Virtuosity: Fred Myers and Pintupi Masters at the Kluge-Ruhe

Virtuosity: The Evolution of Painting at Papunya Tula, the new exhibition at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, curated by Fred Myers, is full of moments of astonishing visual delight and magic. One of these occurs near the end of a short film being shown as an ongoing part of the exhibition. The film, titled Pintupi Painters at Yayayi, is twenty minutes of footage extracted from sixteen hours shot by Ian Dunlop (People of the Western DesertThe Yirrkala Film Project) in 1974 during a month-long stay at the outstation of Yayayi, a short distance west of Papunya, to which the Pintupi had recently moved. (This newly edited footage was prepared by the National Museum of Australia for the recent exhibition Papunya Painting: Out of the Desert.)The film opens with shots of camp life (Pinta Pinta Tjapanangka being berated by his sister Makinti Napanangka for not getting enough meat for his ten dollars at the community store), then switches to a sequence showing Peter Fannin, the manager of Papunya Tula Artists at that time, and Bob Edwards of the Aboriginal Arts Board purchasing paintings and artifacts from a crowd of men gathered at the painting camp. (During the two years that Myers lived with the Pintupi at Yayayi he documented 260 early works by the Pintupi masters.) Included prominently in this section are, among others, Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi, Uta Uta Tjangala, John Tjakamarra, and Anatjari Tjakamarra.The last sequences of the short film document moments during a trip out west to Pintupi homelands that Myers made in the company of several of the men and Jeremy Long, the patrol officer who worked for many years with the Pintupi during this critical contact period. After climbing up a steep sandhill together, Myers and Anatjari are seen crouching near a smoothed patch of sand. Anatjari reaches out a finger and inscribes a small circle in the sand, then draws a short, straight line, then another circle. He whispers the names of the places represented by the tiny circles. Another line, another circle, another whispered name. The line turns north, and Anatjari inscribes two more circles.

The scene shifts to Anatjari standing atop a hill near Ilpili in the Ehrenburg Range. At the top Anatjari looks over the countryside. “Pintupi ngurra,” he says. Twisting his head and arm around behind him to the right, he announces that the land to the east belongs to someone else: Arrernte country. Then he looks out to the west and in a strong, clear voice says, “Pintupi ngurra, Pintupi country!” His left hand shoots out in front of him as he names a place out to the west. He draws his hand back to his mouth, then rapidly extends his arm to the west again, naming another site. Over and over again this action is repeated, his hand seeming to extract the names of the country from his mouth and hurl them out across the landscape as his arm shoots westward. “Pintupi country!” he exclaims, and again “Pintupi country!” It’s a literally spine-tingling moment, as Dunlop’s camera pans out, away from the figure of the painter atop the sandridge and across to the rocky hills purple on the horizon. This is the country on display now at the Kluge-Ruhe.

A screen shot from Ian Dunlop’s film, Pintupi Painters at Yayayi. The painting above is a new work (2008) by Pamela Napaltjarri, daughter of Fred Myers’s friend Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi.

Virtuosity comprises thirty-nine works, dating from 1971 to 2008, that document the development of painting strategies by artists of the Papunya Tula collective. Four artists are given prominence, with a gallery each devoted to Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, Anatjari Tjakamarra, and Uta Uta Tjangala. The fifth room is given over to further developments at Kintore and Kiwirrkura represented by Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Dini Campbell Tjampitjinpa, and Simon Tjakamarra among the men, and in the 1990s and beyond by women painters Wintjiya Napaltjarri, her sister Tjunkiya, Uta Uta’s widow Walangkura Napanangka, Tatali Nangala, and Makinti Napanangka. To round out the show, Papunya Tula Artists has sent over a gorgeous selection of small paintings by some of the best artists working today, available for on-site purchase at blushingly modest prices.

New work from Papunya Tula Artists

On Saturday, April 12, Fred Myers led an overflow crowd of visitors through the exhibition, holding us all rapt for nearly two hours as he explained the ways in which the stars of the show worked to translate their ceremonial designs into the two-dimensional media of acrylic paint on masonite or canvas board. Myers described how these men developed even more innovative techniques for responding to the introduction of large canvas and the need to depict their artistic and intellectual traditions and their lived experience of their country in ways appropriate to their widening audience.

Fred Myers, at right, has the full attention of his audience after nearly two hours.

