Art of the Western Desert, New York

We traveled to New York City last weekend to attend the linked openings of Icons of the Western Desert at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University and Papunya Tula Artists’ Nganana Tjungurringanyi Tjukurrpa Nintintjakitja (We Are Here Sharing Our Dreaming) just down the block at 80WSE.John and Barbara Wilkerson were once more feted for sharing their collection of early Papunya boards with the rest of us, and the show, once again, looked marvelous. The hang this time was organized quite differently than it had been at Cornell, where consideration of history (recreating the sequence in which the paintings were originally made) and theme (comparing cave paintings, or setting the works of brothers Tim Leura and Clifford Possum side by side) directed the placement of the works in a large and very open space.At the Grey, curator Lynn Gumpert and the “legendary” Fred Myers (as he’s known around town) presented the paintings in a manner that is sure to appeal to the Manhattan gallery visitor, with plenty of white space on the walls between paintings and an eye for aesthetic correspondences. The main exhibition space also included two flat-screens showing films. One was the marvelous documentary by Ian Dunlop (in the still at the right Anatjari Tjakamarra is showing Fred Myers his country) that I first saw when Myers opened the Virtuosity exhibition at the Kluge-Ruhe Collection in April 2008, showing the painting camp at Yayayi Bore where he worked with many of the men whose works adorned the walls of the Grey. The second was a short film documenting the creation of the large ground painting by men from Papunya Tula Artists that was done at the Johnson Museum at Cornell at the opening of Icons there in February of this year.

One again, the presence of Papunya Tula Artists at the exhibition led to a fascinating manifestation of culture, though not a ground painting this time. On this trip Yukultji Napangati and D. R. Nakamarra came along. As the catalog of Icons of the Desert makes clear, there are paintings included in the show that should not be viewed by uninitiated Aboriginal men or Aboriginal women, and this posed a logistical problem for the Grey. They solved it quite nicely by giving these sacred works a small space of their own on the level below the main galleries. Visitors who descended to view them were also treated to a video of the film Mr Patterns about Geoff Bardon’s days at Papunya when many of the paintings in Icons were made. Copies of the exhibition catalog, of Vivien Johnson’s Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists, and other books documenting Pintupi art of the Western Desert were available for consultation as well.

On Thursday evening a crowd of about six hundred jammed the Grey Gallery for the opening of Icons. Provost David McLaughlin began with a brief welcome to all on the part of the University, followed by remarks by Australian Consul-General, Philip H. Scanlan. But the highlight of the short ceremony were the comments of Sonia Smallacombe (right, in red, in the foreground right Wilkerson, Scanlan, and Myers), a member of the Maramanidji people of the Daly River region and the United Nations’ Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. She spoke eloquently herself on the eloquence of Aboriginal art, of the voice it represents for her people, and of her delight in hearing that voice acknowledged in New York. It was a rare pleasure–and a measure of one difference between Australian and the US–to hear her acknowledge the Lenape of the Six Nations, the indigenous custodians of the island of Mannahattaon whose ground we were standing.

The remainder of the evening, for me, was spent in the delightful business of reconnecting with old friends and the even more rewarding activity of making new ones.

Early on Friday we traveled back to Washington Square to drop in at 80WSE where PTA was busily engaged in hanging their show prior to Saturday’s opening. It was a scene of memorable and thrilling activity as paintings were lined up against the walls and then hoisted into place by a hard working crew. Even though I’d seen a preview of the show’s catalog, I wasn’t really prepared for what PTA brought along with them. 

In one of the two windowed rooms that fronted Washington Square itself, a large (six-by-eight foot) painting by Nakamarra dominated. Given the physical scope of the canvas, Nakamarra was able to literally expand her treatment of the creek and the sandhills at Marrapinti. Her trademark undulations threatened to almost spill off the canvas into the gallery space.

