Pintupi Painting, Pintupi Culture

Since starting this blog, I’ve been spending a good deal of time re-reading Fred Myers’ publications on Western Desert art and culture. Browsing through the concluding chapter of Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self: sentiment, place and politics among Western Desert Aborigines recently, I was struck by a paragraph in which Myers contrasts concepts of social organization among the Pintupi and the Warlpiri. The Pintupi emphasis on negotiating connectedness across a large geographical territory in contrast to the Warlpiri transmission of rights to country through inheritance led me to an insight about certain recent stylistic developments in Pintupi men’s painting that I want to explore in this essay.

Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self is one of the most often cited works in the canon of contemporary Aboriginal studies. In it, Myers attempts to describe, from the point of view of the lived perspective of the Pintupi themselves, the underpinnings of their social relations and social identity. He posits a fundamental tension in that society between what he calls “relatedness” and “autonomy,” and which I take to represent, respectively, “Pintupi country” and “Pintupi self.” Here is Myers’ own summary, from the book’s final chapter:

One concern [of the study] is the relationship between the negotiated quality of Pintupi daily life and a regional system based on extensive ties of shared identity. The emphasis in Pintupi social action on negotiation and sustaining relatedness contrasts strongly with the clarity of “rules” and “norms” as reported in ethnographic descriptions of other well-known Aboriginal groups. In this respect Meggitt’s [M. I. Meggitt, Desert People: a study of the Walbiri Aborigines of Central Australia , Universty of Chicago Press] (1962) presentation of the Warlpiri in terms of a structural-functional framework provides an important case. (Myers, Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self, 286)

To oversimplify somewhat, autonomy is the state to which Pintupi men aspire as they become adults. As children and as young men, before their initiation is complete, men are dependent upon older men–fathers and older brothers, both consanguinal and by virtue of kinship rules–for sustenance and knowledge. As they pass through the stages of initiation, they are required to hunt and provide food for the older men and later gain permission to marry and become fathers themselves. Perhaps more importantly, they are granted increasing knowledge of the Dreaming and of ritual.

Identification with particular Dreaming sites can have many bases in Pintupi society. One may claim affiliation on the basis of being conceived at a site, or born there. A site where one’s father died, or one’s grandfather, may also be a source of identity. Since Pintupi may travel widely over the course of years, these sites may be widely distanced in the desert. Other men who are not family members may have similar claims to these same sites. An individual’s claim to belong to a place and the strength of that claim vis-a-vis those of other men depends in part on knowledge of ritual associated with the site. These claims are the occasion for much of the negotiation that Myers see as critical to the foundations of Pintupi society. Autonomy, as a defensible claim, rests on knowledge of ritual.

As noted above, such knowledge is given to young men through the extended process of initiation. The process and ritual of initiation, in addition to “growing up” men, serves to create and reinforce bonds of relatedness across Pintupi country. When a young man is ready to be initiated, he is sent in the company of older male relatives to geographically distant communities, where participants in the ceremonies will be invited to attend. Some of those who come from far away will have important roles to play, but all who participate will share a bond from the simple fact of coming together for such an important event. Men who perform the circumcision will be in the kin status of brothers-in-law to the initiate, later providing him with a wife and further strengthening the ties of relatedness across the country. Once past the first stages of the process, the young novices are secluded from their families and sent out on further travels. During these post-initiatory journeys they visit sacred sites, learn more of the Dreaming rituals, and continue to create and sustain ties with remote country. The mythic model for these journeys, of course, is the travels of the Tingari, which form the subject of much of Pintupi painting.

The knowledge gained on these travels gives the youth the beginnings of adult status in his community and family, and is the first step towards life as an autonomous, independent man. Once fully initiated, he will in turn take on responsibility for growing up other men and continuing the cycle of obligation to country and relatedness, while at the same time increasing his personal authority and autonomy. By visiting sacred sites and obtaining ritual knowledge, he is better able to stand with stature among other men and make a stronger claim to affiliation with those sites.

Among the Warlpiri, in contrast, the “possession” of Dreamings is much more structured and determined largely on the basis of patrifiliation: one inherits one’s Dreaming from male ancestors. Put another way (using Myers’ terms), Pintupi sociality has a stronger basis in events, and Warlpiri in rights. For the Pintupi, process is the defining element of their vision, where the Warlpiri rely more on categories to provide structure to their view of the world. Although the Pintupi have most probably adopted the eight-subsection “skin name” model of kinship organization form the Warlpiri, it is a more highly structured, categorical affair among the Warlpiri, where there are strongly defined categorical links between skin groups: the Possum Dreaming from the Granites area, for example belongs to the Jakamarra/Jupurrula subsections, and the Native Cat to the Japaljarri/Jungurrayi men. These pairings of skin groups are unknown among the Pintupi. Since rights to Dreamings among the Pintupi have a much more direct relationship to life events, rather than to inheritance, one may find that men of several different subsections can make claims to affiliation with a given site.

At this point, I am going to leave Myers behind and strike out on a limb of my own to speculate how all this might inform Warlpiri and especially Pintupi painting. Let me begin, for the sake of contrast, with Warlpiri painting, in an admittedly unscientific sample.