As visitors step into the exhibition’s first gallery they are greeted, to the left, by five early boards from the 70s by Mick Namarari, and to the right, three larger, later canvases painted between 1989 and 1992. Myers characterized Namarari as an especially quiet, taciturn man who was nonetheless recognized from the first as an unusually gifted painter. Several of the early works are structured around a tripartite set of interlocking forms that may be drawn from the motif of two men seated on either side of a ceremonial pole or a campfire. In the stories behind these designs, these may be brothers, an elder and an initiate, or otherwise family members; the design shows similarities to a structure employed by Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi in several of the paintings Myers had shown to the audience in his lecture two nights earlier. The colors in these early boards are spectacular, with brilliant yellow bands giving prominence to the interlocking design in “Kangaroo Man Ancestor and Bush Tucker Dreaming” (1973) and a glowing warm orange filling the frame of “Family Moon Dreaming” (1976).

The larger paintings showcased some of Tjapaltjarri’s strategies for filling a large canvas and adapting designs to a more generalized presentation of mythic stories. “Wallaby Dreaming at Tjunginpa” (1990, reproduced on page 109 of the catalog for Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2000) is an example of the classic line and circle motif that came to dominate Papunya Tula painting in the late 1980s; Myers explained that while the painters were retreating from depicting particular narratives at that time, every one of the dozens of roundels in the painting could still be identified as a specific place in the artist’s country. The smaller “Two Kangaroo Dreaming at Marnpi” (1989) is a gauzy skein of yellow-gray dots, one of Tjaplatjarri’s signature late styles.

The tension between overtly depicting ceremonial regalia and the gradual move to a more generalized compositional approach can be seen most clearly in the second gallery, which is given over to five very different but equally dazzling works by Anatjari Tjakamarra. The iconography of the undocumented and untitled board from 1971 is a mixture of clearly decipherable incised ritual objects and a mysterious complex of black ovoid shapes that frame a pair of roundels. One of these roundels sits in a field of white dots, the other at the center of radiating dotted white lines. (The work has some compositional similarity to a painting by Uta Uta reproduced on page 28 of Genesis and Genius, but the colors in Anatjari’s board, dominated by a deep, shiny black on a background of red ochre, look far more striking.) Another untitled work from 1973 depicts that story of a Dreamtime initiate who bled to death at Karrkunya, but here the forms have already become more abstracted and less naturalistic. The stone knives of the ceremony, the chunks of red ochre that are mined at this site, and the five-pointed central design can be interpreted if one knows the story, but the bald depiction of the earlier work has already been masked.

Myers wryly noted that Tjakamarra never seemed fully able to divorce himself from the naturalistic, and indeed, with that thought in mind, the three ovals that circumscribe half a dozen or more roundels each in “Women’s Dreaming” (1989) suddenly look less like classic Tingari designs than ritual objects, despite the elaborate background dotting. The painting (reproduced on page 106 of the Genesis and Genius catalog) depicts the story of a group of Tingari men who travelled in the company of a group of women bearing ceremonial boards to the site of Ngaminya, where the boards were left behind and turned to stone.

Myers then led his audience to a third gallery that featured early works by Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula along with a pair of paintings, one early, one late, by Long Jack Phillips Tjakamarra. Both men came from more easterly regions: Johnny W. a Luritja man, Long Jack a Pintupi with strong ties to Luritja country. Long Jack is one of the few men who painted for Geoff Bardon in 1971 still living; today he remains in Papunya and is encouraging the young artists who paint for the newly founded Papunya Tjupi art centre.

“Wallaby Dreaming” (1971), left, and “Wild Potato Dreaming” (1972) by Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula.

The paintings by Johnny Warangkula in the exhibition display a wide range of the artist’s styles, but all of them are characterized by his fabulous color sense and extraordinary delicacy in dotting and brushwork. The “Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa” (1972) is a skein of hatched lines in the palest greens and yellows of new plant life tangled and swirling around an equally pale peach-colored central patchwork. Myers noted how in this painting and in others like “Kangaroo Man’s Travels” (1973), the roundels that usually anchor Pintupi paintings to the center of the picture plane or describe an organizing axis are simply elements in the overall design of Warangkula’s paintings. The circles are off center, secondary, and don’t organize the space; Warangkula instead achieves compositional balance through his use of color, and demonstrates a disinclination to employ conventional ritual design, even in his earliest paintings.

