“Circles in the Sand” at the Australian Embassy, Washington, DC

Last weekend I was in Washington DC for the annual conference of the American Library Association. The city was crowded, the weather sub-tropical, but I managed to escape for a while to the deserts of Centralia by visiting the Australian Embassy as the guest of Director of cultural Affairs Brendan Wall to see Circles in the Sand: Aboriginal Art from Central Australia in the Kluge-Ruhe Collection , which opened at the Embassy’s art gallery on June 14.

After passing through security at the Embassy, I found myself in the main foyer face to face with the enormous collective work from Warlukurlangu Artists, Karrku Jukurrpa(1996). Commissioned by John Kluge and the work of twenty-nine women and five men, the canvas stands nearly ten feet tall and over twenty feet long (280 x 680 cm). Howard Morphy retells the Dreaming story behind this epic canvas in his monograph Aboriginal Art (Phaidon, 1998).


The painting is centred on the ochre mine inside the mountain Karrku in the Campbell Ranges west of Yuendumu, which is represented by the set of concentric circles in the centre of the canvas. The mine is associated with the mythical ochre bearer, who travels from east to west looking for a place to deposit the great store of ochre that he carries with him. The ochre man is associated with two ancestral women, sisters with whom he had a lusty encounter. By the time he approaches the mountain at Karrku he is handicapped with his burden and carries it on top of his head. He hears the ngappa (rain ) Dreaming approaching. The rain passes over the country. The great arc represents a rainbow that appeared a number of times during breaks in the storm. The eight small concentric circles running between Karrku mountain and the rainbow represent clouds and the parallel lines on either side lightning. In the face of the storm the ochre man retreats into the mountain shelter. The mountain itself appears to grow. In one version of the myth the old man makes a lasso of hair-string, represented by the green line in the painting, with which he reins in the mountain. In a second version a snake vine is used by the two sisters for the same purpose. The two sisters had travelled from the west, the pathway shown by the footprints following the vine, searching for rain. At last they find a waterhole, drink and fall asleep, the two semicircles representing the women. While they sleep the ochre man has intercourse with them. The women awake and return from where they came, following the rainclouds. They perform ceremonies on their journey, hoping all the time for rain but it never falls and the two women perish in the desert. Their bodies are represented by the concentric circles in the northwest [upper left] quadrant of the canvas (Morphy, pp. 302-303).

(As an aside, David Betz’s film Singing the Milky Way: a journey into the Dreaming chronicles an extraordinary visit to Karrku by the women painters of Yuendumu led by Judy Watson Napangardi. In the film other variants on the story are described and the incident of the two sisters expiring of thirst is acted out to great effect by Peggy Napurrula Poulson and Jorna Napurrula Nelson.)

Impressive as Karrku Jukurrpa is, it performs only the overture to this brilliant and engaging exhibition. (You can get a glimpse of its riches in photos from the opening, hosted by Ambassador Kim Beazley, on the Kluge-Ruhe’s Facebook page.)

The gallery space has been divided in three, with one “room” devoted to each community. The first of these showcases Warlukurlangu Artists from Yuemdumu, and frankly, is the least impressive. There’s a brilliant small painting by Dolly Namipjinpa Daniels that reprises the Karrku story in even brighter colors than the collaborative work in the foyer, and an electrically iridescent square canvas by Bessie Nakamarra Sims, but the remainder of the small works, while representative of the community’s bright colors and fluid lines, were not as distinguished as what follows in the next two rooms.

The “Papunya” room encompasses works created at the seminal site of the Central Desert painting movement, as well as works executed in later years at Kintore and Kiwirrkura. Three early boards hold pride of place along one wall, a 1973 Corroboree at Tjilka by Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri that has been in the Kluge-Ruhe’s collection since the beginning and two others, by Anatjari Tjakamarra and Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, that were part of Mr Kluge’s gift two years ago of sixteen additional early boards. They are superb examples of the genre, especially Anatjari’s vivid red Untitled masterpiece from 1973 that may reference initiation rites at Karrkunya (seen here in an image from the Virtuosity show at the Kluge-Ruhe in the summer of 2008). Despite immense differences in style, the resonance of red ochre (karrku) echoes in this small example of Pintupi painting the large Warlpiri collective work in the Embassy’s foyer and lays bare layers of connections among the desert dwellers.

The remainder of the room is given over to several large masterpieces. The vortices of William Sandy’s 1987 Bush Tucker Dreaming stand at one end, opposite a large Tingari canvas painted by Mick Namarari in 1991. Between them, highlighted against a brilliant and startling deep blue wall, are a version of Michael Nelson Jakamarra’s famous Five Dreamings and, beside it, what was for me the most thrilling painting in the exhibition. Timmy Payungka Tjapangati’s large, somber painting of Tingari men camped at Wilkinkarra is deceptively simple at first glance. A classic of the “line and circle” genre that details the far-ranging travels of initiates as they learn to travel the extent of their ancestral country, it is painted in muted brown and ochre shades that are so close-hued as to seem almost monochromatic on first glance. As I sat and contemplated it, however, more and more detail emerged from the spaces between the campsites and the paths that connect them. (Fred Myers has suggested in other contexts that large paintings of this type also reference the large numbers of initiates involved on the journey.) In the interstices between roundels, more colors emerge into the viewer’s consciousness, pinks and golds, and a few scattered patches of brilliant white that must be a reference to the salt lake of Wilkinkarra, the subject of so many of Tjapangati’s works over the years. Tjapangati was a master of small, intricate designs; but on the occasions when he expanded the scale of his canvases to that of a wall, his power amazes. Tjapangati has always been a personal favorite of mine among the Papunya Tula painters, and it was a delight to see this magnificent canvas and to have time to contemplate its dazzling design.

