Dreaming in colour
Posted: 03 Jul 2012 | By: Patricia Anderson - Editor
Whether it is sourced directly from the art centres dotted around the country or the growing number of galleries devoted exclusively to it in our major cities, Aboriginal art has undergone transformations which the first group of Western Desert artists to paint on board with acrylics could never have anticipated.
What began as a modest exercise to transfer original Aboriginal stories previously encoded in sand and rock to board and canvas by a group of Papunya Tula artists forty years ago has expanded into a juggernaut with remarkable — if uneven — economic and social benefits for the growing number of Aboriginal communities. However, the exercise was never intended to fit the format of a Western-style artist–gallery relationship. Initially sales were modest and monies received barely covered the cost of replenishing painting materials and boards.
Recently, Tjukurrtjanu: Origins of Western Desert Art at the National Gallery of Victoria (featured in this issue) presented 200 of the earliest works painted at Papunya between 1971 and 1972. Tjukurrtjanu means ‘from the Dreaming’ and the exhibition’s catalogue suggests that these works “communicate the artists’ intimate connection with men’s ritual [and] hallowed sites in their country … [they] carry immense symbolic value as expressions of collective cultural and spiritual identity and place”.
Initially there were some hurdles, not the least being the transition of some of these works from the “restricted business of men’s ceremony to the public space of the Stuart Art Centre in Alice Springs in 1971”. Certain protocols are still problematic today, requiring delicate negotiations between those representing a Western curatorial perspective and the various representative Indigenous authorities.
The distinctive aesthetic of the works was recognised immediately and state galleries responded. The Art Gallery of New South Wales (which had a significant collection of early barks from the Maningrida, Milingimbi and Yirrkala communities in the Northern Territory) purchased a master work by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, called Warlugulong, in 1976. This work remains one of the most remarkable paintings to come out of the Western Desert. Of the founding group of twenty Papunya Tula artists, only three are alive today: Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri and Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra, which is a forlorn reminder of the precarious state of the health of Aborigines in remote communities.
Today the Aboriginal art movement generates millions of dollars in sales to national galleries here, Australian and international collectors, and tourists worldwide.
These transformations are not merely about scale, reach and infrastructure. The most astonishing mutations are in the art itself. The early concentric circles, fields of dots, spokes, lozenges, herringbone lines, billabong shapes and cross-hatchings in muted colour have slowly mutated into works with blazing hues, fields of pure colour, erupting leaf forms and highly complex geometrical arrangements.
One artist (also featured in this issue) whose work is exciting considerable interest is Lorna Fencer Napurrula, whose distinctive fluid canvases with ribbons and patches of bright colour hum with life. A survey show of her work is touring Australian cities and Adelaide’s Wakefield Press has produced a thoughtful publication to accompany it.1
Another artist whose work is much sought after is Kudditji Kngwarreye, the brother of the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye, whose blocks of floating colour have been likened to the colour fields of Mark Rothko.
This issue also features two stellar galleries dealing exclusively in Aboriginal art: Kate Owen Gallery in Rozelle and Coo-ee Gallery in Bondi. Both have longstanding relationships with Aboriginal artists around the country and with organisations associated with the Aboriginal gallery world.
1. Edited by Margie West, with an essay by Christine Nicholls.