Susan Marawarr: A Sleeping Giant

Though Susan Marawarr only paints in black and white, she tells the complex stories of her Country with dazzling effect.

Words: Louise Martin-Chew

Photography: Courtesy of the Maningrida Arts and Culture

When it comes to artistic representation, gallery director Vivien Anderson refers to artist Susan Marawarr as “a sleeping giant”. Marawarr has been working for more than 20 years, in bark painting but also weaving, sculpture and printmaking. In that time, she has quietly emerged as a significant force amongst a strong contingent of female bark painters from Maningrida. Over the years, she has defined her own distinctive black and white bark painting style with lively, graphic surfaces that capture the energy of her place and culture.

Marawarr hails from an artistic family. Born in 1967, her mother was weaver Mary Wurrdjedje. Many of her brothers and sisters are artists, with bark painter John Mawurndjul being the most famous, but also including Jimmy Njiminuma and James Iyuna. Her Country includes Mumeka, Kurrurldul and Milmilngkan, and her mother’s Country is Barrihdjowkkeng. “Those Countries are where all the stories are”, says the artist. “For long time. My brothers paint them too.” Marawarr’s earliest painting tuition came from her father, Anchor Kulunba, who made spectacularly large woven fish traps. She says: “My fish trap stories I get from my dad. He made woven fish traps and then I was making them. My dad, he showed me and I started painting dilly bags and fish traps. My father was painting the rock art way.”

It is the Kulunba fish traps that give Marawarr’s work context. Woven with jungle vine, they are now in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia and the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Anderson exhibited them in her gallery some years back. “Kulunba’s extraordinary fish traps were sometimes 10 feet tall and with a girth of six feet,” says the gallerist. “They were regal, beautiful soft sculptures. Susan is very proud of that legacy.”

Marawarr’s coming exhibition includes a collection of new works depicting her characteristic fish traps and dilly bags. The objects have a totemic significance and connection to particular sites, in addition to their practical importance. Marawarr has increased the scale of her paintings for the new show. The largest work is called Mandjabu which takes its name from a traditional style of conical trap used for large fish in tidal reaches of the creeks. It stands more than two metres high took over a month to paint. Other subjects Marawarr explores are the powerful djang of wak wak, ngalyod and yawkyawk mythologies. Her ancestor figures often float in space, their complex shapes created with the distinctive cross-hatching style known as rarrk lifting optically from their ostensibly simple backgrounds.

Working with the rarrk technique, her bark paintings include exquisite detail, and take time. Marawarr’s process includes harvesting stringy bark, scoring it on a fire then flattening and drying it before the surface is prepared to paint. The black pigment is made using charcoal from the fire.

Maningrida Art Centre’s Kate O’Hara notes: “Susan has a long history of playing with the way that she creates her compositions, the interplay between surface and deep perspective deliver dazzling optical effects. She has really brought that to the fore with these works. Susan is constantly innovating with each new piece.”

Marawarr has worked as a textile artist with Bábbarra Designs since 2001, and the range of media with which she works also extends into public art. In 2000, she collaborated with Judy Watson on the commission of bronze fish fences and dillybags at Sydney International Airport. Her body of work, as a whole, is her story. “I put all that in my brain and I paint or I start weaving and I get fish trap. The story unites them and the history. It all comes together from the story and knowledge.”

Marawarr is thrilled to be showing in Melbourne. “It has been a long time since a big show, I am happy,” she says. “I explain all the stories, I know my stories a long time. I like my work and I like to teach, here in Maningrida.” Her work has been seen in recent years at JGM (London) and Sydney, and is in the collections of the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, and the Museum of Victoria.


 Vivien Anderson Gallery, Melbourne

Vivien Anderson was introduced to Susan Marawarr‘s work through Maningrida Art Centre Manager Kate O’Hara. “Susan is a strong personality and a feisty woman,” she says. “She is capable of extraordinary work, and I am intrigued by the way she dignifies Kulunba’s legacy in her paintings, set against a neutral background, making the fish traps the object.” Her approach to these subjects is un- usual. “She doesn’t complicate the background. Her subjects float in the space she has created for them.” The presence in these works also reflects the Arnhem Land belief that everything is animate. “They have a religious reverence for all that positions them, and intrinsic respect for the past.”

Marawarr works with the art centre in Maningrida, where a new team is focussed on delivering outcomes for artists. Anderson has observed that the art centre rebuild is not only based on the legend of John Mawurndjul (who has a retrospective opening on 6 July titled I am the old and the new at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and then Art Gallery of South Australia). Marawarr is a significant part of that legacy. “She is using that connection and familial rights to paint something of which she has ownership.”

The exhibition presents Marawarr and Maningrida sculptor Samson Bonson as an exhibiting duo. “I’m curious to see how Susan’s barks manifest in the gallery with the sculpture. I think they will look quite acrobatic together. Susan’s work was brought in initially to compliment the sculpture but it is so strong that I believe it will be a very equal joint show.” While Marawarr may not yet have the profile she deserves, Anderson says: “There are a lot of reasons, some cultural, that she has not been as consistent in the past. I think, going forward, that she will shine.”

Susan Marawarr will exhibit with Vivien Anderson Gallery, Melbourne from 16 May – 9 June, 2018.

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 84, APR – JUNE 2018.


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