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Australian aboriginal art in the desert
The main aboriginal artistic communities
(click on the district or the community you're interested in)

Carte des communautés aborigcnes

It is in the Central and Western Desert that contemporary Aboriginal painting was born, in the vicinity of the former religious missions that had settled there since the 1930's and above all among the "reservations" where the Australian authorities has installed the nomadic tribes they wanted to assimilate by settling them – Haastbluff (1941), Yuendumu and Lajamanu (1955), Papunya (1960).

Although they were sometimes very far away form their ancestral lands, the Aboriginals had retained the nostalgia thereof and continued celebrating their wonders in their ceremonies in honor of the Dreamtime, when their Great Ancestors, coming out of primeval chaos, shaped the land in their images, traveled through the desert to give them their laws and customs. On disappearing, they left them with the memory of their feats in dreams they were to celebrate through dances, songs, sculptures, engravings (wood or stone) and paintings (on their bodies, on the ground or on cave walls). This is how a religious art dedicated to the celebration of sacred sites and travels was born.

The symbolic language of the works of art was rather the same in all the tribes: circles (sometimes concentric) stood for springs and the sacred ceremonies happening there; the U-shaped forms around them stood for the initiated and the Great Ancestors who created the site. When these forms were combined with an I-shaped form or an oval, they stood for women with their digging sticks and their carrying dishes. Straight or undulated lines stood for elements in the landscape (sand dunes, hills, canyons or rivers) or the paths (real or legendary) linking up the diverse sacred sites. All these signs made up a real map of Aboriginal territories, having first and foremost a ritual value: beyond a simple act of celebration, these paintings were a means of ensuring that the Dreamtime would be carried on through the representation of the most secret elements of it.

From the 1970's onwards, the Aboriginals began to reproduce – on cardboard, plywood and eventually canvas – the motifs they used to draw during their religious ceremonies. This adventure began in Papunya, on the initiative of a white school teacher, Geoffrey Bardon, who died in 2003. A cooperative was founded. The works produced there met with great success, partly because they were quite abstract and resembled modern occidental painting. The success of that experience prompted the creation of new cooperatives, where very talented painters appeared – while they were following the pictorial tradition of the desert, they were also original. This way, Aboriginal artists were able to circulate their works in the best conditions, not only from a strictly economic viewpoint but also from a political one. Their painting was to prove so instrumental in the cultural acknowledgement of the desert communities that they were used in the trials the Aboriginals were involved in to get their territories back, from the 1980's: their canvasses were regarded as evidence of the Aboriginals' legitimate ownership of the traditional sites represented, which were therefore given back to them.

The most remarkable features of Aboriginal desert painting owe a lot to the ground painting it comes from, to a great extent. For example, the technique of dot painting – so characteristic of this art – comes from the use of little sticks dipped in natural pigments to paint the ground with a great many dots. Originally, these dots enabled the painters to underline the contours of the represented objects. When they changed supports, the Aboriginals generalized the use of dots to the rest of the canvas and created thus a true pictorial style. Besides, in accordance with the tradition of ground painting, the works were still painted horizontally, which explains the bird's eye view of the landscapes. The same canvas can show a very large place as well as a very precise one – macrocosm and microcosm meet in the Dreamtime in the same way as the original universe and the present world.


See more works from Lajamanu

This community, founded in 1946, 400 kilometers north of Yuendumu, lies at the heart of the Northern Territory. It was first created by only 25 Walpiri Aboriginals, who had been transported from Yuendumu. In 1951, they were joined by 150 others. But as this transportation had been forced upon them, they came back to Yuendumu, and only in the 1970's did the Walpiri accept to settle in this region. Today, they are about 800, many of whom have turned to be first-rank artists.

As the Aboriginals took time to settle in Lajamanu and because of the bad conditions of this installation, their painting appeared later than in Papunya (1971) or even Yuendumu (1984). Moreover, as they were anxious to defend their culture against any intrusion, Lajamanu Aboriginals refused for a long time to reveal the ritual secrets and motifs they drew in their ceremonies in honor of the Dreamtime. They were even very critical of the experiences led at Papunya and the other more open communities. Nevertheless, they eventually accepted to reveal these secrets in 1985. As early as 1983, several artists had already come to France to make a ground painting for the Museum of Modern Arts in Paris. On the occasion of this exhibition – "From one Continent to another: Australia, the Dreamtime and the Real world" – the Lajamanu artists had discovered for the first time the works of the Papunya painters and it is likely that this confrontation led them to produce works for a non-initiated public. But it was only in 1991 that a cooperative was created under the name of "Warnayaka Art Center".

The artists from Lajamanu have achieved a synthesis between the Papunya and the Yuendumu artistic styles: they voluntarily use few colors, mainly red, black, white and brown – as in Papunya. On the other hand, as in Yuendumu, Lajamanu women play an important role. After using gouache on cardboard, they started to use acrylic painting on canvas. As in Yuendumu, the artists also use the technique of dot painting, but in an original way, to make the background of their paintings, against which abstract symbolic shapes stand out (mainly concentric circles and wavy lines) and evoke the ancestral Warlpiri lands. These dot networks are also superposed to create an impression of thickness and depth which is most characteristic of Lajamanu paintings, devoted to the celebration of natural elements such as water, earth and thunder.


