Credit: Emily Kame Kngwarreye/Big Yam Dreaming
How did it all begin? Some are quite specific that it was on 16 November 1971, when a company called Papunya Tula Artists was formed near the centre of Australia. It was here that artists first started painting in acrylic paint on board. But that was more a change of delivery system, like the shift from the printed page to the digital screen, or from hieroglyphics, through medieval manuscripts to movable type. Some say it is the oldest visual culture on the planet, and at different times it has manifested itself in coloured sand on the ochre earth, in paint on tree bark, in scarification and painting on the human body, and in rock carvings that go back 30,000, 40,000, 50,000 years - the timescale seems to lengthen progressively, like our estimation of the Big Bang. And the same visual culture interlocks seamlessly with dance, music, justice systems and creation theologies that have been passed, like batons, over a period far greater than that from Ancient Egypt to our synthetic modern times.
These paintings are more than just paintings. They are maps, biographies, star guides, secret stories and religious exegeses. Collectively, they are the Dreaming. The greatest of them - and many are great - return to be paintings again, and equal anything found in the artistic canons of the East and the West. They work in a purely visual sense, and draw the viewer back repeatedly. They work in the way a painting by Rubens, or a late Picasso, works in purely formal terms as well as part of a grand narrative. Interior language falls away as you are hypnotised by their formal beauty and neuron-like connectedness to something deeply primal. In a very real sense they are the landscape that they represent and the map is the territory.
But let’s go forwards and backwards from that seminal point in 1971. Geoffrey Bardon, a young schoolteacher from Sydney, arrived at the remote settlement of Papunya, 240km north-west of Alice Springs, and encouraged first the children and then the men there to paint with acrylics. Bardon was there for less than two years when he suffered a nervous breakdown owing to his and the project’s treatment by the white authorities, who, among other things, destroyed the Honey Ant Dreaming mural he had encouraged the Aboriginal elders to create, by covering it with white paint. But he lit the match that started the contemporary bush fire of Australian indigenous art.
“The first paintings are raw and exploratory,” Judith Ryan, senior curator of indigenous art, writes in the catalogue to a recent major exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, Tjukurrtjanu: Origins of Western Desert Art, “as artists worked with unfamiliar apparatus, materials and supplies, and adapted their designs to irregular squares and narrow rectangles.” Later, in a section called “It is by their dotting that you shall know them”, she explains that dots were “initially used sparingly to provide edging, graphic augmentation or texture, and subsequently extended into veils or phases of dots and expansive colour fields; the dot is integral to the visual language of Western Desert painting…Dots appear as part of men’s ritual designs in contradistinction to the stripes that are integral to women’s body paintings”.
The Tjukurrtjanu exhibition showcased more than 200 paintings. In the first gallery was a display of a wall of painted wooden shields, predating the Papunya artists by many decades - one goes back as far as 1890. But their narrative, contained in dotting and stripes, continued throughout the many other rooms. There is good and bad indigenous art just as there is good and bad Impressionism and Pop Art - from the “school of” to the local art show or dentist’s waiting room. What was brought together in Melbourne, and will travel to Paris later this year, was of the first rank. The final room displayed one of the great canvases painted anywhere in the 20th century. Spirit Dreaming Through Napperby Country was painted in 1980 by Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri with Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri. It is more than 20ft long and 7ft high. Although it is a still image, it constantly changes, depending on whether it is viewed from the back of the gallery, from a few metres away or from right up close with the individual dots dancing before your eyes. I went back again and again to look at it. It’s up there as a “wide-screen” or immersive visual experience along with Monet’s rooms of water lilies, Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles or Yayoi Kusama’s infinity nets.
The two Tjapaltjarri boys were always known as brothers, but they had different parents - their mothers were sisters. This great painting was started by Clifford Possum who, as John Keane describes it, “laid down the sinuous path of the Possum Ancestor that bisects the painting”. At this point, his elder brother Tim Leura took over and the emotional mood of the painting changed “from formal representation to a more emotional, painterly evocation”.
The Tjukurrtjanu catalogue serves as a Vasari-like “lives of the artists” in terms of the Central Desert painters. There are black-and-white photographs of most of them, from Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri to Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra. But it was Tim Leura who was one of the first to encourage his wife to paint: “Daisy Leura Nakamarra became the first Papunya woman to have a painting acquired by a public gallery.”
From this point, Australian indigenous art grew and grew. A younger generation of urban Aboriginal artists came from towns, cities and small islands, including Tracey Moffatt, Gordon Bennett, Fiona Foley and Julie Gough. Some were part of the “Stolen Generations” of Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families by the Australian government and church missions until 1969, and others traced their ancestry through a mix of Irish, Scottish and indigenous forebears. Mostly, they synthesised Post-Modern and post-colonial narratives into installations and photographic works, as well as paintings.
My own favourite artist, who emerged from the desert but not from Papunya, was Emily Kame Kngwarreye, who came from the Utopia Community in the Northern Territory. She was born in 1910, but did not start painting seriously until she was approaching 80 years old. It’s not just that her work is jaw-droppingly good in a purely visual sense, or that some of it is on a scale that dwarfs those of her male peers, but in her ninth decade she evolved through a series of at least six quite separate styles that even Picasso would have been pushed to match at that age. Her painting career lasted a brief eight years, but during that time she produced more than 3,000 works. I haven’t seen one that I thought was less than pioneering - pushing forwards into her own history and those of her clan.
In 1995, her astonishing black-and-white painting Big Yam Dreaming was donated to the National Gallery of Victoria. This is another work on an awesome scale. To stand in front of it, in all its simplicity and complexity, is an experience that is both humbling and energising. In the last two weeks of her life she painted 24 small works, again in many different styles. Sometimes she used broad, flat brushes, at other times a high-keyed lyricism swept across the surface, or a multicoloured stippling created atmospheric layers of paint.
Life for indigenous Australians is still tough. Health issues, housing, education and deaths in custody still present problems desperately in need of solutions. In many cases, the solutions are there but the mechanism for implementing them has never been properly managed. The sale of these artworks - some in the AU$1,000,000-plus (£662,000) range, some like Kngwarreye’s exhibited in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg - has fed back into communities. In the Tjukurrtjanu catalogue, Paul Sweeney, general manager of Papunya Tula, explains how, thanks to the sale of art, the community now has a dialysis machine and a swimming pool. But these are things the non-indigenous community takes for granted and doesn’t expect to be paid for by the country’s leading artists.
These problems go back to the first settlement, or invasion, whichever term you prefer to use. So there was some irony in the fact that when the Queen and Prince Philip visited Australia recently, this was the only exhibition they saw.