Contemporary Aboriginal Paintings
This article for small group tours into Outback Australia for mature and senior travellers as a couple or solo traveller is to assist you in understanding and appreciating Aboriginal art as you travel and explore with your program leader and expert local guides.
There are three main art producing areas of Australia:
- Central and Western Desert in the area north of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory;
- the Kimberleys in the north of Western Australia and
- Arnhem Land in the “Top End” of Queensland.
The history of the art development in each location differs resulting in distinctive styles of painting.
Central and Western Desert
The unique art development has its origins in the settlements, the Aboriginal reserves, established during the governmental policy of assimilation and accompanied the move in the early 1970s to prioritise land rights, hand control of the settlements to Aboriginals and provide them with assistance to move back to their traditional areas in outstations. The impetus was the arrival of a qualified art school teacher, Geoffrey Bardon, in Papunya in 1971, one of the last of the settlements to be established and where different tribes Pintupi, Arrernte, Anmatyerre, Luritja and Warlpiri) had been sent. Bardon encouraged the men to paint murals using acrylics with their own – not that of the “white man” – depiction of the Honey Ant Dreaming.
The Dreaming: peoples and areas have their own Dreaming and almost all Aboriginal art derives from this base, whether they are traditional or abstract designs. The paintings are interpretations of the creation ancestors and their journeys and usually depict an episode in the Dreaming. In the Dreamtime, creation ancestors went on epic journeys and created flora, fauna and landforms along their way. It is from the experiences of the ancestors that social mores have evolved, including marriage and kinship. There are Dreaming paths all over the continent which connect significant sites through routes covering thousands of kilometres. The Dreamtime is kept alive and spiritual beliefs reaffirmed through ceremonies: dances, songs, designs made in sand and painted on the body, the making of sacred objects and other rituals. The Dreaming pervades all aspects of life: codes of behaviour, laws and customs, relationships, respect for the land, hunting, farming and food gathering. Aboriginal law means the artists are only allowed to portray stories to which they are entitled through birthright. Aboriginals paint their spiritual link with their country, what is in their heads, from the Dreaming belonging to their father and grandfather, through the stories they are told and from the ceremonies they have seen, the body and sand paintings.
The Honey Ant Dreaming is a major ancestral myth of the Papunya area where the small hills close to the main settlement are the petrified bodies of Honey Ant ancestors. Bardon meticulously catalogued the early works of Papunya and understanding the importance of identified the main Dreaming stories, such as the Lizard and Fire Dreaming, and the Tingari stories representing travel across the land in relation to events at specific sites, as a means of describing the artwork for the non-Aborginal market. In the Kimberleys, the supernatural Wandjina beings control rain and fertility; in Arnhem Land, main Dreamings include the two Wagilag Sisters and the Djan’kawu brother and two sisters who crossed sea and land meeting the Rainbow Serpent and creating rivers and mountain ranges.
Thus the art can be viewed and interpreted on four levels:
- “as a depiction through inherited forms and techniques from the Dreaming, both as general mythology and as a moment or moral in the particular artist’s
- Dreaming; as a cartography of a place owned by the dreamer-painter; including journeys across it, both by the sacred originators and the artists as a hunter or wanderer;
- as a witness that the duty of representing and singing the Dreaming has been done, thus constituting a restatement of title or deed to the land indicated; and
- finally as an individual interpretation of these duties and practices varying somewhat and thus keeping alive, the obligations and pleasures of paint.” (B. Smith and T Smith, Australian Painting, OUP, Melbourne, 1992 p 120)
The foundations of Aboriginal art lie in the traditional art of impermanent sand designs, visual images on rock and bark and body painting which is integral to ceremonies and modern acrylic paintings are often based on these designs.
Spears, coolamons (women’s carrying vessels) and sacred wood or stone men’s oval shaped message boards (tjurunga) were also engraved for decorative or ceremonial purposes. An early experiment in 1940 by an anthropologist, Charles Mountford who presented Aboriginals with painting tools, remarked upon the artistic balance of the design elements and graphic design which came naturally having its origination in their practices of drawing in the sand. Nevertheless, the artists at Papunya were originally confronted by having to translate their three- dimensional art onto the two- dimensional canvas.