The strong connections between Papunya Tula and Balgo (especially of PTA artists who reside at Kiwirrkura) found expression in the final room. Simple considerations of space led to PTA canvases by Wintjiya Napaltjarri and Uta Uta’s widow Walangkura Napanangka spilling over onto a wall otherwise hung with women’s work from Balgo. The compositional strengths of the Pintupi women formed an aesthetic balance to the bold colors of the ladies from Balgo. A mid-nineties painting by Eubena Nampitjin,Tjalatjadu Rockhole, dominated the wall: its fiery reds and yellowing greens harked back to the artist’s earlier days when she painted alongside her husband Wimmitji Tjpanagati, while the structure of the design presaged the famous works Eubena made at the turn of the century when her palette turned to white and golds and her visual structures began to suggest a flowering of life in the desert. Hung next to Eubena’s canvas were the brilliant primary colors of one of the finest, brightest, and most intense paintings I’ve ever seen from the brush of Nancy Naninurra, the 1997 Mina-Mina ceremonies at Kimayi.

The other connection between Papunya Tula and Balgo hung on the opposite wall with a pair of large canvases by brothers Patrick Olodoodi Tjungurrayi and Brandy Tjungurrayi. Unlike the riotously colored paintings from the other Balgo artists that poured from the walls of this third room, this pair feature the traditional brown, white, ochre, and black palette of classic Pintupi works and they had the structural restraint in their design that characterizes Papunya Tula painting. They formed an interesting study together. Brandy’s tripartite design is the more immediately striking of the two, grandly architectural and imposing. Patrick’s painting has a border of parallel dotting running along the edges, with a distorted roundel, not square nor circular, an elongation at the bottom making it look a bit like a cut diamond, lines writhing, never quite coalescing into a definable geometry. The energy and the quirkiness of the shape continued to hold my attention long after the strong verticals of Brandy’s painting had exhausted my interest and confirmed my long-held belief that Patrick is among the true masters of contemporary Aboriginal artists.

A trio of wild compositions on the far wall of the gallery complete the show’s delights. Two small compositions by Sandy Gordon Tjupurrula and Rosie Nanyuma Napurrula manage to suggest Joan Miro at his most intricate and idiosyncratic and are wonders that emerge only slowly to pleasure the eye. Of course, they are at first a bit overpowered by one of Tjumpo Tjapanangka’s most arresting compositions, Kangaroo Dreaming at Lake Mackay from 1991 (Lake Mackay is the settler name for the Wilkinkarra of Timmy Payungka’s works). This time, the central lake is shown as an enormous central reservoir of deep, brilliant red–recalling again the karrku red ochre theme, but here also the great fire that swept across Wilkinkarra in the Dreaming. To one side of the red lake a field of charcoal black extends the width of the canvas–and one of the delights of the show comes when you approach the painting closely and see that this field is composed of deep blue, black, and green dotting. But from a distance, the Jovian red spot rivets your eye, and its largeness, at first overwhelming, becomes a field that allows the mysteries of the nearby paintings by Tjupurrula and Napurrula to unfold. It’s easily the most stunning hang in the show.

Circles in the Sand is open weekdays 11 am – 2 pm though September 17. For more information call (202) 797-3000 or contact Cultural.relationsUS@dfat.gov.au. Photo identification is required for entry into the Embassy. If you can’t make it to the Embassy to see the exhibition in person, you can console yourself a bit in the pages of Art from the Land: dialogues with the Kluge-Ruhe Collection of Australian Aboriginal art (University of Virginia Press, 1999). Many of the works I’ve talked about are reproduced in this volume, especially those from Yuendumu and Balgo, and essays by Francoise Dussart, Christine Watson, and Fred Myers offer in-depth analyses to supplement the visual pleasures.

More News from the Embassy: If you’re in New York City this coming Wednesday, July 7, take note of this announcement:

The Australian Consulate-General will be celebrating NAIDOC (National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee) Week on Wednesday, 7 July from 6.00-8.00pm. NAIDOC Week celebrations are held across Australia and the world each July to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This opportunity is further explored with this year’s theme of Unsung Heroes – Closing the Gap by Leading Their Way.

In celebration of NAIDOC Week, Cameron McCarthy, a member of the Kuku-Yalanji and Ba-Barum tribes of Northern Queensland, will be exhibiting a series of his artworks as well as performing at the Australian Consulate-General, New York. Cameron is an international visual artist, didgeridoo player, dancer and hip hop solo artist.

After moving to New York in 2001, Cameron was invited to be a part of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Voices exhibition. Cameron stayed on for a further six month as the first Artist–in–Residence at the United Nations.

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