Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya

Fred Myers, NYU and Roger Benjamin, Sydney University
The Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University presents Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya, on view January 10-April 5, 2009.
Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi (Pintupi, 1920-1987), Mystery Sand Mosaic, 1974. Synthetic polymer paint on canvas board. Collection of John and Barbara Wilkerson.
The acrylic painting movement represents the emergence of an art form firmly associated with Aboriginal Australia, but it is a movement that began only 37 years ago. Since its advent at the settlement of Papunya, 200 kilometers west of Alice Springs, this movement has grown in reputation and developed in variety as its visual language has been adapted by different Aboriginal peoples in far-flung communities. For over twenty years, this art has been widely exhibited and acquired by Australian state galleries and, increasingly overseas. Indeed, a salient moment in its recognition was its exhibition as part of the highly successful “Dreamings: the Art of Aboriginal Australia” at the Asia Society Galleries in New York, in 1988.
Icons of the Desert is a rare exhibition for focusing on the founding, initial expressions of Papunya art, exploring their origins in the paintings on small masonite boards, produced at Papunya in the years 1971-1973. These early paintings – on what AGNSW curator Hetti Perkins has called “the humble materials of white detritus; fruit cases, skirting boards and discarded timber panels” — emerged as affirmations and expressions of the continuing vitality of Indigenous culture in the face of decades of assimilation policy. The “early Papunya boards,” as they are known, have a unique status within the history of Aboriginal art. Few in number (around six hundred in number were made), they are also the first works (apart from drawings on paper made at the request of anthropologists in the 1940s) to transfer the inspiration and designs of Indigenous ceremonial imagery to a permanent surface. Improvised and reworked in the space of the new surfaces, the designs are also still in use within communities – in body painting, ceremonial objects, and temporary ground-paintings.
The visual qualities of early Papunya boards make them a uniquely appealing body of work. As the first encounter between the imaginations of ceremony, story and song and the space of the painted flat surface, the images are quirky and unpredictable, highly innovative and varied, as the painters invented a visual language that later became more regularized. They have the freshness of trial and error, of experiment by artists who were seasoned in other media but applied themselves to new dimensions. The white schoolteacher Geoffrey Bardon provided these materials and encouraged the painting of the senior Aboriginal men who had approached him, recognizing their enthusiasm and inventiveness.
The status of this art in Australia is greater than that accorded First Nations art in North America; it is accepted as a dynamic movement with substantial intellectual underpinnings. No collection of contemporary Australian art is considered complete without recent Aboriginal painting by some of the masters of this movement. The great names in the history of this movement – Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula and Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, among others – are well represented in the Collection of John and Barbara Wilkerson.
The collection of the Manhattan-based Wilkersons was assembled principally during the 1990s. The collection is uniquely disciplined in its collecting focus: that the early Papunya boards are both objects beautiful in themselves and the historic seedbed for the future developments of desert painting. At a time when world record prices for Aboriginal paintings were being set almost every year at Sotheby’s, works in this collection were the subject of considerable media attention. The jewel of the collection, Johnny Warrangkula’s Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa, 1973, made the front page of The Australian on two different occasions as it achieved world record prices.
Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula (Luritja, ca. 1918-2001), Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa, 1972. Synthetic polymer paint on composition board. Collection of John and Barbara Wilkerson.
The exhibition consists of fifty paintings, most of modest dimensions. As well as the early Papunya boards, a small number of works from the collection indicate the later development of the Papunya style. The organizing institution is the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of art at Cornell University, where the exhibition has very recently opened and where a symposium will take place in mid-February. Andrew Weislogel has been responsible for the development of the Cornell venue, the catalogue, and its programming. From here it will travel to the Fowler Museum at UCLA and come to the Grey Gallery at NYU in September 2009.
At New York University, the Grey Gallery is organizing programming with one of us, Fred Myers, Professor and Chair of Anthropology at NYU. Myers undertook doctoral research around Papunya from 1973-75, when the movement was still in formation. He witnessed certain paintings in the Collection being executed, made sketches and analyses of them at the time, and befriended the leading artists as part of his research on the social life of the Pintupi people. His essays on the interpretation of Aboriginal art culminated in his book, Painting Culture: the Making of an Aboriginal High Art (Duke University Press, 2002), which recently won the J.I. Staley Prize for outstanding book in Anthropology, and he has continued to write about Pintupi painting. Roger Benjamin, the curator of the exhibition and editor of the catalogue, trained in art history and has worked on the art and theory of Matisse, French Orientalist painting, and contemporary Australian Aboriginal art. In 2003 he published Orientalist Aesthetics: Art, Colonialism and French North Africa (which won the prestigious Motherwell Book Award in 2004) and curated “Renoir and Algeria” for the Clark Art Institute. Formerly Director of the Power Institute at the University of Sydney, he is currently Research Professor in the History of Art in the university. The catalogue includes essays by Benjamin, Myers, Vivien Johnson, and Richard (Dick) Kimber, and a preface by Hetti Perkins.
Old Walter Tjampitjinpa (Pintupi, ca. 1912-1981), Rainbow and Water Story, 1972. Synthetic polymer paint on composition board. Collection of John and Barbara Wilkerson.

Organized by the Johnson Museum, Icons of the Desert will travel to the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at the University of California, Los Angeles (May 3-August 2) and the Grey Art Gallery at New York University (September 1-December 5).
Related public events at the Johnson Museum:
* Andrew Weislogel will give a tour of the exhibition as part of the Johnson’s “Art for Lunch” series on Thursday, February 5 at 12:00 noon.
* Guest curator Roger Benjamin will give a lecture, “Aboriginal Art from Papunya Tula: From the Beginning,” on Thursday, February 12 at 5:15 p.m.
* Benjamin will give a gallery talk on Friday, February 13 at 4:30 p.m., prior to the Johnson Museum’s reception for winter exhibitions, from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m.
* On Sunday, March 1, from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m., the Johnson will host “A Day of Australian Art and Culture,” featuring a performance of excerpts from the new play Yanagai! Yanagai! by the Australian Aboriginal Theatre Initiative, plus exhibition tours, children’s art activities, and more.
On Saturday, February 14, the Johnson will host a symposium, “Papunya Then and Now,” featuring presentations by Roger Benjamin; Fred Myers of New York University; Vivien Johnson and Jennifer Biddle, both of the University of New South Wales; Paul Sweeney, manager of Papunya Tula Artists in Alice Springs; and Bobby West Tjupurrula, artist and son of first-generation Papunya artist Freddy West Tjakamarra. The symposium is free to advance registrants but seating is limited. Please call 607 254-4642 by Friday, February 6. A talk with the artists who created the “ground work” will be open to the public at 3:00 p.m.
This exhibition and its programs at the Johnson Museum are made possible by generous grants from the Actus Foundation and the Cornell Council for the Arts.
Additionally, Cornell Cinema will present a film series, “Visions of Aboriginal Australia,” in conjunction with the exhibition, featuring four Australian films: The Tracker (2002) on January 29 and 31; Ten Canoes (2006) on February 5 and 8; and Benny and the Dreamers (1993) and Mick and the Moon (1978), screening together on February 11 with an introduction by Fred Myers of New York University. Visit cinema.cornell.edu for ticket information, screening times, and locations.
Information about the exhibition opening and conference:
Announcement of the catalogue by Cornell University Press: