Warlukurlangu Artists, Yuendumu, NT

Leaving Kintore behind, the Austrade-sponsored American art mob flew on to Yuendumu for our second major art centre of our fourth day traveling across the Central Desert. Visiting these two communities in a single day seemed fitting. Both had lately opened major new art centre buildings, Yuendumu in October 2005 and Kintore in March of this year. Many years ago, after the modern painting movement got underway at Papunya, Yuendumu was the next major centre to emerge. However, the contrast in painting styles between the two communities in the early days could not have been starker. While Geoffrey Bardon had encouraged the men at Papunya to adhere to what he saw as the traditional palette of black, white, and red and yellow ochres (even if transposed into the decidedly non-traditional medium of acrylic paints), the men and women who began painting at Yuendumu gloried in the possibilities of acrylic colors.

Yuendumu from above

Indeed, the fact that women were among the earliest painters at Yuendumu was in itself in stark contrast to the men-only policy that prevailed at Papunya and later at Kintore. It was the women at Yuendumu who first realized the potential for raising significant sums of money from the painting enterprise in the 1980s, who dreamed of Toyotas that would enable them to visit sacred sites with greater ease. Like the people at Papunya, the Warlpiri at Yuendumu came from homelands that were scattered across the area northwest of Alice Springs, and like the Pintupi at Papunya, they saw in the profits from the art market a means to re-establish connections to country that had been diminished by their absence after settling where whitefellas wanted them to live.

The painters at Yuendumu were not only enthusiastic in their palette, they showed an equal energy in the application of paint to canvas. The careful, precise, and controlled style that had come to characterize the output of Papunya Tula artists was not duplicated among the fledgling artists who would be the core of Warlukurlangu. The painting was “sloppy.” The famed Yuendumu Doors, the first product of acrylic painting at Yuendumu, shared none of the “muted, cerebral and undeniably tasteful” qualities of Papunya Tula painting; rather, the artists of Yuendumu produced an art that even to this day makes a joyful visual noise. 

The characterization of this contrast between the two styles quoted in the paragraph above comes from one of the most trenchant early analyses of indigenous painting, “Bad Aboriginal Art” by Eric Michaels, an American anthropologist doing field work among the Warlpiri in the 1980s. The title reflects Michaels’ attempts to limn a differing aesthetic of Aboriginal art. Michaels was the original iconoclast of Aboriginal studies in the 80s, and his obvious delight in the disregard of the Warlpiri for muted, cerebral paintings can be seen in retrospect as offering new possibilities for the marketplace. He celebrated the diversity of Aboriginal artistic efforts in the face of an alien mindset that persisted at the best of times in lumping indigenous people into an undifferentiated cultural mass.

Arriving at Yuendumu that day we knew that there was major women’s business at Mt Liebig that week, and were expecting to find the local population significantly diminished (just as the football had emptied out Patjarr the day before). We weren’t prepared, though, for the grim news that Paddy Stewart was in hospital in Alice Springs. As coordinator Cecilia Alfonso drove us in from the airfield, we learned that a very lonely Paddy Sims would be painting at the art centre. But I think we were all cheered, especially his long-time friend Kerry, to learn that the old man was well and busy painting.

And sure enough, after having a quick lunch and meeting the rest of the staff, we found Paddy Sims seated on the verandah, surrounded by dogs and working on a large yiwarra(Milky Way) Dreaming. This was the moment when Eric Michaels leapt to mind, for in immediate contrast the the rust-colored primer we’d seen on prepared canvases at Kintore that morning, we discovered that the preferred primary undercoat at Yuendumu these days is a brilliant, electric sky blue. Paddy hadn’t completed much of the dotting on his new painting yet; just the main lines that represent the ceremonial pole used in the yiwarra ceremonies had been filled out. Despite the brilliant colors that characterize Paddy’s paintings, the singing blue background still nearly overwhelmed his design at this point.

Kerry sat down with Paddy and asked him to tell her about the work. She also asked if I would take photos, and so I had the luck to be able to sit and listen as Paddy talked first about the Milky Way itself, and then about the Japaljarri and Jungurrayi men who are the first stars to appear at night and the last to fade in the morning.

Paddy Japaljarri Sims
Paddy explains the Milky Way Dreaming to Kerry
And Kerry has questions for the artist

We were rejoined in Yuendumu by Dennis Schulz, who had been with us at Uluru and who was working on an article for Territory Q magazine, recently published as “Aboriginal Art Goes International.” He came along as Paddy and Kerry were deep in conversation, and you can see some of his photos of this moment, along with more of the mob inside the centre, in the magazine. Dennis had driven in with Wayne Fan from Alice Springs after Wayne had ferried all of our luggage up from Uluru to Alice. (Given that we were traveling around to the centres in a very small aircraft, once we’d departed Uluru we were theoretically limited to 1.5 kg of overnight luggage to ensure that we carried enough fuel. Luckily, the limit was mostly theoretical on this leg of the trip.) It was great to see Wayne again, as he was as eager to hear our stories of how the last two days of the trip had gone as we were to tell them.

Inside the art centre, another set of contrasts emerged with our morning at Kintore: whereas Kintore had been bustling with artists, but had no art for sale, the centre at Yuendumu was bare of painters other than Paddy Sims, but the stock on offer was the richest we’d seen thus far on the trip. The scene in the photo below shows perhaps 20% of the space of the main stock room, whose walls were hung with large, impressive canvases by Shorty Jangala, Judy Napangardi Watson, Betsy Napangardi Lewis, Paddy Sims and Paddy Stewart, and Andrea Nungurrayi Martin. At the lower left of the photo you can see a pile of small canvases stack almost a foot deep–and that was one of half a dozen such stacks laid out on a low table. Racks in the center of the room held more work, and Cecilia stayed busy all afternoon fetching entire rolls of paintings by a single artist from somewhere. I never did see where they came from, they just kept appearing as if by magic: another half dozen or dozen masterpieces by Shorty or Paddy or Bessie Sims. 

John Oster, Kerry, and Wayne Fan in the Warlukurlangu stockroom

Pretty soon every available flat surface, including most of the floor, was covered with canvas. After Cecilia helped me send home a few images for consideration, I decided the most helpful thing I could do at that moment was get out of the way, so I stepped outside to take advantage of the beautiful autumn afternoon in the desert. If I’d hoped for a moment of visual understimulation, it wasn’t to be, as the photos below will attest. 

A short while later, a more restful air prevailed on the front verandah, where Paddy was enjoying a quiet moment, done with his work for the afternoon. 

The respite didn’t last long, though, as other, younger artists began dropping by from their homes, where they’d obviously been busy with canvas and brush all afternoon. We saw some exquisite work being dropped off as we were preparing to depart for the airfield, on the last leg of our voyage through the Central Desert, heading for the comparative urbanity of Alice Springs. 

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