Spirit Way of Painting: Jeremy ‘Mudjai’ Devitt in Profile
Mudjai sits in his Gunya* painted head to toe in traditional ochre. His head is dressed with white egret, wood duck and wedge-tailed eagle feathers that drape from either side of a red, black and yellow headband. In his hands is a pair of wooden Bilma**, the first instrument in the world played by humans. For now his hands are still as his resonant voice rings out to a captivated audience. Mudjai is a storyteller. Whether it’s in his traditional dance performance, his oral accounts or his world-renowned paintings, Mudjai is always sharing stories and his message is one of unity in diversity.
Born Jeremy Devitt, he was named Mudjai (Echidna) because of his powerful affinity with the echidna, as witnessed in his captivating animal dance performances. His bloodlines flow from the Nganyaywana people, to the Gumbaynggirr and Dhaingutti people on his father’s side, to the English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh heritage on his mother’s side. His father’s clans hail from the Northern tablelands and Central and North Coast of New South Wales respectively.
Mudjai first became fascinated with painting animals at the age of seven. At eight, he went on a cultural excursion with other Indigenous students from his school and had the opportunity to meet with some local Elders. A drawing competition was held and Mudjai earnestly took to the challenge, drawing a snake wrapped around a big goanna. The Elders saw his work, and despite his fair complexion, awarded him the winner. He responded by immediately taking up a fresh piece of paper and drawing once more, and so his youthful flair and passion matured into his artistic way of life.
In the years to come, he remained completely self-taught as his art developed. He drew influences from both the Central Desert dot painting technique as well as incorporating the X-ray style and learning about the rich origins of each art form. Mudjai’s obvious passion and innate skill evolved into a talent that did not go unnoticed in his local area. Ironically, the very school that asked him to leave in Year Ten invited him back two years later to paint the school mural, and paid him handsomely for it. He does however cheekily confess that at school he was known as a ‘moogul (naughty) kid’. He went on to paint dozens of public artworks in and around the Coffs Harbour region, many of which are still visible.
Mudjai sold his first painting in primary school. It was of a snake. This speaks to his love, fascination and respect for snakes, often a theme in both his paintings and in living sculptural work based on found objects. As a child he would seek out snakes to catch, and observe them with mingled awe and fear. Now he spends weeks and months at a time out bush, living, exploring and collecting. He brings back feathers, roots, bark and sticks all of which have spoken to him of one form or another. They become snakes or headpieces or sculptures that hold great beauty and significance.
His paintings are masterfully detailed and each marking seems effortlessly perfected and balanced. When I ask Mudjai about how he learned to paint the X-ray style with such accuracy and detail he tells me about how he had grown up hunting. He says, ‘It wasn’t too hard, I already knew what the guts and bones looked like’. His works portray a startling realness, a spark. They possess a vitality and expression that, although heavily stylised, is truly lifelike. This spark is part of what characterises all of his works and is evident too in his recent collection, Spirit Way of Painting. This collection of paintings, prints, sculptures and decorated found objects was exhibited and popularly attended at the Dust Temple on Queensland’s Gold Coast throughout October and November this year.
Mudjai clearly remembers a turning point in his artistic expression. A point where making art became, for him, The Spirit Way. It began with meeting Uncle Joe, or the artist better known as Joseph Baird Wallace. Uncle Joe came from Ramingining, Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory and was an incredible artist as well as a powerful medicine man and keeper of knowledge for his community. He in turn was taught by the influential and world-renowned artist David Malangi, who appears on the Australian one-dollar note and is a direct descendant of the revered Djan’kawu creation sisters.
Mudjai was twenty-three and living camped on a beach in Byron Bay on the North Coast of New South Wales when he met Uncle Joe. His influence marked a significant shift in the way Mudjai went about painting. He remembers the words Uncle Joe spoke, ‘We paint the Spirit Way of painting Jeremy. To begin with, we paint for the dead people. It’s not selling, selling, selling. It’s meaning, meaning, meaning. Story, story, story.’
Aesthetically breathtaking, Mudjai’s works are laden with profound layers of meaning, tracing wisdom back through timelines, bloodlines and songlines to bring forth nuanced beauty, form and substance. His works have been exhibited all over Australia as well as Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Holland and Ibiza. The pieces truly do speak for themselves. Mudjai tells me that when he dances his traditional way, he doesn’t dance ‘like a kangaroo’, he becomes the kangaroo. Likewise his artwork is no mere reflection of its subject, it portrays its very essence. The snake is a snake. The spirit, a spirit. He tells me that if you watch closely, you’ll see the paintings move. He says, ‘There’s power in there, it is alive.’ I look, and I believe him.
‘We paint for the dead people. The knowledge passed down to me is represented in my paintings, dancing, didjerdoo playing and storytelling. I am willing to share with all who are interested. When I paint it makes me strong. It reminds me of my connection to Mother Earth, Grandmother Moon, Father Sun and Grandfather Universe. It reminds me of my connection to plants, animals and other people. Each one of my paintings is like a page from our bible. My hope for the future is that the Western world can learn proper respect for Mother Earth and the world’s Indigenous people and help them maintain their cultural lore, language and heritage.’
* bark hut
Article & photography by Carla Versitano