Papunya Painting

Our first goal upon arriving in Sydney was to visit the Australian Museum and see the Papunya Painting: Out of the Desert exhibition that is on show here now from the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. I had written an extensive piece based on the catalog and website for this show at the start of the year; I was quite impressed by the wealth of information that the two together offered about the show, the painters, the decade. Nothing in either could have prepared me for the experience of the paintings themselves.This is one of the most stunning shows of Indigenous art I’ve ever seen. There is no lack of drama in the presentation: here, as in Canberra, the halls are darkened, the paintings precisely framed in rectangles of light that make them float across the field of vision. The sound of old men singing fills the dim rooms. The museum was nearly empty the afternoon we arrived, and so the paintings themselves were the most significant and demanding presence in the space: all of this made the experience almost otherworldly.

But the size of these masterpieces! It’s one thing to intellectually measure off ten feet by six feet when looking at a reproduction of Uta Uta’s 1981 Yumari; it’s quite another to stand below this giant old man, to be dwarfed like a pilgrim in the light of a stained glass window in some magnificent cathedral. Perhaps it’s the sheer verticality of the image poised at the opening of the exhibition; perhaps it’s the fact that it is one of the first canvases you encounter looking out of the shadows. There’s no denying the power of the image, and that power is reinforced throughout the exhibition by videos that detail its creation.

The rest of the show is arranged in a rough U-shape, with the large paintings dominating the outer walls. The roundels and orange/yellow masses in Billy Stockman’s Budgerigars in Sandhills float up off the surface of the canvas vertiginously like flocks of birds frozen in mid-ascent; near the upper right corner of the canvas a swirl of larger white dots mimics the sudden ascent of the birds from the sandhills. 

At the far end of the wall Timmy Payungka’s network of Tingari sites is anchored to the edges of the canvas, but just barely. The straining tension of the skein of connections between the roundels lifts the whole image off the surface of the canvas like a geodesic dome straining to break through the plane of the painting. It’s a remarkably dynamic, keyed-up work.

Left to right, Billy Stockman, Timmy Payungka, Long Jack Phillipus

Across the way Long Jack’s Making Spears tells a story similar to the one made immortal by Turkey Tolson, but in a completely different idiom. Here the swirling lines that radiate from the large central roundel dance and wriggle across the canvas: the power of the image in its movement is immediately evident. Once you look at the wall text, take in the story of the men straightening their spears before the battle, notice the three-meter long spears mounted on the wall next to the painting, you can, when you look back at the painting, almost hear the weapons sing as they whistle through the air. 

And so it goes, masterpiece after tour-de-force. The power of the paintings in this exhibition is astonishing It was worth coming all the way to Sydney to experience it.

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