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A Contemporary Spirit: The Art of Graham Badari

This following essay was written to accompany Graham Badari’s first solo exhibition, held at Mossenson Galleries Perth,  March 16 – April 25, 2010.

A pair of red eyes glowers from an angular, skeletal visage. Its snarling grimace revels sharp teeth, its razor-like claws borne forth ready to strike. This is one of the unseen dangers of the bush: Namarnde, the malevolent spirit of the box pandanus. When pregnant, Kunwinjku women avoid walking too close to pandanus bushes, in case Namarnde captures the spirit of their unborn babes. In Graham Badari’s painting, this terror is brilliantly evoked through a combination of jagged ferocity and delicate cross-hatching or rarrk. His painting transports the viewer to the mystical landscape of the stone country, where spirits inhabit every crevice and ancient paintings adorn the rock-faces. At the same time, Badari’s Namarnde is uncannily futuristic, bearing a striking resemblance to the cyborg Maria from Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi epic Metropolis.

Graham Badari was born in 1963 at Gunbalanya (Oenpelli) in Western Arnhem Land. His country is Maburrinj, near Kudjekbinj, about 120 kilometers east of Gunbalanya. He was raised by the renowned artist Djawida Nadjongorle, but like many of the artist at Gunbalanya, credits the late Thompson Yulidjirri as his greatest artistic influence. From these senior men, Badari learnt the fluid and dynamic style that defines Kunwinjku painting at Injalak Arts. He began painting sporadically around 1990, but in recent years, his career has gained a new focus and momentum. Following the recent passing of many of the senior artists at Gunbalanya, Badari has become one of the leaders of a small coterie of dedicated artists, which includes Wilfred Nawirridj, Glenn Namundja, Gabriel Maralngurra, and Gershom Garlngarr. They are a ubiquitous presence at Injalak Arts, and are fiercely proud of their art, community and art centre. Their paintings show a faithful dedication to the visual language of their rock-art heritage, while remaining committed to artistic innovation. It is this beguiling balance of tensions – innovation and tradition, ancient and modern, beauty and terror – that energises Badari’s paintings. And yet, to understand how his work could so effortlessly embody these apparent dualities, it is necessary to understand how these competing positions coexist within Badari’s worldview, informing his unique and eccentric personality.

With his impish smile and cheeky sense of humour, Grahama Badari or ‘Grammy’ as he affectionately known, is the gentlest of souls. He is a popular figure at the art centre, a beloved tour guide and font of community news. And yet, as his paintings suggest, Badari has a fascination with the darker side of life. Walking in the bush, he is careful to warn of the dangers of Namarnde or other malicious spirits such as Namarrodoh. Always concerned with the safety of his guests, he cautions of the equal dangers posed by the very present Kinga (salt-water crocodile) and the more otherworldly Ngalyod (Rainbow Serpent). Badari believes wholeheartedly in the presence of these spirit beings; they are an intrinsic part of the cultural heritage that has informed his life.

On the other hand, Badari is sensitively attuned to the modern world. The ease with which he traverses this cosmology of the mystical and the everyday might go some way to explaining his attraction to western science-fiction and fantasy imagery. This passion is not only evident in Badari’s paintings, but in his distinctive choice of fashion, which favours the kind of lurid fantasy t-shirts more commonly seen on teenage heavy metal fans. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Badari is also a keen follower of heavy metal music, with his favourite band being the Swedish group Hammer Fall. Indeed, it is worth comparing Badari’s depictions of Namarnde and Namarrodoh with the red-eyed, hammer-wielding leviathan featured on the group’s album covers, designed by renowned graphic artist Samwise Didier. That said, when questioned on these striking visual parallels, Badari is quick to refute such influences, preferring to highlight the traditional aspects of his work. To Badari, these are ancient stories that he holds in the deepest respect, and he rejects the suggestion that he might be trifling with them by bringing in profane external influences.

And yet, it is this disavowal that reveals the very essence of Badari’s paintings. For in suggesting that his works are a ‘fusion’ of the traditional and the contemporary, it is vital to note that this is not some sort of wry pastiche of ironic allusions and winking ironies. Badari’s work contains none of this post-modern disingenuousness; he is an artist of deep, abiding integrity. The meticulous care that he takes with his work, with its fine attention to detail and delicate rarrk, is a reflection of the reverence with which he holds both stories that he paints and visual tradition they embody. Badari’s paintings are heartfelt depictions of his cultural heritage, and he paints them with all his being, striving to make them as vivid, striking and beautiful as he knows how. If they are a fusion of old and new, it is because Badari’s worldview completely, comfortably and intuitively traverses both Indigenous and western episteme. His paintings are reflections on a living culture – one that encompasses both ancient tribal songs and heavy metal riffs. Like all great artists, Badari captures the spirit of his time, and through his unique artistry, brings tradition forward into a dynamic contemporary vision.

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Billy Kenda

The following essay was written to accompany Billy Kenda: The First Solo Exhibition held at Mossenson Galleries, Subiaco, Western Australia, April 13- May 9, 2009

A truck screams across the desert. The heat belting down upon the asphalt makes it glow a deep, languid blue. The driver has his eyes fixed forward upon the road as it stretches out onto the horizon. His face bears a wobbly smile, as though absorbed in the rhythms of the latest catchy tune blaring on his car radio. Around him, the desert rises in glorious majesty; purple mountains ascend into a crimson sky that beams down upon the desert’s gleaming yellow sands. But the driver does not note this grandeur for he is transfixed by his journey, his eyes planted firmly on the highway as it speeds him to his destination.

For Billy Kenda, the desert landscape is a place of Arcadian splendour. His depictions of country are the sanguine songs of a contented heart; prelapsarian odes to his beloved desert idyll. Rolling hills recede into the picture plain, enveloping the viewer and drawing the eye inwards in a transitory recession. Born in 1972, Kenda began painting in 2004 through the auspices of Mwerre Anthurre Artists (Bindi Inc) in Alice Springs. His father was a Ngaatjatjarr man from Docker River, but Kenda’s paintings are dominated by his mother’s country near Jay Creek in the West MacDonnell Ranges. This is the country where Kenda was raised in the shadow of the purple hills made famous by Albert Namatjira, and in many ways, Kenda’s paintings continue the halcyon vision of his artistic forebear.

And yet, increasingly, Kenda’s landscapes have become dominated by motor vehicles. Cars and trucks speed across the landscape, blocking it, and drawing the viewer to the foreground of the image. At times, these vehicles dominate the picture, and the landscape becomes little more than a hurried, unfocussed blur at the edge of the canvas. In Kenda’s paintings, the motor vehicle becomes a metonym for the encroachment of western modernity upon the Indigenous cultural landscape, offering a subtle, but powerful critique of western vision and our reluctance to embrace or acknowledge an Indigenous view of the land.

It is in this sense that the comparison between Kenda and Namatjira is perhaps most apt, for it was in the works of Namatjira that western audiences were first exposed to an Indigenous vision of the landscape. In his depictions of country, Namatjira appropriated the western tradition of landscape painting as a means of empowering Indigenous perspective. As Ian Burn has noted, “The Arrente style may be interpreted as a strategy to control what is secret and what is sacred, while still expressing to a white audience an Aboriginal relationship to the land,” in order, as Galarrwuy Yunipingu continues “to demonstrate our continuing link with our country and our rights and responsibilities we have to it.” Namatjira’s paintings present a defiant call to see the landscape from an Indigenous viewpoint. In doing so, he helped inaugurate the Indigenous art movement which has gone on to be one of the dominant frontiers upon which Indigenous peopl e have engaged with modernity and shown their culture to be relevant, contemporary and strong.

Despite their apparent joviality, the work of Billy Kenda sits at a forceful critical intersection of this visual engagement with the hegemony of western vision. As western society spread into the heart of the nation, highways were built across the desert – Kenda’s traditional homeland. But highways are built upon the principle of fastest movement between origin and destination; upon the assumption that what lies between is unimportant. Margaret Morse has theorised that the car becomes the de-realised ‘non-space’ that allows us to negotiate this distance. In the interior of the motor vehicle the traveller is insulated from the outside world, achieving what Morse calls a ‘mobile privatisation’ that serves to displace or separate us from our surroundings. This contrasts severely with an Indigenous cosmology, in which it is songlines and not highways that run across the country connecting all places, people and things. In this worldview, travel becomes a process deeply connected to the landscape; a process of continuity, identity creation and placedness.

But the songlines of the highway are insular; disconnected. This is how Kenda depicts his drivers, absorbed in the detached world of their mobile cabin, bopping along in ignorant bliss to the enveloping beauty of the world around them. When cars are absent from Kenda’s landscapes, the landscape recedes into the picture plain, inviting the viewer to travel across Kenda’s country, to footwalk his hot sands, to taste the desert air and feel the heat upon one’s brow. The inclusion of cars refuses this engagement, pulling the landscape up flat and disallowing travel into the picture plain. Here we find the metaphor of Kenda’s paintings. They are a call to return to the landscape, to escape western vision and to actively see and engage with the world around us. Kenda’s paintings are a challenge to look beyond our assumptions; to see our blindness to the beauty of the world just beyond our frame of reference. For it is here, in the Arcadian splendour of the landscape that the real joy of Kenda’s paintings can be found and from which stems their unique vision and joyful contentment.

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Geographic Cosmology: The Art of Lucy Ward

Below is an extended text of the article, “Geographic Cosmology: The Art of Lucy Ward” published in Craft Arts International, no.78, 2010, pp.34-39

It is June 2005 and a heavy thunderstorm has just erupted, pouring noisy torrents of rain upon the tin roof of Mossenson Galleries in Perth, Western Australia. Entering the gallery, octogenarian Kimberley artist Lucy Ward wears a beaming smile as she shakes the rain from her snow-white hair. Approaching a large brown canvas covered in a dozen or more images of her ancestral Wandjina spirits, she runs her hand across the painting, as though affectionately stroking a long lost friend. “My Wandjina,” she exclaims. “You’ve brought the rain!”

Like Ward, these Wandjina are a long way from their Kimberley homelands. And yet, this distance does not weaken their spiritual or elemental power. For the Ngarinyin, Worrorra and Wunambal people of the north-west Kimberley, the Wandjina are the central figure of religious significance. According to legend, they were the physical manifestation of great spirit beings who controlled the elements, such as wind, lightning and rain. During the Ngarrangarni or Dreaming, their actions and adventures shaped the landscape and helped create Indigenous law. At the end of creation time, they left their images on the rock faces and escarpments, in order to watch over the country and its Indigenous inhabitants, and to ensure the continuity of traditional law. Over milenia, the repainting of the Wandjina has become a sacred act of passage, connecting the Ngarinyin, Worrorra and Wunambal people in an unbroken link with both their ancestors and the Ngarrangarni.

The power of this ancestral connection, and indeed, the power ascribed to the imagery of the Wandjina, reflects the unique spiritual temporality of the Ngarrangarni or Dreaming. As W.E.H. Stanner notes, although the concept of the Dreaming evokes a heroic time when ancestral spirits roamed the earth, “one cannot ‘fix’ the Dreaming in time: it was, and is, everywhen … a kind of logos or principle of order transcending everything significant for Aboriginal men.” The essence of Ngarrangarni runs through all things and connects every point in time and space. Adherence to its fundamental and mystical truths is the driving force for senior Indigenous people like Ward, shaping their lives and world-view. It is this essence that explains the power ascribed to the image of the Wandjina. This is not only a spiritual and elemental power – such as the power to bring on rain in Perth, hundreds of miles from their ancestral homelands – but also their power as profound visual statements that challenge our western preconceptions of time, space, aesthetics and value.

Lucy Ward began painting in 2003 and has since established herself as one of the leading contemporary painters of the Wandjina. She has exhibited throughout Australia, as well as in Asia, Europe and America, and has held eight solo exhibitions through Mossenson Galleries in Perth, Melbourne and Sydney. Her works are held in several important public collections, including the Art Gallery of Western Australia, the Western Australian Museum, the Berndt Museum of Anthropology at the University of Western Australia and Macquarie University. In 2006 she was awarded the City of Stirling Art Award, and she has been a finalist in numerous major art prizes, including the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, the Wynne Prize, the Arthur Guy Memorial Painting Prize, The Alice Prize and the Waterhouse Natural History Prize.

In the jubilant glow of Ward’s paintings there is a reflection on her long life lived in the Kimberley. She was born around 1920 at Ngarangarri country – the land of the Honey Dream – in what is now known as Beverley Springs Station. Her mother died while Ward was still an infant, so her father carried her around the bush in a bark coolamon, before finding a woman who was breastfeeding a little boy. According to Ward, “That little boy and I went share for her ngaman (milk), She was a good woman. That is why I am still alive today.”

Ward’s childhood was spent traversing the Ngarangarri and Winyiduwa clan estates with her father and grandfather. From these old men, she gained first-hand knowledge of the hunter-gather lifestyle: hunting kangaroo, emu, fish and prawns and gathering yam and edible water lilies. They also introduced her to the ancient artistic practices of the Ngarinyin, and she recalls fondly watching them paint “the really Wandjina in the caves.” As she matured, Ward worked on the burgeoning Kimberley cattle stations, both as a domestic servant and well as mustering and tailing cattle. But the formative experiences of her childhood remained with her, and during the wet season, when monsoonal rains locked the cattle industry down, Ward and her Ngarinyin kin would return to their ancestral estates for ceremony and to tend to their country.

Like her life, Ward’s paintings are a balance of sorrow and joy. In many of her canvases, a single Wandjina is painted in isolation, surrounded by swathes of colourful dotted squares, signifying the ‘sugarbag’ or bush-honey pod. According to Ward, in the Ngarrangarni, this Wandjina broke with traditional law, and took another man’s promised wife. This angered the man’s family, who pursued him across the country, seeking to punish him for this indiscretion. They finally caught him in Ngarangarri country, where he was beaten, speared and killed. From his prostrate body rose the sugarbag trees, making Ngarangarri country the land of honey. It is a powerful story of the connection of all things. In death there is creation; in punishment there is redemption; in the bitterness of tears, the sweetness of honey.

This sense of connectivity can be seen even more clearly in Lucy Ward’s signature image of ngara (the sugarbag). Ngara refers to the honey made by the stingless native bees. There are two types of bees native to the north-west Kimberley, the tree-dwelling bee (Waningga) and those that build their hives in rocks (Namri). Ngara is an important totem for Lucy Ward – not only was she born in Ngarangarri (the land of the Honey Dream), but according to Ward, she was also born under the shade of a sugarbag tree. Along with the image of the Wandjina, the sugarbag has been one of Ward’s defining motifs. However, whilst Ward’s depictions of Wandjina have remained relatively unchanging – undoubtedly due to the sacred nature of the image – the sugarbag has provided her with a motif of incredible flexibility. Over her diverse artistic career, it has been an endlessly malleable aesthetic form, in which she has found a seemingly boundless array of conceptual and aesthetic variations. Ward’s gallery representative, Dr Diane Mossenson, notes with amazement Ward’s “capacity for artistic re-invention. Unlike many Aboriginal artists who paint a limited number of images, Lucy has remained strong to her stories, but she continually recreates the imagery, finding new ways to express her stories.”

During his fieldwork in the Kimberley in the early 1960s, anthropologist Ian Crawford noted several rock-art sites in which the sugarbag motif was prominent. Reproduced in his landmark 1968 volume Art of the Wandjina, the cave paintings of sugarbags are clear artistic precursors to Ward’s early paintings. Like her Wandjina, this comparison reveals how much Ward’s work takes its core inspiration from her rock-art heritage. This etymology is easily overlooked in Ward’s work, particularly in light of the explosive acrylic palette favoured in her early paintings.

Like the cave paintings of sugarbags, Ward’s earliest depictions show the sugarbag motif as distinct, individual objects. Each honey pod is depicted as an irregular square or circle filled with coloured dots. Sometimes these squares or circles are sub-divided, while in other cases they are not. In late 2005, however, a major development began to occur in Ward’s portrayal of sugarbags. The sugarbag became an increasingly open signifier, whose individual unity slowly disappeared. In her most recent works, such as the monumental diptych Ngara (Sugarbag) Story 2008, exhibited at the Arthur Guy Memorial Art Prize, any sense of this indivisible unity has been shattered in favour of an all-over dotting that covers the canvas in a pulsating invocation of the aerial landscape.

