Exhibition review: Melanie Hava: Bugan Mungan, Cairns Art Gallery

A must-see nine-metre long painting by one of Tropical North Queensland’s celebrated artists.
Melanie Hava. Image is a long painting stretching round three black walls. Painting is of colourful tropical Far North Queensland rainforest.

Melanie Hava is one of Tropical North Queensland’s most celebrated and iconic contemporary artists. Her intricate tableaux of land and sea life offer a glimpse into the wonder of the natural beauty for which the region is known across the world. 

Hailing from Mount Isa, Hava lived in Austria (where her father is from) for a period of time, before returning to Gimuy/Cairns, where she is now based, and where her practice has become a staple in the art scene. Winden, meaning “green pigeon”, is her Traditional name. Hava is Mamu through her mother’s line, from the Dugul-barra and Wari-barra family groups, who call the Johnstone River catchment of the Wet Tropics home. Mamu lands are indeed – as Hava’s artworks reflect – girt by rainforest mountains to the west and the Great Barrier Reef to the east. 

Visually, Hava’s works are ignited by a vivid array of colours and both fine and bold line techniques, resulting in masterful artworks of great artistic prowess and Cultural significance. 

As an active and highly visible figure in the arts, Hava specialises in acrylic works on paper – illustrations and landscapes reflecting Country and totemic species. She has also successfully ventured into a line of diverse merchandise. This move into merchandise (as well as fashion and accessories) is a remarkable achievement in bringing audiences and art lovers closer to her works and their meanings.

Her latest exhibition, Bugan Mungan, opens to the public at the Cairns Art Gallery tomorrow (28 October). This exhibition features one singular work, but this work is an awe-inspiring painting nine metres in length. It is an incredible achievement for any artist painting by hand and one that places Hava in fine stead with other stalwarts from the region. Such include Alick Tipoti and Teho Ropeyarn, who have also been known to create lino and vinyl cut works of an impressive seven and 12 metres in length respectively. 

Bugan Mungan is a panoramic work that speaks of the vast expanses of the (relatively) untouched Mamu rainforest. Such landscapes hold a special place for Hava and her family, not just because of the biodiversity with which the land abounds, or the connection to Lore and traditions, but also due to more personal experiences. 

‘[My] grandma tells of … old caves deep in the forest, some were forbidden, and others were a refuge from the wild weather … of scaling down perilous cliffs with her brothers and sisters, and watching large corroborees through the trees at night time,’ says Hava in the artist statement.

Read: Exhibition review: Heather Wunjarra Koowootha, Cairns Art Gallery

The large-scale work is described as “panoramic”, not only due to the mesmerising effect it casts on audiences – inviting them into the magic of the rainforest – but also because of its unique display. A nine-metre painting is a challenge for any gallery space, and any curator may be forgiven for situating it flush on the largest wall available. While Cairns Art Gallery boasts three levels of state-of-the-art gallery spaces, in order to give further life to the work Hava has created, it has opted to install the work “in the round”, panoramic style. It’s an opportunity for audiences to walk into the world Hava so meticulously describes in her unique visual narrative.

Melanie Hava: Bugan Mungan is on view at the Cairns Art Gallery from 28 October 2023 to 18 February 2024; free.

This review is published under the Amplify Collective, an initiative supported by The Walkley Foundation and made possible through funding from the Meta Australian News Fund.

Jack Wilkie-Jans is an Indigenous affairs advocate (and qualified Politologist), Indigenous arts worker, arts writer, and emerging multimedia artist (abstract painter, filmmaker, and photographer). Born in Gimuy/Cairns, he hails from Weipa and Mapoon (Teppathiggi and Tjungundji), Cape York Peninsula; and, has ancestral links to England and Scotland (Wilkie), Vanuatu (Ling), Denmark (Jans), and the Gulf of Carpentaria (Waanji).