I missed forty years by about forty days and forty nights: that’s how long before the opening of Tjukurrtjanu: origins of Western Desert art at the National Gallery of Victoria that I left Australia to return to the United States earlier this year. Luckily, I’ve been able to sample some of its delights virtually through a wonderful little video that features curators Judith Ryan and Philip Batty. The video hints at the richness of the exhibition, not just in the paintings of twenty veterans of the first eighteen months of acrylic painting at Papunya, but also in the shields, woomeras, incised pearl shells, other artifacts, and photographs now on display at the NGV. Even better, there is the sumptuous catalog that reproduces much of the exhibition’s wealth and features, among other delights, outstanding essays by Ryan and Batty as well as Fred Myers and John Kean.
The early paintings from Papunya that are the progenitors of the major modern movement of Aboriginal art (as opposed to the tradition that was ongoing even in 1971) are, as Batty puts it, merely the tip of the iceberg. The selections in the show nearly all date from 1971 or 1972; the artists represented are perhaps fewer than half of the men who painted for the market in that period. And of course, there has been enormous growth in the overall catalog of Papunya Tula Artists, itself representing only a fraction of the art produced in the last forty years by painters from the desert. The desert renaissance itself is only a single slice of the magisterial variety and vitality of the movement that it spawned. But one of the achievements of this exhibition is to hold those magical moments in the early 1970s in balance. While implicitly looking ahead to what followed the blaze of creativity at Papunya, the exhibition also strives to uncover the traditions and experiments that led up to the creation of works that would change the course of art history in Australia.
Philip Batty, in his essay “Anxious objects: searching for the origins of the early Papunya paintings,” takes us into the world of artifact, not just of the painting as physical object, but of the many ways in which what we would call artistic creativity or the aesthetic sensibility manifested itself in ritual objects. These include the incised pearl shells that were traded down into the western deserts from the northwest coast as well as “native curios,” the carvings of animals or the painted shields and spear throwers that were created for the burgeoning tourist market in Central Australia during the post-war decades.
Exposing the connections between these artifacts and the works we have come to think of as the founding documents of “Aboriginal art” is, of course, good art history, and the creation of art history in our western sense is one of the goals of Tjukurrtjanu. As I suggested last week, much of the published work of recent years has had the effect (and sometimes the explicit goal) of demythologizing the origin myths of desert art and in particular of documenting the riches that have often (and long) been hidden in Geoffrey Bardon’s shadow. For many of us who were raised on that myth, there is something almost sad about the de-centering of Bardon in the narrative. He was a grand figure, self-created to be sure, but one who helped to set the unknown, semi-anonymous Aboriginal artist in the tradition of western romanticism. Both Bardon and the artists whose work he brought to market were portrayed as struggling in a physical and cultural environment that was largely indifferent to them and often bitterly hostile. Whether he meant to or not, Bardon in creating these mythologies, made the unfamiliar and alien Indigenous traditions heirs to a line of artists that stretched from John Keats to Jackson Pollock. Doing so undoubtedly contributed to the eventual acceptance and success of the movement, but also, like the emphasis on the “stories” that accompanied the paintings, obscured much in an already obscure field.
Batty’s reconstruction of history sweeps aside some of this mythologizing, but it also adds to the cultural history of these objects. He places them in a new context. In doing so he is also able to show how the artists, both before and after 1971, were active agents in the intercultural endeavor that these paintings and artifacts are a physical manifestation and reminder of. He reminds us that they are products of the meeting of two lifeworlds and are generated by innovations undertaken by the artists not merely in response to the invasion of their traditions by a modernizing Europeanism.
The early paintings were not, therefore, produced as an act of defiance against white dominance. Nor were they bound by an internal cultural logic entirely closed to outsiders. Rather, they were the product of a cultural environment shaped both by Europeans and Aboriginal people, where adaptation and invention were just as important as the maintenance of tradition (p. 62).
Demythologizing is not necessarily the same as demystifying, and this is a theme that informs Fred Myers’ contribution to the catalog for Tjukurrtjanu. For over a decade now, Myers has been building his own art history of the early Papunya works, most extensively and spectacularly in the chapter of Painting Culture: the making of an Aboriginal high art (Duke University Press, 2002) devoted to a stylistic analysis of the work of Anatjari Tjakamarra and Uta Uta Tjangala . In “Intrigue of the archive, enigma of the object” Myers builds on those earlier analyses and extends them to consider other painters with whom he worked closely in the 1970s, including his friends Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi and Freddy West Tjakamarra.