In the fourth gallery devoted to one of the exhibition’s major painters, six magnificent works by Uta Uta Tjangala share the walls with a canvas by his close friend Charlie Tjararu Tjungurrayi and another by his son Shorty Tjampitjinpa Jackson. The early works by Uta Uta all display his characteristic off-center, slightly diagonal axis around which the individual elements of the design are organized. Myers has elaborated on Uta Uta’s compositional strategies at some length in the third chapter of Painting Culture: the making of an Aboriginal high art (Duke University Press, 2002), which is entitled “The Aesthetic Function and the Practice of Pintupi Painting: A Local Art History.” 

“My Country with Sandhills” (c. early 1970s), left, and “Bandicoot Dreaming” (1987) by Uta Uta Tjangala.

For me, the most revelatory painting of Uta Uta’s in the show was the “Tingarri Cycle” (1973). A large central roundel is surrounded by eight smaller ones that radiate from it and are connected to it by short straight lines. The entire design thus created is then outlined by bands made up of alternating rows of white and black dotting, which are themselves surrounded by a band of doubled yellow dots that serves to enclose the entire design. From behind this frame-filling set of roundels emerge four naturalistically painted, elaborately decorated sacred boards arranged in a somewhat flattened X shape. Parts of the boards are clearly visible between the outer ring of roundels, other parts are hidden. The designs of the two boards on the right hand side of the painting, though, seem to merge with the overall larger design: they were clearly painted in before the enwrapping dotting was done, and they peer out ambiguously from behind that dotting. Myers pointed out how they invoke the power relationships of ceremony; how things in ritual are simultaneously concealed and revealed and how the actions of concealment and revelation are indices of the social position, knowledge, and power of the initiated men. The image also evokes Tingari stories of enormous sacred boards that rose up out of the ground in a literally awe-inspiring display of Ancestral power.

The exhibition’s final gallery draws the viewer closer to the present day and completes the narrative of the development and transformation of Pintupi painting over the last four decades in a number of ways. Ronnie Tjamiptjinpa’s large canvas “Nyinmi” (1989) depicts the travels and death of the King Brown Snake, a Dreaming track that charts a series of salty waterholes through the Western Desert in what Myers described as a kind of ethnogeology. The Dreaming track that ends at Nyinmi has its beginnings at a site painted by Johnny Warangkula and depicted in his painting “Women’s Centipede Dreaming at Central Mount Wedge” (1974) which, fittingly, is hung at the extreme opposite end of the Kluge-Ruhe’s exhibition space.

“Nyinmi” (1989) by Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, left, and “Tingari at Pilintjinya” (1988) by Simon Tjakamarra.

Simon Tjakamarra’s “Tingari at Pilintjinya” (1988) is characteristic of that painter’s bold interpretation of the circle and line motif, and according to Myers, is a good example of the shift in representational strategy that occurred in the late 1980s, and was remarked upon earlier with Mick Namarari’s “Wallaby Dreaming at Tjunginpa.” A more generalized design aesthetic emerged as the painters strove to reproduce not the details of ceremonial objects but the effect of the performance. The bold, optically vibrant designs simulate the sudden, flickering revelation of body paintings emerging strobe-like from the darkness into the light of the ceremonial campfires.

The strength of Pintupi painting has now passed on to the women in the communities of Kintore and Kiwirrkura, who have sustained the stories given to them by their fathers and who follow up the example of the old masters in the exhibition, all of whom have died (with the exception of Long Jack and Ronnie). Walangkura, who paints her father’s Dreamings, was married to Uta Uta; Tjunkiya is Uta Uta’s sister’s daughter; and Tatali was married to Uta Uta’s great friend Charlie Tjararu. Myers noted the haptic quality of the women’s paintings, the thickness of the paint that they apply to the canvas recreating the effect of ochres applied to their shoulders and breasts during ceremonies. Makinti’s large canvas of the “Kungka Kutjarra (Two Women) Dreaming” (2001) represents the hair string displayed and worn by the women in the dance that keep their ceremonies alive today.

Left to right, “Women’s Campsite at Lampintja” (1999) by Tatali Nangala; “Untitled” (2008) by Walangkura Napanangka; “Yumari” by Tjunkiya Napaltjarri.

Although Myers’s audience ought to have been overwhelmed by the sheer virtuosity of his own performance by this point in the tour, they still hung on every word as he led them to the alcove where the Ian Dunlop film was playing, pointed out the various men gathered in the painting camp, identifying the great painters whose work we had just been taught how to see.

