, J., et al., John Mawurndjul: I am the Old and the New, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney and Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2018, pp. 200 – 201 (illus.), 378

Catalogue text

‘The Rainbow Serpent rose up at Ngandarryo and pulled the people down into the earth, killing them all and turning them into bones. Rainbow Serpents are found in many places in both dua and yirridjdja moiety. They live in the earth under the ground or in bodies of water at places such as Dilebang or Benedjangngarlwend. The white clay in the ground at Kudjarnngal is the faeces of the serpent. Waterlilies at certain places tell us that the Rainbow Serpent lives there. When the wet season storms come, we can see her in the sky (as a Rainbow). She makes the rain. When we the floodwaters of the wet season rise, we say the Rainbow Serpent is making the electrical storms of the monsoon wet season. Rainbow Serpents are dangerous, just like crocodiles, they can kill people and other animals.’1

Uniquely Australian, the art of John Mawurndjul is the culmination of decades of learning and the fine tuning of his craft over time, resulting in a distinct record of country and an individual style of storytelling subtly contained within his intricate and beautiful paintings on bark.

Since he first began painting in the late 1970s, Mawurndjul has quietly transformed Kuningku bark painting. His early works of figures and creatures in Kuningku mythology evolved into a more metaphysical representation of specific sites, events and landscape and it is perhaps in his renditions of Ngalyod, the Rainbow Serpent, that this evolution is most evident. An omnipotent and significant creature in Kuninjku cosmology, Ngalyod is associated with the creation of all sacred sites, djang, in Kuninjku clan lands.

Ngalyod appears as a subject in his early paintings, but as Mawurndjul’s knowledge grew through the guidance of his late elder brother Jimmy Njiminjuma and his participation in ritual ceremonies, his work reflects the more transformative power of Ngalyod. His paintings become representative of the destructive potential of this being and ‘many of his works, particularly the Ngalyod paintings, act as definitive warnings to family, friends and visitors alike, illustrating the vengeful capacity of beings to punish transgressors or those who do not have ritual authority.’2

As the artist describes in the catalogue entry for this painting above, Ngalyod resides in the waterholes and water courses. Waterlilies growing around their edges may indicate the presence of Naglyod, and Kuninjku are careful not to damage the lilies or disturb the still bodies of water so not to anger the spirit. The Power of Nagalyod is clearly evident in Ngalyod Rainbow Serpent, 2004, the twisting energy of its body indicates the presence and potential power within that is both life-giving with the rejuvenating rains of the annual monsoon, and at the same time, threatening with the destructive power of storms.

Mawurndjul’s paintings have pioneered a new interpretation of Kuningku clan sites and djang that inspire the next generation of bark painters. Constantly striving for new ways to interpret his country, Mawurndjul’s innovative use of rarrk to map important locations is evident in the fine lineal clan designs spread across the surface of his paintings, creating shifting patterns of grids that are rendered in fine interlocking lines. As Hetti Perkins writes ‘His works, lovingly crafted and sculpted depictions of flora and fauna, ancestral events, supernatural beings, significant sites and encrypted ceremonial designs are at once country and mnemonic of country.’3

1. The artist quoted in John Mawurndjul, I am the Old and the New, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2018, p. 200
2. Perkins, H., ‘Mardayin Maestro’ in John Mawurndjul, I am the Old and the New, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2018, p. 26
3. ibid., p. 21