Among Warlpiri painters from Yuendumu and Lajamanu, there seems to be a pattern of painters repeatedly depicting a particular dreaming. Abie Jangala’s work largely concerns Rain Dreamings; many of Paddy Japaljarri Sims’ paintings are Milky Way Dreamings, and Paddy Japaljarri Stewart frequently paints Native Cat and Possum Dreamings. Although each of these dreamings is obviously associated with a geographical site, what is given primacy among Warlpiri explanations is the “myth,” or the story. Documentation for these paintings from Warlukurlangku Artists often says something to the effect that “the Dreaming belongs to Japaljarri/Jungurrayi men and Napaljarri/Nungurrayi women.” The stories and the Dreamings are inherited, and ownership is much more clear-cut than among the Pintupi.

Pictorially, these paintings employ what is considered “classic” Western Desert iconography: U shapes to represent people sitting, the circle as campsite or fire, sinuous lines that show water courses or falling rain, and so on. In Walbiri Iconography: graphic representation and cultural symbolism in a Central Australian society (Cornell University Press, 1973), Nancy Munn has documented how these symbols have multiple levels of meaning in the Warlpiri graphic system: a waterhole, so to speak, is not always a waterhole. Here again though, we are confronted with the notion of categories, as symbols for campsites or waterholes may also reference aspects of women’s life. (see Myers, 293)

Among the Pintupi, the dominant narrative motif is, of course, the Tingari cycle with its extensive wanderings of the ancestors. And while early Pintupi paintings employed much the same graphic vocabulary as the Warlpiri system does, over the last decade or more, we have seen a decreasing dependence on that vocabulary and the emergence of a dominant mode of expression that is more overtly geographical in its nature. The circle-and-line motif of early Tingari paintings, such as the masterpiece by Willy Tjungurrayi that is more or less permanently on display in the Yirbana Gallery of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, has given way in recent years to the artist’s simpler “sandhill” designs that have been represented in the Sotheby’s auctions this year.

A painting by Charlie Tjapangarti from 2005 (CT0504151) is an exemplar of much Pintupi painting today.


(Copyright 2005 by the artist, and reproduced by permission of Papunya Tula Artists Pty. Ltd.)

The essential part of the documentation for this painting reads as follows:

This painting depicts designs associated with the swamp and rockhole site of Palipalintjanya, just west of Jupiter Well. In mythological times a large group of Tingari men camped at this site before travelling south, then turning east passing through Wala Wala, Kiwirrkura and then north-east to Tarkul and Wilkinkarra (Lake Mackay).

Pictorially, we have here a simple depiction of the rockhole and swamp country, but it is meant to stand for the starting point of a journey of hundreds of kilometers. Indeed, the organization of the pictorial space appears to reinforce this notion. The painting is anchored in the upper left-hand corner by the spiraling depiction of the rockhole. The design thrusts outward from that starting point toward the bottom edge of the frame before turning around in the right half of the canvas. The strong diagonal in the upper right hand corner leads the eye outward, beyond the frame. In the orientation of the painting as shown above, the flow of the lines even mimics the directional path of the Tingari described in the documentation, beginning with a “southward” motion away from the rockhole and ultimately pointing “northeast.” 

Unlike Warlpiri paintings that encode multiple levels of meaning, the Pintupi strategy is a graphical synecdoche where a part stands for the larger whole. The painter asserts his connection to the primary site of Palipalintjanya, but implies connections to the other locales associated with this segment of the Tingari travels. Given that Papunya Tula has deliberately downplayed extensive documentation of the “stories” since Andrew Crocker’s time (Myers, Painting Culture, 158) and that the “business” of the Tingari cycle is secret/sacred, I find it suggestive that what information is provided about the background to the painting emphasizes the geographical connections that are the heart of the Pintupi concept of relatedness.

The Pintupi long ago retreated from the depiction of ritual elements themselves, and of particularly “dangerous” sacred business, that appeared in some of early paintings. In part this resulted from complaints raised by Pitjantjatjarra men who saw sacred designs, painted by Pintupi men, on exhibition in Perth in 1975 (Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self, 166; see also Painting Culture, 65-66). The great line-and-circle designs that filled the large canvases of the 80’s were less overtly representational, and derived from elements of the Tingari cycle that were less restricted. The trend toward a more spare pictorial design has characterized Pintupi art since the early 90’s (in my view: see the entry on The Painter in Alice Springs for more on that opinion).

Myers argues that the “relationship between the negotiated quality of Pintupi daily life and a regional system based on extensive ties of shared identity” is core to the Pintupi experience. I suggest that the “negotiation” finds expression in the subject matter of Pintupi painting: that when Charlie Tjapangarti (for example) chooses the sites he represents in a painting, he is making an assertion about his rights to those sites and that country. In the sense that Pintupi political life is fundamentally concerned with rights to country, these paintings are personal and political statements. And I wonder if they are both subtler and more complex than the simple statement, “That’s my Dreaming.”

The politics to which I have referred, following on Myers’ subtitle, “sentiment, place, and politics among Western Desert Aborigines,” are essentially the politics of a pre-contact era. They concern what we consider to be traditional social issues relating to resources, land use, and interpersonal relations. But in asserting these rights to country, are the Pintupi not also taking part in the great Australian political debate about Land Rights? Considered in this regard, these paintings’ expressions are equally relevant to pre-contact and to 21st century life. Perhaps all this amounts to not much more than the fundamental lesson that the relationship of people to land is at the heart of Aboriginal culture, but Myers’ framing of the issues has given these paintings new depth for me.

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