Across the entryway, in a smaller room the show’s signature image by Johnny Yungut Tjupurrula (left) held a dialogue across the space with an explosive work by his wife, Walangkura Napanangka. Tjupurulla’s painting, Tingari Men at Malparingya, was inspired when staff at PTA showed him images of some of the earliest works he had done for the company. The rawness of the drawing and the paint handling gave the image a propulsiveness that evoked the energy of a ceremonial dance and the flicker of firelight on painted bodies or cave walls. (If that last sentence seems a bit overloaded with imagery, then I’ve captured some of Tjupurrula’s power.) Facing it, Napanangka’s depiction of the story of Katungka Napanagka at Tjintjintjin echoed both the color scheme and the propulsion of Tjupurrula’s image. In between them, a black-and-white masterpiece by Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, Tingari Men at Murmur, seemed almost serene by comparison. But if you rested your eyes on it for more than a few minutes, the lines of the composition began to writhe; when I stepped out into the street for a moment to take in all three works at a glance, Tjapaltjarri’s work looked almost as if it were being held in highly charged and dynamic stasis by the opposing energies of the other paintings in the room.

At the opposite end of the gallery, the back wall of one room was covered with a suite of works in the signature 107×28 cm size that PTA uses for small works. Ten paintings by accomplished Pintupi masters, men and women, showed off the varieties of style among the artists, and their brilliant but subtle mastery of color. In nearly forty years the artists of Papunya Tula have never strayed far from the traditional, spare palette of ceremonial design. Red shaded into yellow for some brilliant orange effects in Makinti Napanangka’s works, indulged by a lilac streak; red pierced an otherwise black-and-white design by Ningura Napurrula in a fecund explosion. Despite being less than a foot wide, these canvases too pulsated with energy; sawtooth designs by Ray James Tjangala and Nyilyari Tjanpangati pushed at the frame as forcefully as Ronnie Tjampitjinpa’s roundels or Nakamarra’s serpentine meanders.

In the other rooms of the gallery the characteristic Papunya Tula panoply of inventiveness unfolded. Ronnie Tjampitjinpa’s bold pearl shell meanders (left, with Andy Weislogel and Paul Sweeney) played counterpoint with George Tjungurrayi’s austere lines of close-hued colors that gave up the subtleties of their designs even more gradually than Yukultji Napangati’s sandhill mappings. Michael Reid’s painting of designs associated with the rockhole at Tarkul brought a catch to my throat from across the room, so vividly did it evoke his father Timmy Payungka’s Dreaming stories. Patrick Tjungurrayi’s small canvases were less flamboyant that some of his large, prize-winning works of late but had the sheen of ceramic mosaics with their thick dottings in white and yellow against orange and red tracks.

The brilliance of the artwork held me captivated for most of the day on Saturday, as did long conversations with friends. I missed all the films that were on show farther downtown in a program organized by NYU’s Faye Ginsburg and featuring the work of Indigenous directors Beck Cole and Warwick Thornton. (And we had to catch a flight home too early on Sunday to let us catch the special screening of Samson and Delilah at the Museum of Modern Art.)


Despite the jet lag, all the hard work of prepping the space, stretching the works, and hanging the show, the Papunya Tula mob were clearly having a grand old time. Julie Harvey’s efforts on their behalf here in the States paid off handsomely as waves of the curious and the committed kept streaming in throughout the afternoon. The ladies themselves looked resplendent in their flash new gowns, acquired on a downtown shopping trip with Sarita Quinlivan the day before; Paul and Charmaine were unflappable as usual, and eleven-month old Lucinda was stealing hearts left and right. Despite the blustery winds and the sometimes heavy rains, spirits were high all around. Nor was the enthusiasm contained to the PTA crew: by the time I made a final circuit of the galleries shortly before six p.m., over two-thirds of the canvases sported red dots. Not a bad showing for opening day of art from the Western Desert in New York City.

Nganana Tjungurringanyi Tjukurrpa Nintintjakitja closes next Saturday, September 26, so there’s just less than a week left to expierence its glories. Icons of the Desert will remain on at the Grey Gallery until December 5, and an extended program of lectures graces the fall calendar at NYU. 
October 25, 2009: I have just learned that D. R. Nakamarra, whose presence graced the opening of Nganana Tjungurringanyi Tjukurrpa Nintintjakitja, passed away unexpectedly in recent days. We are all shocked. As a friend said, “What a fragile society that is.”
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