The following review was published in Art Guide Australia, November/December 2011, pp.55-59
According to the anthropologist Fred Myers, the Pintupi cosmos is divided into two contrasting spheres: that which is yuti (visible) and that which is tjukurrpa (Dreaming). The first of these categories, he argues, is phenomenal, the latter noumenal; one can be grasped with the senses, the other “outside human affairs and constitutes an enduring primary reality.” As everything in the Pintupi world is said to have originated in The Dreaming, a third term is needed to describe the passage between these two states – tjukurrtjanu mularrarringu – meaning literally, “from The Dreaming, it becomes real.” Thus, the visible and the Dreaming are inextricably linked, just as the stories in Pintupi paintings are said to be both tjukurrtjanu (from The Dreaming) and yutinu (revealed).
Tjukurtjanu: Origins of Western Desert Art, curated by the National Gallery of Victoria and Museum Victoria in partnership with Papunya Tula, and showing at the NGV presents 200 of the jewel-like masterpieces of acrylic painting on board that emerged from the remote desert community of Papunya between 1971 and 1972. An analogy between the passage from tjukurrpa and yuti might be useful to describe these miraculous paintings, in which the once secret designs of ceremony and ritual were recalibrated into the new, self-contained and secular aesthetic of acrylic on board. If the exhibition’s title stakes an immediate claim to locate the origin of this movement in the metaphysical realm (tjukurrpa), the exhibition itself is more concerned with the tangible processes by which it was made visible in paint (yutinu).
One of the most remarkable achievements of Tjukurrtjanu is how convincingly and comprehensively this emergence is contextualised. The early paintings are situated amongst a sumptuous trove of ethnographic material – including photographs, video, decorated shields, spear-throwers, ceremonial ornaments and pearl-shell pendants – all carefully chosen to reveal the pedigree of the iconographic lexicon from which the Papunya artists drew. Moreover, in the handsome exhibition catalogue, a series of nuanced essays tease out the complex agglomeration of social, historical, cultural, economic and personal factors that catalysed the emergence of desert painting at Papunya in 1971.
If, on the one hand, this wealth of archival evidence serves to show that the emergence of painting at Papunya was not a hermetic moment of artistic epiphany, it in no way detracts from the substantial artistic achievements of this small, pioneering group of artists, nor does it dampen the extraordinary aesthetic power of the paintings gathered in Tjukurrtjanu. A comparison between the paintings and the decorated shields is revealing: although they speak in the same iconographic language, their poetry is radically different.
In one sense, the reason for this difference is self-evident. In ceremony, the meaning of decorated objects such as shields or tjurunga was not autonomously visual, but generated in conjunction with a series of other systems of meaning production that included song, dance, performance or ritual. The first problem of acrylic painting was how to distil this complex accumulation of meanings into the autonomous zone of the two-dimensional picture plain.
The second, more culturally specific problem was how to display this information in a way that did not contravene the strict Pintupi hierarchies of secrecy and revelation. The early painters at Papunya generated considerable controversy over some of their choices of image and motifs, which were deemed to transgress what could be safely represented. Critical opinions on the reasons for such transgressions are divided. In the exhibition catalogue Fred Myers mounts a convincing argument that the artists were simply overly-eager to explore the possibilities of this new medium, while John Kean suggests that it was partly due to the pioneering artist Kaapa Tjampitjinpa’s personality as a maverick prepared to transgress social mores.
But perhaps a simpler answer might lie in the idiomatic conception of these works. In ceremony, the rules of revelation and concealment – of precisely what and how designs could be represented – was always negotiated in advance amongst the ceremonial leaders. In contrast, as curator Judith Ryan notes, the Papunya artists all worked “independently, and not collaborating with others, as customary ritual required.” As the new painting was not governed by these ceremonial rules, there was no firm consensus on the boundaries of representation. Similarly, although drawing on a pre-existing iconographic lexicon, the poetics to which this language could be utilised were similarly fluid. As a result, as Ryan continues, “The early paintings are a series of discrete aesthetic experiments with line, colour and pictorial space that enabled the painters to analyse and objectify the tangible elements of myth and ritual, using a shared visual language and hermeneutics of meaning.”
These experiments are stunningly displayed in Tjukurrtjanu. Each of the twenty artists included is represented with multiple, fine examples of their early work, allowing us to compare both their artistic differences and their individual development of distinctive motifs, styles and iconographies. It is here that we can see the true greatness of these artists, as they each grapple with different conceptual and aesthetic difficulties posed by the translation of traditional iconographies into masterpieces of contemporary art. The sheer inventiveness of these responses is breathtaking.
The meanings that these paintings express are necessarily difficult for us to grasp – they come from a tradition and worldview that is markedly different to our own. However, this process of experimentation reveals a group of artists using every available aesthetic mean to create cross-cultural explanations of their complex cosmology to an ignorant white audience. Whether out of calculation or exasperation, the medium that these artists chose for this explanation was painting. In doing so, they chose a means of communication that was insistently and undeniably pictorial. If we accept the meaningfulness of this pictorial representation, then it is surely in the systematic refinement of this pictorial message that the best clues to its meaning must lie. It is in this space that the genius of these artists is revealed through their ability to bring The Dreaming into view, to transform tjukurrpa into yuti, and to make compelling contemporary visual statements from an ancient conceptual schema.
Tjukurrtjanu offers a rare opportunity to see these seminal works en masse in order to fully assess the magnitude of their aesthetic and conceptual achievements. This masterfully curated exhibition offers the chance to witness a moment of profound brilliance when all the majesty of ancient traditions were condensed into some of the most extraordinary paintings ever produced in this country. The fact that this movement arose as an aesthetic olive branch stretched across the cultural divide only serves to magnify the munificence of this gesture.
Tjukurrtjanu: The Origins of Western Desert Art is on display at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne from 30 September 2011 – 12 February 2011 and the Musée du quai Branly, Paris, from 9 October 2012 – 20 January 2013
 Fred Myers, Pintupi Culture, Pintupi Self: Sentiment, Place and Politics among Western Desert Aborigines, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 1986, pp.48-52.
 Fred Myers, ‘Intrigue of the Archive, Enigma of the Object’, in Judith Ryan and Philip Batty (eds.), Tjukurrtjanu: Origins of Western Desert Art, exhib. cat., National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, pp.30-31. John Kean, “Catch a Fire’’, in Judith Ryan and Philip Batty, op. cit., pp.48-50.
 Judith Ryan, ‘Aesthetic Splendour, Cultural Power and Wisdom: Early Papunya Painting, in Judith Ryan and Philip Batty, op.cit., p.18.
 Ibid, p.18.