But Myers has a larger objective here, and one that also relates to Bardon’s work in the early days. He wants to explore the unknown and the unknowable, and here too he engages in an attempt to sweep aside some of the accepted stories through an incisive look at the objects themselves. It has become well known in recent years that Bardon’s records of the Dreaming stories that he recorded and the attributions of places and sometimes even artists that attach to these early works can not always be accepted as gospel. Bardon’s lack of language and the sheer distance between his world and that of the artists may have on occasion resulted in questionable documentation. Sales records from the early 1970s have been re-examined; attributions in catalogs and auctions have sometimes been at odds with one another or with those early records. Myers urges us both to look at the evidence of the works themselves–of style and composition, of links to physical aspects of the countries to which these works may refer–to test the knowledge that has been handed down, but also to admit that there are limits to what we can truly and definitively state about them.
Nevertheless, the art historian can try to advance our knowledge and understanding, and doing so requires a kind of hermeneutics in which the individual object is placed in context and seen as a point in a series of creative actions, surrounded by the apparatus of ethnographic knowledge, provenance, and other documentation.
We cannot know what an artist like Uta Uta was making in any one image unless we have secure knowledge about an oeuvre of work. Work in the archive, ethnographic or otherwise, is a necessary precursor to understanding and fuller appreciation. Being there is not enough. One needs the distance of the series, to look backwards and forwards, to understand what has been done (p. 40).
In his concern for coming to comprehend the work of an individual artist–both at the level of the individual work of art and as the accomplishment of a career or a lifetime–Myers seems to me to have articulated a central intention of Tjukurrtjanu as an exhibition: the way in which a movement is constructed out of the works of individual artists. (I’m reminded of the title, if not necessarily the argument, of one of T. S. Eliot’s most influential essays, “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”) In their essays, both John Kean and Judith Ryan attempt to delineate the idiosyncrasies and contributions of particular men, to make them stand out from the category of “Papunya Tula Artists.” Kean looks especially at the contribution of the Anmatyerr artists, especially Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa, and the Tjapaltjarri brothers Tim Leura and Clifford Possum, while Ryan looks more closely at the Pintupi/Luritja men, including Timmy Payungka Tjapangati, Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, Charlie Wartuma Tjungurrayi, and Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula.
From what I can gather of the installation at the NGV, this focus on the works of individual artists, in series as Myers would say, informs the presentation of the paintings, and it is certainly mirrored in the organization of the plates in the catalog under the heading of the “Founding Artists of Papunya Tula” and in the organization of the extensive checklist of the exhibition that concludes the catalog. Arranged alphabetically by skin name, from Anatjari Tjakamarra to Nosepeg Tjupurrula, the plates allow us to examine each artist’s output in turn and to marvel at both the variety and the consistency of each man’s achievements in the space of perhaps a year.
But this section of the catalog also contains one of the great surprises and absolute delights of Tjukurrtjanu as well. I will confess that on the first several passes through this massive (312 pages) volume, I skipped over the biographical essays in my eagerness to examine the artworks. It was only after digesting the longer essays that introduce the exhibition as a whole that I went back and began to read the profiles of the individual artists.
What a joy! What delights are held in these two- and three-page histories of the twenty painters. Many of these entries were written by Dick Kimber and recount his journeys back to the men’s countries with them during the 1970s. I have once shaken Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra’s hand, and have spent much time watching, on film, Anatjari Tjakamarra lead Fred Myers out to the rim of Pintupi homelands near Ilpili in the Ehrenburg Ranges. But I am not sure I have ever gained quite the sense of these men as individuals, as personalities, that I have been granted by the words of Kimber in company with Batty, Luke Scholes, John Kean, and Paul Sweeney. Their words reveal the silent authority of John Tjakamarra; the mourning of Shorty Lungkarta, in advanced stages of cancer on his last trip to his father’s country at Walukirritjinya; Tutuma Tjapangati’s self-assurance in a whitefella’s world that he little understood; and Timmy Payungka’s irrepressible love of the hunt.
In terms of an exploration of art history, cultural history, aesthetics, and biography, the catalog for Tjukurrtjanu (and I am sure the exhibition itself) offers scope for extensive study and reflection. It is a shame, therefore, that the quality of the binding of this scholarly masterpiece is not up to the standards of every other aspect of its production. Although the signatures are securely sewn and the text block itself seems strong, the poor quality of the glue that attaches them to the spine combined with the inflexibility of the spine itself has left the book’s cover attached to the text block by two sheets of paper, back and front. After little more than a month’s careful use, it is already a fragile artifact, a worrisome state for a librarian to ponder, especially since there is no hardcover edition published. I wish that the endurance of the Papunya painting tradition were reflected in this most recent testimonial to it.
 A early version of Myers’ chapter was published as “Aesthetic Function and Practice: a local art history of Pintupi painting” in Art from the Land: dialogues with the Kluge-Ruhe Collection of Australian Aboriginal art, edited by Howard Morphy and Margo Boles (University of Virginia Press, 1999).