There are many probable reasons for this development. One reason is certainly Ward’s exposure to artworks outside her immediate cultural experience. In 2006, Ward visited Melbourne for the launch of her exhibition Ngarrangarni Manambarra. During her visit, she attended the National Gallery of Victoria, where she was given a guided tour by senior curator Judith Ryan. Ward was particularly taken with both the style and scale of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri’s monumental Napperby Death Spirit Dreaming 1980. Following the visit, she repeatedly expressed her desire to work on larger canvases, referring back to the Tjapaltjarri’s canvas as an example. In the proceeding months, Ward not only completed several larger canvases, including the majestic 2007 Wandjinas in Ngarangarri Country (198 x 298 cm) which was exhibited in the 2008 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, but Ward began to cover much larger sections of her canvas in shimmering dot-work, creating constellation like backgrounds to her tableaus of Wandjina, sugarbags and country.

On a more local level, 2005 also saw the arrival of another profound artistic influence on Ward’s work. In that year, the senior Nyikina artist Loongkoonan began painting at the same Derby based workshop as Ward. Although belonging to a different language group, Ward and Loongkoonan began a highly competitive and influential artistic relationship. Painting alongside each other, they became like a Braque and Picasso of the Kimberley – taking on the visual lessons of each other’s work, and continually challenging each other to find new ways of developing their very different painterly practices.

Despite these external prompts, however, Ward’s development has shown a clear and uniquely personal epistemic trajectory. In the paintings of Lucy Ward, each mark upon the canvas is like a fingerprint, betraying the trace of its creator’s movement. In painting her ancestral homelands, her marks revel her ownership of the country, like footprints in a landscape that she has traversed by foot, understood instinctively and known intimately. But just like a footprint, they exist as the memory of presence, a nostalgic echo of past travels.

In the wake of colonial incursion, elders like Ward cannot live on their traditional lands, but return only occasionally to tend to the country of which they are the sacred custodians. Returning to her sacred sites, Ward sings out to the spirits, warning them of her arrival. Her song echoes through the stony ridges and it is as though she is a young woman again. It is this memory of the landscape that reveals itself in Ward’s paintings. Each mark connects Ward to her landscape, making her one with the Dreams, songs and topography of her land of honey.

In this context, the sugarbag is a profound tripartite symbol for the personal (as Ward’s totem), the physical (the bush honey pod) and the spatial (Ngarangarri country: the land of the sugarbag dream). In shattering the individual unity of the sugarbag – literally opening it up – Ward fuses these three categories. Rather than fingerprints, the dots meld into a pointillist landscape that shimmers into being with a cosmological unity.

These seemingly abstract shapes thus become a complex metaphor for the inter-relationship of identity, culture and country. They are part of a sacred and personal geography that Marcia Langton has termed ‘placedness.’ For Ward, the past is not, as L.P. Hartley has famously suggested, ‘a foreign country’, but rather a familiar country that situates and unites all moments in time. Ward’s paintings become what Langton has described as “site markers of the remembering process and of identity itself.” They inhabit a temporality that is neither past, present nor future, but part of the sacred link that connects Lucy Ward to the timeless Ngarrangarni.

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Bringing The Dreaming Into View: Tjukurrtjanu: The Origins of Western Desert Art

The following review was published in Art Guide Australia, November/December 2011, pp.55-59

Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri
Big Cave Dreaming with ceremonial object 1972, synthetic polymer paint on composition board, John and Barbara Wilkerson, New York, USA

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).[1]

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.

Uta Uta Tjangala
Women’s Dreaming 1972
synthetic polymer paint on composition board
Stephen Bush, Coffs Harbour, NSW

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.[2]

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.”[3] 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.”[4]

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.

Freddy West Tjakamarra
Man’s corroboree story 1972
synthetic polymer paint on composition board

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


[1] Fred Myers, Pintupi Culture, Pintupi Self: Sentiment, Place and Politics among Western Desert Aborigines, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 1986, pp.48-52.

[2] 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. 

[3] Judith Ryan, ‘Aesthetic Splendour, Cultural Power and Wisdom: Early Papunya Painting, in Judith Ryan and Philip Batty, op.cit., p.18.

[4] Ibid, p.18.

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