There are a few concepts that can be regarded as absolutely fundamental to Aboriginal society and, by extension, to its art. The most obvious, of course, is the tjukurrpa, what we know as the Dreaming or “law” or “business.” Another is ngurra, which encompasses both the “country” one belongs to and the “camp” that one makes in that country: a dwelling place. The third is walytja, simply glossed as “family” but capable of holding much more, from the anthropological concept of “kinship” to the broadest definition of “relatedness.”
The centrality of the first two concepts, tjukurrpa and ngurra, are frequently explicated in discussions of Aboriginal art, especially the art of the Western Desert, from whose languages the words I’m using here are drawn. The painted canvas is most often conceived of by non-Indigenous audiences as a depiction of a Dreaming story, the visual representation of an ancestral story or an evocation of bush tucker. Often that story is tied to a particular place–ngurra–and the painting is interpreted as a map, whether it be the tracing of an ancestral journey or a means of identifying food and water in one’s country.
The place of walytja in discussions of Western Desert art is far less prominent, and when it does appear explicitly, it is often so closely tied to a tjukurrpa in a particular ngurra that the centrality of the family relation might almost be overlooked. Yumari, a frequent subject of Uta Uta Tjangala’s, is a place where a man violated the taboo against sexual relations with his mother-in-law. But the story is often obliquely told or told in such a fashion that de-emphasizes or masks the relationship between the man and the woman. (In some versions that I’ve heard, the story focuses on the punishments that befell the man: his genitals are bitten by ants, or his testicles detach themselves and go walkabout.) Sometimes relationships are reduced to the simple, hard-to-scan formula of “wrong skin.”
And yet, as anyone familiar with anthropological literature knows, the analysis of kinship relations has dominated Australian investigations into Aboriginal cultures for a century, and not just in the Western Desert. Lloyd Warner’s monumental study of life in Arnhem Land, A Black Civilization (Harper, 1937, revised 1958) has chapters devoted to the subject accompanied by charts of dizzying complexity. For Fred Myers, in Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self (Smithsonian, 1986), walytja is a fundamental aspect of how the Dreaming is manifested in space and time. To explain how important “kinship” is, Will Stubbs (at Yirrkala’s Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre) once asked me to imagine my life without numbers; that exercise, he told me, was like imagining Yolngu life without kinship relations.
And yet family relations have received scant attention in the literature on Aboriginal art. Even family relations among artists are generally ignored. Most people are probably aware that Christine Yukenbarri is Lucy’s daughter. But by and large, the most common mention of a familial tie in the Western Desert is the description of Walangkura Napanangka as “Uta Uta’s widow,” and that appellation derives mostly, it seems, from the need to distinguish her from the other Papunya Tula artist named Walangkura Napanangka, whose career began earlier. And who is married to Johnny Yungut, a fact that is almost never mentioned.
But perhaps this is all about to change and the light of scholarship may soon shine in important ways on walytja in the Western Desert. I received a taste of this in the catalog for Yiwarra Kuju, the exhibition of art from the Canning Stock Route project, which contains a two-page spread detailing some of the relationships among the artists included in that show, and which I wrote about in my review. This week I had the opportunity to learn a great deal more about the subject when I read the transcript of a talk called “Walyja: family and art history in the Canning Stock Route Collection.” It was given in conjunction with the exhibition by Australian National University anthropologist John Carty and is available now on the National Museum of Australia’s website devoted to Yiwarra Kuju.
Carty’s lecture, which apparently contains but a fragment of the research he has been engaged on for much of this decade, expands on the relationships hinted at in that family tree reproduced in the catalog. It is not simply a story about husbands and wives, siblings and children. Rather, it sets these relationships in the context of a largely unexplored history of the development of the art of the Western Desert. Carty rightly points out that the development of art centres and the schools of painting that they represent have been treated in numerous books and articles, beginning with Geoffrey Bardon’s Aboriginal Art of the Western Desert (Rigby, 1979). But he is also correct when he characterizes much of this work as history rather than art history.
There has been no story, no unifying context for the work of desert artists west of that Northern Territory line, where people from the Gibson, Great Sandy and Little Sandy deserts dispersed from their traditional homelands in extremely divergent directions and where art movements emerged seemingly autonomously in space and time. As a result, our understanding of the contemporary art history of this vast area of Western Australia remains fragmented and peripheral to the established narratives of Central Australia, the Kimberley, Arnhem Land and elsewhere.
So Carty sets out not simply to track the movements of various artists and their family members through a countryside that is given an intellectual framework by the line of the Canning Stock Route, but to reveal more profound layers of meaning associated with these movements.
For example, Carty draws a parallel between the movements of painters among art centres and the transmission and adaptation of styles. He notes, for example, how the most famous of these wandering artists, Patrick Tjungurrayi, has created a vision that is not wholly that of either his two primary loci of activity, Papunya Tula Artists at Kiwirrkura and Warlayirti Artists at Balgo, but a unique and individual interpretations of the traditions that dominate the two centres.
More than that, though, Carty suggests how the movement of artists, the transmission of techniques, and perhaps most significantly and importantly of all, the very inspiration to paint at all, the legitimizing of the action of transferring the tjukurrpa to canvas, has deep parallels to the transmission and exchange of ritual knowledge across the Western Desert and among the members of the greater language groups it encompasses.
To give another example, he examines a particular well-known motif in the art of the western deserts and coastal regions, the so-called pearl-shell meander. This design originated on the northwest coast and is well known from the works of Bardi artists like Aubrey Tiggan and his family. The same design is familiar from acrylic masterpieces by numerous desert artists including Jacky Giles and Ronnie Tjampitjinpa. The trading of pearl-shell pendants incised with these meanders is well documented across great stretches of western Australia, from their origins on the coast to the deserts where they became important elements of rain-making ceremonies. It was even the subject of the final episode of the Bush Mechanics series from the Warlpiri Media Association.
In Carty’s hands, this familiar trope becomes the occasion of new insights into the cultural dynamics of painting. He uses the perception of this motif’s importance, not only to comment on the exchange of ritual and power, but also to explore how different groups in the Western Desert regards what is an appropriate subject for painting and what styles of representation are safe or dangerous. Long a staple of desert iconography, the pearl-shell meander is still today considered by the Martu to be of great and necessarily restricted power. Therefore, the Martu insisted that the pearl shells included in Yiwarra Kuju be physically located within the exhibition at the greatest possible remove from their own paintings. As Carty points out, the controversies over what it is appropriate to paint that characterized the early days of acrylic art at Papunya may have been largely settled in some parts of the desert, but topic is still not entirely resolved elsewhere. Indeed, even in those areas where a codification of iconography has been long achieved, Carty notes, walytja still plays an important part in painting business, as families dispute rights to stories and their depiction.
Carty’s talk is a fine example of the direction that art history and criticism needs to take in the future. Too often the same old unexamined observations about Dreaming stories and ancient, uninterrupted cultural transmission take the place of incisive investigation and thoughtful synthesis, and I’m delighted to encounter this kind of revelatory analysis. I hope there is much more to come in this vein. As Carty concludes:
In the Jukurrpa, Dreamtime ancestors stomped and flew across the desert, interacting with family and strangers, fulfilling obligations, making and breaking the law, all the while leaving their creative traces in the design of the landscape and the ritual designs associated with each country. Today, contemporary artists travel in much the same way, following their Law, making their marks, leaving their designs and passing on their creative powers through painted country. To see family members painting the same Country in very different styles or indeed to see people from the same art centre now painting different Country in the same style is to begin to piece together the human art history of contemporary desert painting.