Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya
It was not until the second half of the 20th century that Aboriginal art gained true international recognition. This is staggering, especially when considering the long history and rich culture of Indigenous Australians; but the explanation is simple. Not until a few decades ago, when provided with art materials — such as canvases, paints and boards — did Aboriginal artists create many lasting artworks that one day could become collectible, travel, and educate an international audience.
Though the creation of art has been an essential part of Aboriginal spiritual and ceremonial practices for thousands of years (in order to mark territory or record history for example), it was largely expressed in transient form. Besides a few ceremonial objects and cave paintings, body and temporary ground paintings were much more common. Stories of the “Dreamtime,” which describe the time when according to Aboriginal belief the world was created, were usually painted in the desert sand and only lasted until a wind would blend them back into nature.
Even in New York, the initial introduction to Aboriginal art and culture did not occur until as recently as 1988 — when the exhibition “Dreaming: The Art of Aboriginal Australia” was held at the Asia Society. Included there was a small group of acrylic paintings from a government-established Aboriginal community in Central Australia called Papunya — representing an art movement which now has become the sole focus of a stunning survey at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery.
Fred Myers, Professor and Chair of Anthropology at NYU — who undertook his doctoral research around Papunya from 1973-75 when the movement was still in formation — explains that the exhibition can be considered a “local art history” of sorts. “One can see the formal development of the painting, the diversity of painters, and the crystallization of a visual language,” he notes.
Entitled “Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya,” this exhibition contains about fifty acrylic paintings, all of which were drawn from the Manhattan-based collection of John and Barbara Wilkerson. Fewer than six hundred of these so-called Papunya boards are in existence and they contain a unique status within the history of Australian Aboriginal art as they initiated the so-called Western Desert art movement, in which since Aboriginal artists from many different areas have explored their cultural heritage on permanent surfaces.
The Papunya boards were made between 1971 and 1973, after a Sydney-based schoolteacher, Geoffrey Bardon, supplied a group of Aboriginal men with the necessary tools to paint. Bardon asked the men to paint their own culture and style and showed them how to mix their own colors. At that time, “Indigenous Australians were still little understood,” explains the museum’s director Lynn Gumpert. In fact, the difficulty of communication and the lack of written records had caused the misconception that Aboriginal culture might be primitive. The Papunya boards, which are astonishing in their tremendous sense of intricacy and visual elegance, are also important in that they disproved such prejudices and instead conveyed a sense of the rich culture of the Aborigines to an outside audience.
“It is our hope for the exhibition to introduce our audience to the sheer visual power, complexity, and sophistication of Aboriginal art,” explains Gumpert. To cement this ambition, the exhibition includes some of the most exquisite examples from the Papunya School. Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, and Mick Namararri Tjapaltjarri are some of the artists represented here and each reveals a unique voice. Seen as a group, the works have much in common. A mesmerizing amount of minute detail describes these compositions, which leaves one wondering what sort of meditative concentration would be necessary to transform these endlessly repeating circles, dots and interwoven lines into such stunning, structured patterns. There is a hint of infinity in these forms, as well as a metaphoric nod towards the circle of life as each composition navigates between the specific and the abstract.
Overall, it is surprising how easily accessible the visual vocabulary seems to a Western eye. Much of Western modern art seems evoked in these vital paintings. Paul Klee, Yayoi Kusama, and Mark Tobey are only a few artists whose works come to mind when studying the intricate and yet playful patterns. But to truly study the Papunya boards means to also study their content. In that sense they are ambassadors of a culture that is incredibly complex. Though abstract, the visuals are codified illustrations of spiritual concerns. They might appear modern to the viewer’s eye, but they do address an ancient belief system. Each work is in fact based on a Dreaming, of which there are many. The exhibition includes a video in which one painter’s son, Bobby West, reiterates that the paintings are “not from Aboriginal people, but from the Dreaming.” By that, West does not mean that the artistry is not theirs or that the works are not beautiful, but that the inspiration comes from what the Ancestral Beings left behind for them. Several works feature imagery and depictions of ritual objects that would usually only be viewed by initiated men within the community. However, key senior painters have granted special permission for American audiences to view these works. “They see it as sharing with us their legacy and who they are,” explains Gumpert. In that sense, the Papunya boards serve as a bridge between the Aborigines’ past, their heritage on the one hand and their future and relation to the outside world on the other hand. “They are,” according to Gumpert, “a form of communication. In these boards, it is possible to trace the invention of a visual language that later became more codified,” Myers observes. “They offer the fresh appeal of trial and error by artists seasoned in other media who were now applying their talents, for the first time, to new materials.”
In Australia today, Aboriginal artworks are regularly included in the 20th century galleries and conceived as contemporary art. Myers explains that this was “first started in 1981 and has since grown to be a more common practice.” There is an attempt to put these artworks in a gallery context rather than in natural history museums, which focus on artifacts. However, to understand works such as those created in Papunya fully, or well, Myers adds, “one needs to know something about the culture, just as one needs to know something of Renaissance religion and philosophy to appreciate those paintings.”