It is reported that the first acrylic paint Lajamanu artists used was white house painting and that was the reason why this color predominated in the works of the first period, as was the case in the paintings of Abie Jangala and Peter Blacksmith Japanagka, the most famous painters of this community as well as foremost religious leaders. Billy Hogan and Lorna Fencer have also greatly contributed to the international reputation of Lajamanu by expressing a highly original vision of the world according to the Warlpiri.


See more works from Papunya

It was in Papunya, right in the middle of the desert, 250 kilometers west of Alice Springs, that contemporary Aboriginal art was born, that is to say in 1971, when Geoffrey Bardon asked young Aboriginals to paint the walls of their school with episodes from the Honey Ant Dreaming. This experience drew the attention of the initiated men in charge of this Dream, who in turn started to paint some of its elements: first on plywood planks and board, then on canvas, with acrylic colors, which progressively replaced the more fragile natural pigments.

The interest aroused by these works was such that the first Aboriginal artists decided to set up a cooperative, the "Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd", in spite of the reluctance of the official authorities. This enabled them to circulate their works in the best conditions, from a strictly economic point of view but also with a political aim. Their painting was to prove so instrumental in the cultural acknowledgement of the desert communities that they were used in the trials the Aboriginals were involved in to get their territories back, from the 1980's: their canvasses were regarded as evidence of the Aboriginals' legitimate ownership of the traditional sites represented, which were therefore given back to them.

In the beginning, all the artists used the same minimalist graphic code: few shapes (circles and lines) drawn on ochre, black or yellow backgrounds, similar to those of wall and ground paintings. Later, their palette got richer, with new colors like pink, green, orange… before revolving to the first ones.

In the early 1980's, the Australian government started to give their ancestral lands back to the Aboriginals, who left Papunya and were scattered in different communities. The Pintupi went to Kintore, on the border of Western Australia, to set up a new school of painting.

This redeployment of tribes definitely enabled Aboriginal art to reveal its great diversity, each tribe displaying its own myths with its own aesthetic taste. Kintore artists prefer a very strict geometrical style, verging on the abstract, while Anmatyerre and Arrernte artists offer much more complex evocations whose swarming motifs are like the many traces the Great Ancestors left on the sacred sites.


The community of Papunya has always been of paramount importance in Aboriginal and Australian artistic life. As early as 1972, one of its members was awarded the Caltex Art Award. Most major national, and then international, museums soon bought works from Papunya artists or organized exhibitions devoted to their works (as for example in 1988-89 in the USA – New York, Los Angeles and Chicago – or in Moscow in 1991). In 1988, Michael Nelson Tjakamarra was commissioned to decorate the esplanade of the new Parliament House in Canberra, which showed he had been officially acknowledged as a major artist.

Since the 1980's, not only has the number of artists from Papunya steadily increased but also women have started to paint – especially in the Kintore community.

Among the greatest names, we can cite Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa (1920-1989), who was the first president of the Papunya Tula cooperative, or Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, whose works are present in the collections of the former "Musée National des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie" (National Museum of African and Oceanian Arts, in Paris, which is to become the "Musée des arts premiers"), and of course Clifford Possum Tjapaljarri (1932-2003) – his works featuring spinifex bushes radiating from the center or specters are ones of the most original in this community.


See more works from Yuendumu

The Aboriginal community of Yuendumu, 100 kilometers north of Papunya – the birthplace of contemporary Aboriginal painting in the 1970's – was founded in 1946, and in 1980 around 1,000 Warlpiri Aboriginals lived there. Although in the 1970's the artists already painted on canvas with acrylic colors or watercolor, they were generally reluctant to reveal the secrets of the Dreamtime their works evoked. Only from 1980 onward did they accept to reveal them.

Besides, the time of cultural, territorial and political claims had come for the Aboriginals, who were realizing more and more clearly the impact their works could have. Yuendumu first became famous for the 36 painted doors of the reservation school: they contributed to a great extent to popularize the very inventive style of this community's works, whose characteristic is a lush vegetal imagery likely to evoke the fertility of ancestral lands. The first official exhibition of Yuendumu paintings took place in 1985 in Sydney – the public was at once sensitive to their freer and less stylized character. These works were thus very successful. Their authors then decided to organize themselves in a cooperative like "Papunya Tula Pty Ltd". It took the name of "Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal association" – "warlukurlangu" meaning the Fireland Dreaming, one of the most important Dreams the community was in charge of and which the first artists had chosen to evoke. This Dream is the story of the Great Lizard Ancestor who had lit a fire to punish his two sons for refusing to share a kangaroo they had hunted. The fire was followed by rains making the land fertile and causing nourishing plants to grow. The other great characteristic of the Yuendumu School is the important role women played very early, under the influence of two anthropologists: Nancy Munn, who visited the region as soon as 1956, and Françoise Dussart, who studied it in the 1980's. Originally, women decorated everyday objects with ritual drawings and sold them: digging sticks, trays and cups. To eke out their income, they decided, in 1984, to make small paintings of feminine motifs related to the celebration of land fertility (called yawulyu). Since then, they have held a first-rank position among painters: more than half of them being women. Finally, unlike Papunya, where the palette is relatively sober, the Yuendumu School relies on a much wider palette, with vivid colors underlining the extreme intensity of the paintings, swarming with symbolic figures and very tight dot networks evoking antique mosaics.


