This is the first time that the work of Indigenous Australian artists will be shown in Los Angeles since Icons of the Desert at UCLA’s Fowler Museum in 2009.
Evolving out of ancestral rituals of mark making practiced for many thousands of years, such as tree carving, body painting, and sand drawing, painting on canvas is a fairly recent phenomenon for remotely based Indigenous Australians, linked to the forced displacement in the late 1960s of communities such as the Pintupi, Luritja, Warlpiri, and Arrernte peoples to the Papunya settlement in the Northern Territory. This social upheaval inadvertently created a resilient hub of artistic production: out of communal work on canvas, wall, and ground emerged the movement now referred to as Western Desert painting.
Expanding upon the New York exhibition, Part II occupies both ground-floor galleries, with paintings by three generations of leading artists. These compelling paintings that embody ancestral power offer everything from dynamic geometric patterns to topological imagery, channeling diverse conceptions of land, human life, and the passing of time. They enact the retelling of “country,” a process that allows for art to forcefully affect the space and world that its makers occupy. While their predecessors made use of traditional symbols and ideograms, the Papunya Tula artists worked to sublimate overt references in order to protect sacred designs. For the most part, male and female artists developed divergent stylistic approaches: men were entrusted with perpetuating traditional patterns and forms rich in optical geometries—as in the charged rectilinear compositions of George Tjungurrayi and Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri—while women were free to pursue more expressionistic interpretations of common narratives, as in Yukultji Napangati’s Yunula (2009), a deeply rhythmic painting whose compressed tonal strokes evoke a shimmering terrain west of the Kiwirrkurka community.
Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri’s series Rockholes and Country near the Olgas(2007) uses dots and contoured lines to chart a vivid topography of the rocks and hills around the mythic Olgas in Central Australia. Collapsing scale and perspective, his formidable landscapes weather age and time alike. Three separate but related paintings reveal an exploratory palette, from aqueous blues and greens to hot yellows and ochers. Willy Tjungurrayi’s Untitled (2001) exemplifies a different dotting technique in which a hailstorm is rendered as a myriad of tiny pale spots, pulsating with energy to suggest the effects of weather on a parched landscape. These works, along with other geographically specific subjects by Naata Nungurrayi and Makinti Napanangka, demonstrate multivalent approaches to depicting sacred or historical sites, whereby the real world is mapped alongside the conceptual, liminal realms of dreams and memory.
As an Anmatyerre elder from the Central Desert area and one of the renowned Desert Painters, both in Australia and abroad, Emily Kngwarreye focused on women’s activities, from batik making and the harvesting of seasonal crops. Starting to paint in her late seventies, she moved quickly through a startling range of inventive styles, from the free-flowing, delicately pixelated color fields of Wild Yam and Emu Food (1990) to the wild and urgent brushstrokes of Kame Yam Awelye (1996) and the boldly graphic, sinuous lines of Alhakere (1996).
Despite its apparent affinities with many formal and conceptual Modernist tendencies, Indigenous Australian painting has remained relatively isolated, stemming instead from the rich corpus of stories, memories, laws, and customs of its creators. Universally affective, its mesmerizing visual language resists outwardly didactic interpretation: the more one looks, the more one senses the cultural inscriptions contained there that change meaning and context as they circulate, and their intrinsic value in the intercultural flows that span hemispheres.