Teenage artist blends bark paintings with superheros

Amidst crumbed ochre and the birdsong of nearby Kakadu National Park, hooded faces are coming alive on thick pieces of flattened bark.

Working on these painted superhero masks is 16-year-old Ray Mudjandi.

"I make Ikon Bininj," Ray said.

Bininj is the Kunwinjku word for man in Ray's community of Jabiru, a slowing mining town set amidst a World Heritage-listed park with cave paintings more than 20,000 years old.

Ray is from the Western Arrernte clan and has loved cartoons, video games, Marvel comics, and characters like Superman since childhood.

His mother Rosie Mudjandi remembers Ray's early drawings and his fascination with the work of artist Jimmy Lamibanda while they were living in the country town of Katherine.

"[Ray] started off with shapes and lines first. He drew me once," Ms Mudjandi said.

"Once he drew in front of an audience. He was drawing all the dragons."

But Ms Mudjandi has also seen her son's battles: Ray is much more of a drawer than a talker and, last year, underwent open heart surgery.

Last year Ray started going into a Jabiru community centre run by an organisation for disadvantaged kids, Children's Ground.

The centre's creative arts coordinator, Damien Kamholtz, said Ray's appearance in their backroom arts space was initially "unofficial" and sometimes during school hours.

"Then it turned into a collaboration between the school and [the centre] where Ray comes here during school one afternoon a week," he said.

"Ray loved drawing and making art and that was one thing that he was doing all of the time.

"We saw it as an opportunity for Ray to spend some time with some [of the] senior bininj painters working in a traditional cultural sense."

Two of the workshop's regular artists, Graham Rostron and Abel Naborlhborlh, both create figurative work full of everything from kangaroos to songlines and long-fingered creatures.

"All sorts of types of animals. Stories from my dad too," Mr Rostron said.

The artists' tools include ground charcoal, stripped-stick brushes, canvas and the famous medium of bark — the scraped skin of trees heated over hot coals and then flattened over time.

Mr Kamholtz initially expected Ray to migrate towards the styles of Mr Rostron and Mr Naborlhborlh.

"Ray was watching intently and learning but at the same time drawing characters, comic books, superheroes, in between watching," he said.

"We did some bark paintings and Ray painted a didgeridoo, but it was obvious his interest was lying with his characters.

"I guess, over time, the two have fused."

This year Mr Kamholtz, once an artist himself down south, started helping Ray translate characters onto bark, eventually leading to cut-out creations and finally an ochre-painted mask of Ray's character Star Man.

"He's saving the world," Ray said.

After Star Man came a dusty red T Buster, creamy gray Medicine Man, and Fish Man — a gilled character with parallels to a freshwater mermaid, yauk yauk, said to swim in the region's rivers.

"There is definitely correlations between the characters and narratives that the old men are painting, and the ones Ray's doing, but there's also a big splash of pop culture thrown into Ray's as well," Mr Kamholtz said.

That concept might sound familiar to fans of new ABC TV show Cleverman, which blends Dreaming stories with a superhero dystopia.

"I like to see the look of pride in Ray actually [even though] he doesn't always articulate it. It's nice to be able to support him and get his vision and creation out into the world for more people to enjoy because I think it's really special.

"It's a mixture of courage, I guess, and an individual eye. Ray definitely has the eye of an artist."

These days, the senior artists sit on the ground painting, while Ray sits at a desk creating vivid fish drawings in under an hour.

"He's trying the old style and the new style. I'm not too sure what it is," Mr Rostron laughed.

Mr Rostron, who also has a stash of comic books, said maybe he would try to paint an X-Men character one day — although he is still happy with his own style.

This weekend six of Ray's masks are being unveiled in Darwin at his first solo exhibition, with the gallery's owner already buying up the whole lot for donation to the Museum and Art Gallery of the NT.

"I've seen bark paintings and innovation in bark paintings before but nothing like this," Outstation owner Matt Ward said.

"I read comic books as a kid and loved the superhero idea, which was instantly recognisable.

"It is super contemporary and has elements of pop art but, the fact he's used a traditional medium of ochre on bark, it has a hybrid style. Who knows what it is, but everybody loves it."

(Jabiru teenager Ray Mudjandi has a love of superheroes, cartoons and drawing)