“Icons of the Desert” Opens

The official opening of the exhibition of Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya took place at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell University in Ithaca NY over three days last weekend, February 12-14, 2009. Drawn from a collection assembled over the last fifteen years by John and Barbara Wilkerson, the exhibition contains fifty works, all but a handful of them executed during the first eighteen months of painting activity at Papunya in 1971 and 1972. Not since the millennial Genesis and Genius show at the Art Gallery of New South Wales has such a large showing of early boards been curated in a single place. The jaw-dropping effect of seeing so many masterpieces–and the works are all of the highest caliber–in one place was compared by Nicolas Rothwell in its impact to the 1939 Picasso retrospective in New York City; for once Rothwell may have been stinting in his assessment(“From the desert, artists came,” The Australian, February 13, 2009). This efflorescence of creativity, experimentation, and sheer painterly brilliance would be hard to come by anywhere in the world, and to see it here in the United States was a privilege and a highly refined pleasure. 

Added to the glory of the collection itself was a large ground painting executed over three days prior by Bobby West Tjupurrula, Ray James Tjangala, and Joseph Jurra Tjapaltjarri, who were all on hand for the event. Depicting a Tingari story from the country near the artists’ homeland of Kiwirrkura in Western Australia, the simple and austere design resonated with the early works surrounding it on the gallery’s walls. In doing so, it demonstrated the continuity of the traditions and the living vibrancy of Pintupi aesthetics over the passage of time. The local newspaper, the Ithaca Journal, has placed a series of photographs online that document the creation of this impressive painting.

The ground painting executed for the opening of Icons of the Desert

Papunya Tula Artists imported red desert sand and gallons of crushed flower heads, some of which were dyed with red ochre, to serve as the materials for the creation of this work. After the sand was laid down, the artists drew the circle-and-line design in it before filling the expanse with the plant material. The whole process was documented (as was much else that occurred during the week) by a team that included Daniel Fisher of Cornell’s Anthropology Department and Lucas Bessire, a doctoral candidate studying at New York University under Fred Myers.

Roger Benjamin, the exhibition’s curator, gave a keynote speech on February 12 and a gallery talk the following afternoon that served both to put the exhibition in context and to introduce the work to an American audience of over 800 people who visited the Museum for the opening reception on Friday evening. Benjamin also gave the keynote address at Saturday’s symposium, Papunya Then and Now, which dazzled the audience with the best in current scholarship on Indigenous art.

Fred Myers
‘ contribution to the symposium, “Enduring Value: Pintupi Painting at Yayayi and Beyond” drew on his experiences in the early 1970s living amongst the great painters of the first generation to examine questions of cultural and economic exchange. In “Art and Life in Early Papunya Painting: A Biographical Perspective,” Vivien Johnson demonstrated some of the transformative insights into art history that have been only hinted at by the biographical perspectives exposed in her recent publication, Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists (IAD Press, 2008), focusing in this case on the career of Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa. And Jennifer Biddle’s “Texture, Tactility and Touch: The Feminization of the Dreaming” developed the themes of the aesthetics of mark-making and body work set out in her recent monograph, Breast, Bodies, Canvas: Central Desert Art as Experience (UNSW Press, 2007).

Each of these three papers represents an ongoing research efforts by its author. Out of respect for the developing character of that research and the rights to the ideas contained therein, I will refrain from summarizing their remarks in detail. Instead, I would direct you to essays of a similar character by Myers and Johnson published in the superb catalog of the exhibition published by Cornell University Press at the astonishingly low list price of only US$30 in hardcover. The catalog, which contains in its American edition full color illustrations of all the work in the show, also offers contributions by Hetti Perkins and Dick Kimber. (Nine of the paintings in the exhibition have been deemed too dangerous for viewing by Indigenous women and uninitiated men and will be excluded from the version of the catalog to be distributed in Australia.)

An installation view of Icons of the Desert

The catalog also contains an extended version of Benjamin’s keynote address from the symposium. Benjamin, whose scholarly reputation has heretofore rested on studies of modern French painting and Orientalism, brings the perspective of a Western art historian to bear on the works in the exhibition. Entitled “The Fetish for Papunya Boards,” Benjamin’s essay delineates five qualities of these early works that help us to see some of their distinguishing features more clearly.