The dots as a painting style was born out of the artists’ dilemma to paint works that retain cultural identity, are meaningful to the artists and their people, but are also appropriate for public viewing. As the art movement spread in the 1970s and early 1980s there were heated debates about whether images traditionally meant only to be seen by the initiated to a level of responsibility should be viewed by the public as this transgressed Aborginal law. Dots were a stylistic solution, used to obscure and mask sensitive imagery and direct symbolism and are characteristic of desert art. After a while the dots were not just used to conceal but became the basis of the work itself and used to represent many things such as burnt ground, fruit, sparks and clouds.
Some helpful interpretations of common markings in desert art:
- Circles (and concentric circles) may indicate waterholes, a campsite, a stone, a well, a rock hole or fire, a hole or fruit.
- Lines may mean lightening, watercourses or ancestral paths.
- Soft wavy parallel lines can signify fire, smoke, water or blood; extremely wavy lines a rainbow, a snake, lightening, a string, a cliff or honey bee storage. A wavy line connected with concentric circles may depict waterholes and running water.
- Arrows or little markings that look like eyelashes denote footprints.
- Arcs may be boomerangs, or clouds, cliffs or sandhills
- “U” shapes usually indicates a sitting place or a person sitting and “u” shapes around concentric circles may be people sitting around a campfire or participants in a ceremony.
- Straight parallel lines, meeting at a concentric circle, are a travelling sign with the concentric circles representing a resting place.
- Decorated oval boards are carried by dancers in ceremonies and used to indicate ceremonial aspects.
The main communities in the Central and Western Desert are Papunya, Kintore and Kiwirrkura (in Western Australia to which Pintupi people moved in the 1980s), Yuendumu, Lajamanu, Utopia, Haasts Blaaf and the paintings are identifiable by the stylistic similarity of each community.
The early Papunya artists generally restricted their painting to the ochre-based colours of black, red, yellow and white, with landscapes are depicted as though the viewer is looking down from above. Shapes are simple and few: arcs, concentric circles and U shapes predominate.
Typical of early paintings in Papunya is Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra’s Water Course (1972) with graphic designs that refer to body and ceremonial ground paintings. Three red concentric circles represent waterholes, and the wavy lines each with a tri colour band of red, white and black to allude to different levels of rain intensity during the wet season: dots and white bands of hatching represent the flow of water across the land. A group of ancestral spirits of the Pintupi, the Tingara, and their sites and journeys are often depicted in the Papunya works, by interlinking geometric squares or concentric circles to mean sacred secret sites, ceremonial grounds or waterholes, joined by series of networked lines which mark the path of the ancestors’ travels, such as Simon Tjakamarra’s Tingari Dreaming (1986) whereas Anatjari Tjampitjinpa’s Ceremonial Ground (1981) is a series of roundels with no journey lines depicting participants in an initiation ceremony, the larger circles representing older men of higher ritual status, all standing around a ceremonial ground painting.
Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri’s Sunrise Chasing away the night (1977) shows the night fading from the left and the sun casting dawn light on the right: the white dots are painted stones and the central roundel represents a ceremonial ground. Moon Dreaming (1978) is of a large moon in shades of orange, the black shapes represent stone axes and other ceremonial objects.
Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarria’s Bushfire II (1972) and Warlugulong (1977) which have an ancestral theme of Lungkata the Blue-Tongued Lizard who created a bushfire to punish his sons for not sharing their catch. The painting is of the site where the bushfire first starts, with a series of roundels (camps) and the tracks of an ancestral Possum. He has painted over parts with patches of dots, representing charred earth, clouds of smoke and ash and to conceal secret aspects.
Yuendumu painting coming out of the Warlukurlangu (which means Fire Dreaming) Artists Association established by the women of the Warlpiri people in 1986 is characterised by use of a brilliant colour palette rather than just ochre, and dense patterns of interwoven dots. The artists painted women’s Dreamings, often associated with the collecting and preparation of bush foods and were notable for using a less contrived, freer, and more contemporary style than other desert painting at the time. Many works are produced collaboratively. Liddy Napanangka Walker, the kurdungurlu (owner of the Dreaming), Topsy Napanangka (the custodian of the Dreaming) and July Nampijinpa Granites painted Warkirpirri Jukurrpa in which depicts the Dogwood Dreaming site. The palm tree like images are clusters of seed pods and the small “u” shapes are the women collecting and winnowing dogwood seeds. Paddy Jupurrurla Nelson, (owner of the Dreaming), Paddy Sims and Larry Spencer collaborated to paint Star Dreaming (1985) relating to the fire ceremony. The central motif is a ceremonial ground painting upon which the fire ceremony is performed. Participants shake smouldering branches and the embers float into the sky to create the constellations represented by the circles and starts surrounding the ground painting.
