Tjukurrtjanu: Origins of Western Desert Art

by Kate C
Publish date
23 September 2011
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On 30 September, the exhibition Tjukurrtjanu: Origins of Western Desert Art opens at the National Gallery of Victoria. It features 200 early paintings from the artists of Papunya Tula, recognised as the founders of the Western Desert art movement forty years ago.

The exhibition is co-curated by NGV's Judith Ryan and Dr Philip Batty, Senior Curator of Anthropology in MV's Indigenous Cultures Department. He spent three years at Papunya (about 240 km north-west of Alice Springs) as an art teacher at Papunya School and a community development officer. He got to know many of the original Papunya Tula artists in the late 1970s.

Central Australian Decorated Stone Knives Central Australian decorated stone knives produced by the Warumangu people (Tennant Creek) and collected by Baldwin Spencer in the early 1900s.
Image: Ben Healley
Source: Museum Victoria

Philip has lots of stories from this time, including the tale of a two-week trip across the desert with Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, one of the most prominent Papunya Tula artists with a unique style of painting layers of dots. Tjupurrula grew up in the bush and first encountered European people when he was eight or nine years old.

"We were going on a trip to his traditional Country... he hadn't been back there for a number of years.

"We were driving off into the desert in the middle of nowhere, right off any roads, with no maps and not much food or water. We were relying on his knowledge of Country to take us to waterholes.

"He'd say we drive this way for a while then he'd clamber up on the back of the truck look around and as he looked around he'd sing a traditional chant. And after 5 or 10 minutes of singing, he'd say right, now we go this way. We'd drive for a while, and then he'd do the same thing. Each evening we'd end up at a little waterhole, often only a metre or so across.

"In his head he had this map of all these different songlines going across his part of the Country. The songs name geographical sites through the journey of a particular ancestor. When he was singing he was reminding himself where he was. It was a very practical business."

Their final destination was Tjupurrula's ancestral home, Tjikari. "It was a small mountain and we had to climb up in silence, carrying particular bushes. As we were coming up the mountain, Warangkula was shouting out to the ancestor in a cave, swearing at the ancestor in his language, Pintupi Luritja. I'm not quite sure what was going on but think he was trying to scare the ancestor away."

Tjukurrtjanu includes a wall full of shields from the Museum Victoria collection decorated with iconographic designs; artefacts such as these are the origins of Western Desert art, but the story is not quite so simple as transferring traditional ceremonial symbols to the new mediums of boards, canvases and acrylic paints.

Central Australian Decorated Shields. Central Australian Decorated Shields. Carved and fluted beanwood (Erythrina vespertilio) with applied earth pigments.
Image: Ben Healley
Source: Museum Victoria

Says Philip, "I see it as cross-cultural form of art, as a result of Aboriginal-European collision. Long before the 1970s, Aboriginal people were manufacturing artefacts and paintings for sale to tourists, missionaries and museums. In the days before social security it was an important source of cash."

"Papunya Tula artists were addressing a market, but that doesn't diminish the complexity and interest of their paintings. They drew heavily on traditions and they also expanded that of iconographic language to create new approaches, particularly in those early paintings."


Tjukurrtjanu: Origins of Western Desert Art

Central Australia collections at MV

Papunya Tula Artists

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