Imagine you live under the stars in Central Australia. Your family has lived there for thousands of years. You know the names of every geological feature, animal and plant that surrounds you and how they were made. You are related to everything and everyone. The pathways that the creator ancestors and your family travel upon are one and the same. Then someone comes along with their animals, their laws and their religion, claims the land for themselves, and you are marginalised, an exile in your own land.
The shocking experience of deracination suffered by Central Australian Aboriginal people did not mean the end of their culture though who knew that it would eventually open a new chapter in Australian art. Is it a new chapter though or the re-opening of a very old one?
Three years in the making Tjukurrtjanu: Origins of Western Desert Art curated by Judith Ryan, Senior Curator at the NGV, and Philip Batty, Senior Curator at the Museum of Victoria, is the newest exhibition to examine the astonishing phenomena that is Western Desert painting.
This is perhaps the most studied art movement in Australia. It continues to create waves and surprises both in Central Australia and in places far away from it. Tjukurrtjanu is a coming together of art gallery and museum approaches to exhibiting, white walls and corroborating artefacts from the past, minimal labels and ethnographic documents. In these ways it exemplifies the debates, the balancing acts, between ethnography and aesthetics that has characterised the reception of this art over the years.
It is easy to rave about the exhibition, about the beauty, delicacy and power of the 200 paintings made in 1971 and 1972 by twenty of the thirty-five original Papunya Tula artists on show. As you walk around, and one visit is certainly not enough to truly look at even half the show, you are very conscious that the paintings are not on canvas but are on boards, hard sometimes irregular-shaped surfaces, and you get a clear sense of them as diagrams, maps, demonstrations, teaching aids, signs of magic and manifestations of ancestral power. In some cases their clear instructive role is further emphasised as they literally resemble blackboards with paintings on them, optically mesmerising blackboards that pulse and vibrate, their veiled depths drawing you in to speculate about their meanings which are not necessarily available to you but very clear in their intensity.
Yet there seems some uneasy ambivalence in this show towards its audience. As an art historical and museological exercise urgently asserting the ancient continuity of the art more than its currency as an art experience, the exhibition is sometimes in danger of wearing out its audience, of being too didactic, of not letting the work be. The short film of a fire ceremony and the slides of decorated dancers throw the viewer into the position of an anthropologist. The excerpts of unpublished film footage by Geoff Bardon on the other hand call up the place called Papunya, the Honey Ant Dreaming hills reflected in the pools of heavy rain that fell at the time, the faded Kodachrome yellows and blues evoking the potential poetry of everyone’s mystic and mythic past.
There is no question that you need to pour over the catalogue. Then go and read Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists by Vivien Johnson; and Geoffrey Bardon’s Papunya: A place made after the story, the beginnings of the Western Desert Painting Movement.
Then imagine the stars in Central Australia.
National Gallery of Victoria, Federation Square, 30 September 2011 – 12 February 2012. Tjukurrtjanu is travelling to Paris and will be on show there at the musée du quai Branly from 9 October 2012 to 27 January 2013.
This review was first published in The Melbourne Review, Dec 2011- Jan 2012.