Although the Yuendumu school is not as old as Papunya, it soon became famous, not only in Australia, but also in Europe. In 1988, Warlpiri artists decorated the walls of the Southern Australia Museum and in 1989, six of them came to France and painted a fresco (10m x 4m) for the "Earth Magicians" exhibition held at the Center Pompidou.

In a ten years' time, the number of artists soared from a mere 20 to nearly 200, many of who often collaborate on the same painting, each one bringing in what they know of the Dreaming they paint. Some works evoking particularly complex Dreamings have thus required the collaboration of up to 15 initiated people.

The first artists (Paddy Stewart Japljarri, Paddy Sims Japljarri, Roy and Paddy Nelson Juparrula), who painted the Yuendumu doors, have had many followers, such as Judy Watson Napangarti and her sister Maggie or Jack Ross Jakamarra.


See more works from Utopia

In Utopia, 250 kilometers north-east of Alice Springs, a numerous community of Anmatyerre and Alyawarre Aboriginals live, after having recovered (in 1979) the ownership of their territories, whose control – although they had never been transported – they had lost in the 19th century.

In quite an original way, Utopia was first known for its Batik production (silk painting) – a technique consisting in laying wax on a piece of fabric before dyeing it. For a long time, only the women were involved in this production and, in 1977, founded a cooperative to sell the works made in the workshops they had created. Originally, this technique, imported from Indonesia, was used to decorate clothes, but then it became a form of art of its own. A first exhibition took place in 1988, displaying 88 pieces, among which the Morning Star Dreaming, showing two Great Ancestors, who had created stars. First, the Batik artists were inspired by the body paintings used in their fertility rites, but they soon mixed them with freehand drawings of the rich flora of their native region (either with a paintbrush or a wax pen).

Besides that, woodcarving was also practiced, both by the women, who made and painted cups, trays or digging sticks, and the men, specializing in the making of shields and carved ceremonial boomerangs. But naturally, the success of the Batik production led the Utopia community to take an interest in the painting developing in the rest of the desert, in particular at Papunya. Utopia was soon to master this art with exceptional expertise. Men and women first transposed on the canvas the motifs they had used on Batik. As early as 1989, the "Summer Project" exhibition gathered the works of painters whose styles were very different and who first belonged to the Central Australia Aboriginal Media Association and then (from 1991) managed their own careers individually and organized their own exhibitions.

This relative individualism can be found in the very painting of Utopia artists: one of its main characteristics being the great diversity of styles, either inspired by traditional ground painting and its ritual motifs (body paintings, ceremonials headgear), or using the technique of dot painting to evoke the richness of the flora, or finally being figurative.


Prominent among the group of women involved in the Batik production, Emily Kame Kngwarreye is certainly the most famous artist of the Utopia community, which she led until her death in 1996. In eight years' time, she painted over 3,000 canvasses, being either a mixture of dots and colorful spaces or a network of energetic paint strokes to evoke the lush desert vegetation. The quality of her production – sometimes compared with that of Claude Monet because of its impressionist and luminous style – was such that it was chosen to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1997. Other women also contributed to the reputation of Utopia painting, such as the Petyarre sistersAda, Nancy, Kathleen Petyarre and Gloria – initiated to the mysteries of the Wizard-Woman, the guardian of ochre deposits and, as such, the protector of religious painting, traditionally resorting to ochre. As a matter of fact, their works often represent the scales of this prestigious Ancestor to evoke the sites where she is celebrated. Today, Utopia can boast over 200 artists, so that its great artistic diversity will be maintained.

 Aboriginal Art - Australian Indigenous Art - Dot painting - Abie Loy KEMARRE
  Some references:
Musée du Quai Branly, Musée des Confluences à Lyon, Musée d'Art Contemporain les Abattoirs à Toulouse, Musée des Arts d’Afrique et d’Asie de Vichy, Musée de la Musique, Museum d'histoire naturelle de Lille, Musée de Rochefort, Fondation Electricité de France, Fondation Colas, Banque Dexia ...

We are members of the Chambre Nationale des Experts Spécialisés en Objets d'Art et de Collection (C.N.E.S.)*
We are members of the Comité Professionnel des Galeries d'Art
*National French Chamber of experts specialized in artworks
Comité des Galeries d'Art
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