  • The boards form a “distinct physical category” by virtue of the materials on which they are painted: the rough masonite, tiles, scrap lumber or even door panels from old Holdens that form the physical support of these early masterpieces distinguish them from other representatives of the genre.
  • Likewise, the boards possess an “aesthetic distinctiveness” in the intricacies of their designs that, although based on ritual, betray the emergence of individual styles as painters worked in relative isolation for the first time. The early boards are each the product of a single hand, unlike the ceremonial creations that preceded them or some of the later large canvases in which the owner of a story was assisted in the execution of a sprawling design by his kinsmen.
  • Many of these early works fall into an affective category that Benjamin characterizes as a “dangerous” one, given the secret and powerful imagery that they contain.
  • Because of the “reverence for first things” that we hold in the west, these boards hold a special place in our assessments given that they are “forerunners in matters of invention.” We prize these early works for what they intimate about the future.
  • Finally, and it is here that the concept of the “fetish” emerges, the secondary market in early Papunya boards generated by auction houses has conferred upon them what Benjamin calls, quoting Baudrillard, “sumptuary value.” While the first three of these five indicators may tell us something about the objects themselves, and about the painters who created them, these last two qualities cross the cultural divide and tell us about the place of the paintings within Western systems, thus elucidating cross-cultural qualities of what I’ve referred to elsewhere as “objects on the loose.”

Benjamin’s Western art historical approach also leads him through discussions of the “School of Kaapa,” those paintings that explicitly record ceremonial activities and paraphernalia, and takes him through genre studies of “cave stories” (which are generously represented in the exhibition), Water Dreamings, and Tingari stories.

On the subject of Water Dreamings, Benjamin’s analysis is intriguingly bolstered by the discovery and inclusion of a number of photographs taken in 1972 in the famous “painting shed” at Papunya by a visiting Danish photographer named Michael Jensen. Amazingly, these group portraits of the old men painting in “Bardon time” show several of the works in this exhibition in the process of being painted, including Water Dreamings by Walter Tjampitjinpa and Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi. (These two paintings are visible at the extreme right in the photograph of the installation above.) Benjamin speculates that there may be causal links between the unusually heavy rains and flooding that occurred around Papunya in the winter of 1972 and the creation of these works.

Benjamin’s examination of the Tingari motifs ties up his discussions of the controversies over the display of secret material and the evolution of style and content to a more generally acceptable mode of representation among the painters as the decades progressed. His remarks provide context for the inclusion of a careful selection of later works on canvas that indicate the direction that Papunya painting took as it moved outwards from its beginnings in the old men’s painting shed into the larger world of galleries and museums. 

The formal remarks at the symposium were concluded by Paul Sweeney, whose topic was “Papunya Tula Artists Today.” His talk nicely complemented the largely historical quality of the preceding lectures by examining the contemporary impact of Papunya Tula painting on the people of Kintore and Kiwirrkura. Sweeney is a natural orator with a gift for the spine-tingling and the throat-tightening. He told the stories of the creation of massive collaborative works that were auctioned off to help build first a dialysis unit and then a swimming pool at Kintore, both of which have had significant beneficial impacts on the health and morale of the community. Similarly, his photographs of a group of Kintore boys on their first trip to Melbourne and the seashore were incredibly moving. 

Following Sweeney’s remarks, the audience moved downstairs to the exhibition hall, where Bobby West Tjupurrula explained to another house-packing crowd how the ground painting told the story of his country at Kiwirrkura, a story given by their fathers and grandfathers to the men who made it. (Bobby West is just barely visible at the left in the photo above, standing next to Fred Myers; to Fred’s right is Paul Sweeney, and at the far right, Andy Weislogel, Associate Curator at the Johnson Museum and the most generous and congenial moderator-host of the weekend’s activities.) Tjupurrula’s speech fittingly was the final word in the week’s program.

 Detail of the Kiwirrkura story

Those formal events, though, were only one part of the magic that we experienced in Ithaca. Over the four days that we were there we had the chance to reconnect with old friends and acquaintances. Luke Scholes was there with the PTA contingent to help orient the artists to the new and sometimes strange surroundings, including trips to see frozen waterfalls and a visit to the Native American community on the shores of Lake Cayuga. Daniel Fisher had introduced me to the social uses of Top End broadcasting in a paper delivered at the Media Matters symposium held at the Kluge-Ruhe in 2005, and it was great to have the chance to chat about his work. Reunions with Margaret, Bob, Kerry, Larry, and Margo provided the opportunity to catch up on what were, in some cases, years of news. There were others with whom I’ve corresponded over the years but never had the welcome chance to meet face-to-face, including Greg, Chris, and Alec; and Tony Bond and I finally shook hands and complained about the cold weather. There were many others, collectors, anthropologists, photographers, dealers, and journalists, with whom we shared enlightening and thoroughly enjoyable conversations.

But most of all, the opportunity to spend time with John and Barbara Wilkerson was greatly appreciated. Their generosity, warmth, and hospitality underlay the entire weekend. Not only did we enjoy the fruits of their connoisseurship, but we were afforded introductions to a wide spectrum of their family, friends, and colleagues that enriched our experience, and I want to use this opportunity to express my special gratitude to the Wilkersons for making this dramatic, thought-provoking, and most rewarding experience possible.

 John and Barbara Wilkerson

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