Early Days in the Desert

Every culture–and perhaps every cultural movement–has its origin myths. These stories of creation and the first days tell us something essential about the culture that creates them, and the culture they describe, for the two need not always be the same. And indeed, there may be multiple and conflicting stories, as the early chapters of Genesis remind us.

For the contemporary Aboriginal art movement, the origin myth par excellence is the story of Geoffrey Bardon and the Papunya painters in the winter of 1971. And the story has a fair claim as an origin myth: it marks a moment when the marketplace opened up in a significant manner and when paintings by Indigenous Australians drawing on Indigenous traditions began to gain notice and, more importantly, acceptance primarily as works of art.

Apart from Bardon’s recognition of the aesthetic interest and merits of Central Desert designs, the story he narrates in Aboriginal Art of the Western Desert (Rigby, 1979) reinforces the narrative of separation from country, of longing for homelands, and of the absolute joy the men experienced when they were able to reconstitute, in however small a fashion, the celebration of ritual connected with their ancestral lands. The Bardon narrative encapsulates creation, separation, reunion, and redemption.

It also places the artists firmly in the realm of modernism. Bardon saw in the emotional outpourings of these men a kind of recreation of a suppressed identity, a renaissance of self-expression: sure hallmarks of the modernist tradition in painting that has been celebrated throughout the twentieth century. Paradoxically, Bardon’s insistence that the men purge their paintings of any traces of Western art, color, and symbolism gave their creations the appearance to Western eyes of originality and aesthetic innovation that reinforced the impression that these could be truly modern paintings. (I owe these insights to my old friend Ken George, who spun them out for me in the early chapters of his new book, Picturing Islam: art and ethics in a Muslim lifeworld, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.)

Of course, these are origin stories about an art movement, a very Western phenomenon; they are not about Aboriginal art per se, or about ritual or belief. I think that Bardon’s Papunya story has gained such power precisely because its themes resonate so strongly with our theories about modernism and what they say about our own lives as well as our beliefs about art. 

However, some of the Papunya painters themselves had antecedent stories: before Bardon’s arrival Turkey Tolson and Kaapa Mbitjana painted watercolors in the style of the Hermannsburg School. The descendants, patrilineal and aesthetic, of Albert Namatjira had been producing art for three decades and more before 1971. Billy Stockman and Clifford Possum had careers as woodcarvers. But for a variety of reasons, the products of the Hermannsburg School and the punu sculptors had been relegated to the curiosity cabinet and the tourist shop. They were never art in the way that the paintings Bardon sold in Alice Springs soon came to be seen.

Similarly, commerce in bark paintings probably began with Baldwin Spencer’s tour through the Top End in 1911-12 (recounted in Native Tribes of the Northern Territory of Australia, Macmillan and Co., 1914) when Spencer commissioned works, paid for in tobacco and other trade goods, to take back to Melbourne with him. The missions that followed in the coming decades saw the production of bark paintings for sale in southern cities as a source of income, and a chance to capture a slice of culture, but few saw them as high art. 

And so the contemporary Aboriginal art movement canonically begins in Papunya in 1971. From there, over the next two decades, it spread slowly, first to Yuendumu, then to Balgo and Utopia. When this story is retold, scant attention is paid to other art-making activities that happened a little farther south, and a little earlier in time. When, for example, the Pitjantjatjara appear in the early chronicles of the painting movement, it is as protestors, enraged at the Pintupi disclosures of sacred iconography.

The story of the Pitjantjatjara refusal to engage with the nascent art movement is told in excellent detail, alongside other facets of history that do demonstrate the early artistic engagement of people in the APY/NPY lands on the border of South Australia and the Northern Territory, inPainting the Song: Kaltjiti artists of the sand dune country (McCullough and McCullough,2009) by Diana James, longtime associate of the arts movement centered in Fregon, SA. James, an anthropologist, began working with the Pitjantjatjara in the mid-70s, right around the time that the Desert painting movement began flourishing, and has maintained her involvement over the decades since.

Around five years ago, there was a great flowering of painting in the APY lands with the art centres such as those at WarakurnaAmataPatjarr,WarburtonBlackstone, and Fregon suddenly bringing new styles and bold color into the mainstream of the Desert art movement. (See, for example, Nicolas Rothwell’s assessment of Desert Mob in 2005, “Lines shimmer into shape,” The Australian, September 13, 2005.) Building on that momentum, James has produced a work that is both scholarly and anecdotal documenting the history of the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people in the 20th century and the growth of commercial art production among them.

In the first part of the book, “Painting the Song,” James traces the development of artistic practice from the early days of watercolor painting, painting on silk, batik, weaving, and textile design through the adoption of acrylic painting in recent years. She traces the connections among the art centres in the APY lands, the cultural forces at work among the Anangu, and the collaboration they have undertaken in their attempts to find a form of expression that is both culturally appropriate and economically rewarding.

The second half of the volume, “The Artists’ Country of Song,” offers the reader a virtual tour of the region. Dividing the area into regions around the central sandhill country (talingka) around Fregon, James highlights the life stories and artistic styles of the major artists (including Tali Tali Pompey, Iwana Ken, and Wati Wangka) producing work for Kaltjiti. Generously illustrated with portraits of the artists and their country along with numerous reproductions of representative artworks, this latter half of the book amounts to a retrospective of the last half decade of experimentation and success in the acrylic school of Desert painting. James concludes, fittingly with a chapter on “Painting songlines to the city” that documents the reception of Kaltjiti Arts in metropolitan Australia.

Painting the Song is that rare work that balances history, anthropology, and art criticism and succeeds at all three. Appendices document the major artists, the APY kinship system, and botanical references; a glossary of APY linguistic terms and extensive bibliographic notes richly supplement the text. And finally, there is a superb index, a feature often lacking in even the best monographs on Aboriginal art.

At times the wealth of material on offer here can be overwhelming. The book is chockablock with historical photographs, quotations from artists and their kin, maps, diagrams, and artwork. I sometimes had trouble focusing my attention; ultimately I decided to ignore everything but the text itself on the first pass. Once I had digested the narrative that James has to share with us, a second pass through the book to concentrate on the visual materials proved far more rewarding. It’s not often that an “art book” can seduce with its story before it can with its gorgeous illustrations, but Painting the Song repays attention to the chronicle. Diana James has filled in an important chapter in the story of the origins of the Desert painting movement, for which we should all be grateful.

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