An exception to the use of vibrant colours amongst artists of Yuendumu is Dorothy Napangardi whose Sandhills (2004) represents her country through minimalistic renditions of sandhills of Mina Mina in fine, repetitive lines of fine white dots on a black background which highlight grains of sand shifting under the surface and create a marble like effect depicting the residue of the salt crust left when the huge soakages of this large claypan area dry out. The Mina Mina is also a significant women’s ceremonial site and Dreaming story when a group of ancestral Napangardi women gathered to collect ceremonial digging sticks while travelling to another site in the east. The tracks of the women match those of the salt lines in the desert and a row of eucalyptus trees are the remains of the digging sticks at the site.
Liddy Napanangka Walker, Topsy Napanangka, July Nampijinpa Granites: Warkirpirri Jukurrpa in 1985
Paddy Jupurrurla Nelson, Paddy Sims and Larry Spencer: Star Dreaming (1985)
Dorothy Napangardi Sandhills (2004)
The paintings of the Arrernte, Alyawarre and Anmatyerre people coming out of Utopia are more abstract in nature and contain images based on flora and fauna similar to those in the batik-making days of the 1970s. A well-known artist of this region is Emily Kame Kngwarreye, experienced in ceremonial art, who moved from batik designs to painting with acrylic on canvas in 1988 when she was in her seventies. Her painting was more abstract than had been seen from an Aboriginal painter but are still based on the Dreamings and landscape created by the ancestors. Ntange Dreaming (1989) is an image of her place in the ceremonial status, her role in Anmatyerr society and her relationship with the landscape of her birth. The basis of the painting is the designs (awely) painted on women’s bodies in ceremonies, overlaying these are lines of dots signifying the seed of the native grasses (ntange) that are collected and ground into past to make damper. Anoranngait, healing plant (1990) depicts a shrub with healing power which is boiled to a light green liquid which is scooped up and splashed over the body of a sick person. The stippled patterns depict the medicinal plant and the pink reddish colours evoke a shimmering heat haze. Yam awely (1995) was painted later towards the end of her life with free- flowing brush strokes, a gestural style, originating from the sand drawings made by desert women as part of their storytelling.
Gloria Tamerre Petyarre’s Bush Medicine Dreaming paintings depict leaves from a particular plant that contains medicinal properties – the leaves are gathered by the women, boiled, resin is added and they are mixed into a paste which is used as bush medicine for a number of illnesses. The paintings are full of movement as the leaves appear to undulate. Petyarre was one of the women who started making batiks at Utopia in 1977 and her paintings show aspects of country full of movement hinting at life amongst the desert plants, of local native flora and fauna, with roots in women’s ceremonial body designs.
Angelina Ngale (Pwerle)’s Bush Plum Dreaming paintings of the conkerberry bush or wild plum/bush plum (anwekety) in the country of Alparra where her ancestors are connected with this prolific berry bush, a sweet black berry grown for a few weeks of the year, and collected, stored and soaked in water before consumption, also used for medicinal purposes. In the Dreamtime, winds carried the seeds over the ancestors’ land and the first Anwekety of the Dreamings then grew, bore fruit and dropped seeds. The paintings have their roots in traditional body painting when the body is covered with emu oil and decorated using ochre paints with specific designs all related to the wild plum, and participants dance and sing the story of the anwekety as part of nature’s cycle to ensure the profundity and productivity of the berry.
Ntange Dreaming (1989)
Anoranngait, healing plant (1990)
Yam awely (1995)
Gloria Tamerre Petyarre Bush Medicine Dreaming paintings
Angelina Ngale (Pwerle) Bush Plum Dreaming paintings
Other communities include Lajamanu, an example of which is Abie Jangala’s Falcon Dreaming (1987) which depicts dense white dots over a base colour and simple bold design to relate the story of a creation being falcon carrying a snake in its beak while on a desert journey, and Haasts Bluff with its variety of styles and strong colours and an example of which is Mitjili Napurrula’s Ulwalki (Watiya Tjuta) (1988) depicts the trees from which spears are made with tall closely spaced trees with many branches in oranges, reds and yellow which relate to the areas of red sandhills and ground bushes where the trees can be found.
Abie Jangala displays a number of her works including Falcon Dreaming.
Mitjili Napurrula Ulwalki (Watiya Tjuta) (1988)