Last week I read with some surprise and no little sadness the obituary notice in the Sydney Morning Herald for Paddy Japaljarri Stewart. He was known as “Cookie” from his days as a cook at the Papunya settlement, days that overlapped the creation of the Honey Ant Dreaming mural on the school building there, days that presaged his own involvement in painting up the school–the doors this time–at Yuendumu over a decade later. Those twin events have always stood in my mind as the portals of the Western Desert Painting movement; I know there are other significant milestones scattered in and amongst them, but for a long time Papunya Tula and Warlukurlangku Artists represented in my mind the birth of the movement. And while there are still a few of those giants in the earth still standing, I find it inexpressibly sad to lose one more witness to genesis.
I’ve met a fair number of artists in the last twenty years; Cookie was one of them, although the acquaintance came late. But in different ways he has held a unique place in my personal history of exploring Aboriginal art, and perhaps that is why I am left pondering his legacy on this cold and rainy January morning.
Like many people, our education about Aboriginal art began with Papunya Tula, but in the early 90’s when we began collecting, the austerity of the traditional four-color palette was giving way to brighter acrylic dazzlers and among our first acquisitions was a brilliant, multi-hued Rain Dreaming by Long Jack Phillipus, another of those primordial painters from the Papunya settlement. This was a time, too, when the artists of Utopia and especially Emily Kngwarreye and Gloria Petyarre were dominating the market. The brilliance of color was an irresistible part of the appeal, and it wasn’t long before we fell under the spell of the Yuendumu painters.
And by the mid-90s, Paddy Stewart and Paddy Sims were the touchstones of men’s painting in that community. My memory is that their works were scarce and expensive in those days, and it was with great joy that we finally located a resplendent work by the latter at Indigenart in Perth on our first trip to that city. These were the days when Internet commerce in Aboriginal art was limited pretty much to email communications with major galleries in the capital cities and we came home delighted but determined somehow to find another work by Paddy Stewart.
Luckily, the art coordinator at Yuendumu in those days was also a pioneer in the arts of technology, Liam Campbell, and I believe that he was the first remote community manager with whom we were able to correspond electronically. We wrote and explained our quest to him. Within a few days he wrote back and suggested that we commission a work—a possibility that had never even crossed our minds. We responded enthusiastically and in short order Liam told us he’d gone out for a walk with the old man and encouraged him to make a painting “in the old way” for us. A few weeks later, an envelope arrived via air mail; this was still the days before digital cameras, and so Liam had to photograph the canvas, print the picture, and send it postally.
The painting was a Possum Dreaming (Janganpa Jukurrpa) and this was the story:
Jajirdi [native cat] came from the south of Wantangurru to Yakurdiyi where Janganpa were having a secret ceremony. The Jajirdi saw them but did not realize that the ceremony was on and walked in on it. Janganpa and Jajirdi began fighting as a result, at Yurripajirru. The men fought but the women were not close by as it was men’s business. The Janganpa forced the Jajirdi to be part of the initiation ceremony after they had finished fighting. The concentric circle represent the Yakurdiyi. The Dreaming belongs to Japaljarri/Jungurrayi men and Napaljarri/Nungurrayi women.
We were delighted, all the more so because in the interim we had stumbled on the work of Andrea Nungurrayi Martin, who painted the same subject (right). We quickly agreed to purchase Paddy’s work; Liam quickly suggested that if we liked, he would ask Andrea to paint her version of the story for us as well. This was the first time that we had acquired two works that we explicitly understood to be representations of the same jukurrpa story, and I was fascinated to study the ways in the which the iconography both differed and overlapped in the two works.
A few years later we went back to Australia, in 2001, and for the first time managed to see the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award show in Darwin. This was the year that the Japaljarri men won the work on paper with their reinterpretation of the Yuendumu School Door designs and I remember gazing at them with a mixture of awe and longing.
That trip around Australia in 2001 was a watershed in terms of our collecting. We bought our first sculpture, our first bark painting, and while back in Perth, stumbled across the catalog for Beyond the Pale, the show that Brenda Croft had curated the previous year for the Adelaide Biennale; that was our introduction to urban Aboriginal art. We never lost interest in the desert acrylics, but we had vast new territories to explore.
In 2007 I was able to take part in a tour of remote communities sponsored by Austrade, and I was overwhelmed at the possibility of visiting so many places I’d only heard of and meeting many more artists. We arrived in Yuendumu about midway through the trip, and after we had all piled into the troopie for the short ride from the airstrip to the art centre, Cecelia Alfonso informed us the Paddy Stewart was gravely ill and had gone to Alice Springs for medical attention. We spend the afternoon on the verandah of the art centre with Paddy Sims, who was voluble in explaining the Star Dreaming he was painting at the time, but grew subdued at the mention of his brother’s absence.
The following day we were in Alice Springs and went to visit Ngurratjuta Iltja Ntjara. Not long after our arrival, John Oster pulled me aside and asked if I recognized the old man seated in the middle of the room. You can imagine my surprise when he told me that it was Paddy Stewart. Despite having spent the previous day hanging out with Paddy Sims (and earlier that morning at Kintore with George Tjungurrayi, Charlie Tjapangati, and Makinti Napanangka), I was suddenly overcome with shyness. I sat down on the floor near him, and quickly fell into conversation with Pansy Napangardi (it was quite a couple of days!) who was excited to have so many Americans visiting, Americans who might be talked into taking her back to the States with us. Paddy kept his head down, painting the designs of a Budgerigar Dreaming slowly and precisely. Eventually he looked up, and I had my iPod ready, displaying a photograph of the Janganpa Jukurrpa he’d painted for us nearly a decade earlier. He looked at it closely but briefly, and returning to his brushwork said simply, “Old one, that.”
I came away from those two days feeling like I’d dived deep into the well of Aboriginal art history, having met and spoken to some of the heroic figures of the past thirty years, feeling, in some ways, as though I’d met the ancestors themselves. For of course, I had. And now another one of them has grown tired and returned to the country he came out of. The songs endure.