Desert & Metropolis: Papunya Tula Comes to New York

In little less than a month, Icons of the Desert: early Aboriginal paintings from Papunya returns to the east coast of America, where it will be on view at the Grey Gallery of New York University through the first week of December. There will be a host of events coinciding with the exhibition over the next four months, but none may prove as momentous as the premier exhibition of contemporary work by Papunya Tula Artists in New York City. Of course, works by the company have been on display here before, but the Big Apple has never yet seen the likes of Nganana Tjungurringanyi Tjukurrpa Nintintjakitja (We Are Here Sharing Our Dreaming) at 80 Washington Square East Galleries from September 12 through September 26. Only two short weeks to witness this miracle, so make your travel arrangements now!

When Icons of the Desert first opened at Cornell University in February 2009, Papunya Tula came over in the persons of three senior men from the company, Bobby West Tjupurrula, Joseph Jurra Tjapaltjarri, and Ray James Tjangala, who built a link between the present day company and the historic works of Icons by creating an enormous ground painting out of desert sand, vegetable down, and ochre in the gallery of Cornell’s Johnson Museum. In doing so they demonstrated the living continuity of a tradition both aesthetic and spiritual that affirmed their solemn connection both to their country, in the materials they brought with them to make the painting, and to their Law, in the design of the Tingari story from Kiwirrkura that mirrored the works hung on the gallery walls.

This interweaving of past and present, of ancient tjukurrpa with contemporary acrylics, is of course part of the essence of contemporary Aboriginal art from Australia. Indeed, it is of the essence of tjukurrpa itself, W. E. H. Stanner’s famouseverywhen that characterizes the Dreaming not as an ancestral, creative past, but a spirit infused through and sustaining what we in the west think of discretely as past, present, and future.

If I think of present and future, for the moment, I am struck by how this opportunity to see a significant selection of contemporary painting from Papunya Tula–there are 45 canvases in this exhibition–offers an unparalleled opportunity for the future of Aboriginal art in America. Will “the most exciting field of contemporary Australian art … be able to gain the trust of serious art buyers in countries like the United States,” as Paul Sweeney wonders in his essay for the catalog now in preparation for this show?

It certainly seems that, for Papunya Tula, the moment is especially ripe. Just two days ago, Yinarupa Nangala took the General Painting Prize at the 26th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. (Yinarupa’s brother is Ray James, who participated in the Cornell ground painting; she was married to the late Yala Yala Gibbs Tjungurrayi whose work is in included in Icons.) Doreen Reid Nakamarra, who won the General Painting award last year, was highly commended by the judges this year, and of course Makinti Napanangka, the grandest of grandes dames of Pintupi painting, was last year’s overall winner at NATSIAA. All three women have significant work in the New York show.

Just three years ago, Papunya Tula mounted a smaller but no less stunning contemporary exhibition in another major world capital with the Pintupi show at Hamiltons Gallery in London, and collectors lined up four deep for the chance to purchase works by the likes of Makinti, Patrick Tjungurrayi, Naata Nungurrayi, and Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, all of whom will be also represented in New York.

Nganana Tjungurringanyi Tjukurrpa Nintintjakitja will bring to America other deep links to the past in the persons of Doreen Reid Nakamarra and Yukultji Napangati, traveling with the company to New York this time. Nakamarra was born in Ikuntji (Haasts Bluff) in the 1950s and attended school as a child in Papunya, where she saw the famous mural that began the Western Desert art movement that is being celebrated now. Ikuntji itself was the place where the first paintings were done in the mid-1990s by the women who are now mainstays of Papunya Tula Artists, and Nakamarra has been painting for Papunya Tula since 1996. Napangati, along with Warlimpirrnga, was part of the famous family group who walked out of the Western Desert into Kiwirrkura in 1984. She, like Nakamarra has painted for the company for a decade, although the two are seen as among the newest stars in a long line of masters.

An old master whose work will be seen in New York is Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, the only member of Bardon’s group of “painting men” from 1971 still actively producing work for Papunya Tula Artists. Tjampitjinpa has recently undertaken a series of Water Dreamings from the country west of Kintore whose iconography evokes the meanders of pearl shells that were traded all the way from the northwest coast of Australia to the Central Deserts as rain making charms. And so, nearly forty years after the company came into existence, Tjampitjinpa electrifies its latest show with motifs drawn from a spiritual and aesthetic past that predates contact with Western culture. So too does Johnny Yungut, whose newest work calls forth memories of paintings created as part of ritual men’s business on the walls of caves and the backs of initiates in the far reaches of the Western Desert.

Among the lesser known artists whose work will be on display in New York is the young Michael Reid Tjapanangka, son of the eminent Timmy Payungka Tjapangati, whose late works, kangaroo and goanna dreamings, conjure the country around Wilkinkarra (right) in black and white meanders. Family connections are thick on the ground here, for Tjapanangka was raised by Doreen Reid and her late husband, George Tjampu Tjapaltjarri and Timmy Payungka’s works feature in Icons as well.

But fascinated as I am by the play of history and the resonance of the past in the present, I do not want to lose sight of the glorious quality thatNganana Tjungurringanyi promises to bring to America. The artists who are included, be they relative youngsters like Yukultji Napangati and Michel Reid or senior painters like Yungut and Makinti, are all painting at the absolute top of their form. There are enormous, expansive canvases comparable to those now on display at the 26th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award in Darwin and delicate works in PTA’s trademark 107 x 28 cm stretcher size. (According to Nicolas Rothwell’s review of the Award show, all eight of the canvases PTA submitted this year made it through pre-selection to the finals, a testament to the power and sophistication of the company’s art. In addition to artists mentioned above, this year’s slate at the NATSIAA includes George Tjungurrayi, Nyilyari Tjapangati, and Walangkura Napanangka, all of whom will be represented in New York. See “Evolution of a Landscape,” The Australian, August 17, 2009.)

There can be little doubt then that the artwork on display next month at 80 WSE Gallery will be dazzling in style and execution, as the show’s signature piece by Naata Nungurrayi (left) demonstrates. Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri’s vertiginous black and white optical patterns will astonish, as will Yukultji Napangati’s finely crafted evocations of sandhills that call to mind Agnes Martin’s grids, shimmering and melting gently in the furnace of the Australian desert. Many of the styles that PTA brings to the metropolis will seem instantly familiar to New York’s eyes, but that is only part of the story.

For in the title of the exhibition, We are here sharing our Dreaming, these artists have made it clear that they are coming half way around the world to tell stories, to penetrate hearts and minds as well as markets. This may prove the more difficult task, for as cosmopolitan as New Yorkers can be, they can also be notoriously immune to the cultures that have historically flocked to their island. It is not easy for group shows of art from other countries to penetrate the insular mindset of the New York art scene. But I will be astonished if the sheer exuberance, delicacy, power, grace, and excitement of these works fails to ignite the imaginations of all who come to see them. For the art of Papunya Tula at its finest is, quite simply, unparalleled. It has the power to reach deep into our senses and our spirits; I trust that New York audiences will be up to the challenge.

Pulikatjara, the two sacred mountains at Walungurru within sight of the Papunya Tula studio

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