A Contemporary Spirit: The Art of Graham Badari

This following essay was written to accompany Graham Badari’s first solo exhibition, held at Mossenson Galleries Perth,  March 16 – April 25, 2010.

A pair of red eyes glowers from an angular, skeletal visage. Its snarling grimace revels sharp teeth, its razor-like claws borne forth ready to strike. This is one of the unseen dangers of the bush: Namarnde, the malevolent spirit of the box pandanus. When pregnant, Kunwinjku women avoid walking too close to pandanus bushes, in case Namarnde captures the spirit of their unborn babes. In Graham Badari’s painting, this terror is brilliantly evoked through a combination of jagged ferocity and delicate cross-hatching or rarrk. His painting transports the viewer to the mystical landscape of the stone country, where spirits inhabit every crevice and ancient paintings adorn the rock-faces. At the same time, Badari’s Namarnde is uncannily futuristic, bearing a striking resemblance to the cyborg Maria from Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi epic Metropolis.

Graham Badari was born in 1963 at Gunbalanya (Oenpelli) in Western Arnhem Land. His country is Maburrinj, near Kudjekbinj, about 120 kilometers east of Gunbalanya. He was raised by the renowned artist Djawida Nadjongorle, but like many of the artist at Gunbalanya, credits the late Thompson Yulidjirri as his greatest artistic influence. From these senior men, Badari learnt the fluid and dynamic style that defines Kunwinjku painting at Injalak Arts. He began painting sporadically around 1990, but in recent years, his career has gained a new focus and momentum. Following the recent passing of many of the senior artists at Gunbalanya, Badari has become one of the leaders of a small coterie of dedicated artists, which includes Wilfred Nawirridj, Glenn Namundja, Gabriel Maralngurra, and Gershom Garlngarr. They are a ubiquitous presence at Injalak Arts, and are fiercely proud of their art, community and art centre. Their paintings show a faithful dedication to the visual language of their rock-art heritage, while remaining committed to artistic innovation. It is this beguiling balance of tensions – innovation and tradition, ancient and modern, beauty and terror – that energises Badari’s paintings. And yet, to understand how his work could so effortlessly embody these apparent dualities, it is necessary to understand how these competing positions coexist within Badari’s worldview, informing his unique and eccentric personality.

With his impish smile and cheeky sense of humour, Grahama Badari or ‘Grammy’ as he affectionately known, is the gentlest of souls. He is a popular figure at the art centre, a beloved tour guide and font of community news. And yet, as his paintings suggest, Badari has a fascination with the darker side of life. Walking in the bush, he is careful to warn of the dangers of Namarnde or other malicious spirits such as Namarrodoh. Always concerned with the safety of his guests, he cautions of the equal dangers posed by the very present Kinga (salt-water crocodile) and the more otherworldly Ngalyod (Rainbow Serpent). Badari believes wholeheartedly in the presence of these spirit beings; they are an intrinsic part of the cultural heritage that has informed his life.

On the other hand, Badari is sensitively attuned to the modern world. The ease with which he traverses this cosmology of the mystical and the everyday might go some way to explaining his attraction to western science-fiction and fantasy imagery. This passion is not only evident in Badari’s paintings, but in his distinctive choice of fashion, which favours the kind of lurid fantasy t-shirts more commonly seen on teenage heavy metal fans. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Badari is also a keen follower of heavy metal music, with his favourite band being the Swedish group Hammer Fall. Indeed, it is worth comparing Badari’s depictions of Namarnde and Namarrodoh with the red-eyed, hammer-wielding leviathan featured on the group’s album covers, designed by renowned graphic artist Samwise Didier. That said, when questioned on these striking visual parallels, Badari is quick to refute such influences, preferring to highlight the traditional aspects of his work. To Badari, these are ancient stories that he holds in the deepest respect, and he rejects the suggestion that he might be trifling with them by bringing in profane external influences.

And yet, it is this disavowal that reveals the very essence of Badari’s paintings. For in suggesting that his works are a ‘fusion’ of the traditional and the contemporary, it is vital to note that this is not some sort of wry pastiche of ironic allusions and winking ironies. Badari’s work contains none of this post-modern disingenuousness; he is an artist of deep, abiding integrity. The meticulous care that he takes with his work, with its fine attention to detail and delicate rarrk, is a reflection of the reverence with which he holds both stories that he paints and visual tradition they embody. Badari’s paintings are heartfelt depictions of his cultural heritage, and he paints them with all his being, striving to make them as vivid, striking and beautiful as he knows how. If they are a fusion of old and new, it is because Badari’s worldview completely, comfortably and intuitively traverses both Indigenous and western episteme. His paintings are reflections on a living culture – one that encompasses both ancient tribal songs and heavy metal riffs. Like all great artists, Badari captures the spirit of his time, and through his unique artistry, brings tradition forward into a dynamic contemporary vision.

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