But as the audience scattered after watching the film one last time, and after seeing once more Anatjari Tjakamarra calling out the names of Pintupi country, I was drawn back to contemplate a painting of his from the Kluge-Ruhe’s collection that has been a favorite of mine since I saw it seven years ago on my first visit to Charlottesville. Entitled “The Artist’s Country Near Kurlkurta” (1989), it seemed to encompass better than any other single work the insights that I gained from my three days in Fred Myers’s company this weekend.

“The Artist’s Country Near Kurlkurta” (1989) by Anatjari Tjakamarra, sometimes known as Anatjari no. 3.

Compositionally, this work appears to be one of the simplest of Anatjari’s on display in Virtuosity. About three dozen black and white roundels of various sizes are spread across of field of white and yellow dots on a red-ochre primed canvas. The density of the white dots varies across the field, filling the lower right corner more densely, forming a loosely defined band in the upper right, finding more of a balance with the yellow in the center. 

Myers described the country that Anatjari Tjakamarra came from: it is hilly country, the hills full of caves. Water runs off the hills and collects in numerous rockholes throughout the region. It is country that Anatjari knew intimately, country he looked over, at least in his mind’s eye, as he stood atop the sandhill with Myers on that day in 1974 when Ian Dunlop captured the two men on film. It is country where Anatjari participated in ceremonies, and where, in the Dreamtime, large numbers of Tingari Men, “so many people” in the artist’s evocation, gathered together. 

In Nancy Munn’s classic description of the designs employed by Desert painters (Walbiri iconography: graphic representation and cultural symbolism in a central Australian society, Cornell University Press, 1973), she points to the multivalence of the simple designs used in the graphical systems of the Western Desert people. Circles can represent camps, or campfires, hills, waterholes, or caves. All of these elements are clearly possibilities given the nature of the artist’s country as Myers described it standing before this magnificent canvas.

Myers also evoked the image of ceremony, of painted bodies, black skin covered in white designs, designs that employed just these kinds of roundels, emerging into the flickering firelight. The optical effects of the design, of the circles in their varying sizes, mimic that strobe-like effect that Myers referred to, and they suggest in their visual instability the tropes of revelation and concealment, of bringing forward into the light and retreating into the darkness, that is the means by which initiated men assert their power and indeed their very identity. The men are emanations of the Dreaming when they perform in these ceremonies. By painting images such as these on canvas for all to see they are asserting their rights to reveal the sacred knowledge they received as initiates, and their status as elders; they are establishing who they are. 

And so finally the power of this painting lies very much in its multivalence, in the ability of these simple symbols to reveal so much at once. What we see here, if we avoid reductivism, if we try to embrace the whole lot, are “so many people,” Tingari ancestors and Anatjari’s kinsmen, elders and initiates, all the rockholes, hills, and caves of the artist’s country; in short, what is given to us in this painting is the whole of the artist’s lived experience of his country, transmuted and performed before our eyes. In that transmutation, we experience something of the Dreaming as it is brought forth, manifest, in the artist’s country and in our world. To be seized by this revelation is an exhilarating experience, to be brought to the brink of understanding, and to be reminded that much is still concealed behind this facade of circles and dots of paint. It is to see brilliance, prowess, mastery, and excellence. It is, in a word, virtuosity.

Virtuosity: the evolution of painting at Papunya Tula is on display at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection in Charlottesville, Virginia through August 9, 2008. The exhibition was curated by Fred R. Myers, who holds the Silver Chair of Anthropology at New York University. His book, Painting Culture: the making of an Aboriginal high art, was recently announced as the winner of the 2008 J. I. Staley Prize. The Staley Prize is given by the School of American Research (SAR) “to a living author for a book that exemplifies outstanding scholarship and writing in anthropology. The award recognizes innovative works that go beyond traditional frontiers and dominant schools of thought in anthropology and add new dimensions to our understanding of the human species. It honors books that cross subdisciplinary boundaries within anthropology and reach out in new and expanded interdisciplinary directions” (SAR website).

Fred Myers working with Anatjari Tjakamarra at Yayayi; photo by Esras Giddy, courtesy of Ian Dunlop.

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2 Responses to Virtuosity: Fred Myers and Pintupi Masters at the Kluge-Ruhe

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