Exhibitions

Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya

May 3 – August 2, 2009

“An unparalleled object lesson in a particular moment of art history, a breathtaking display of human visual invention, and one of the most moving and aesthetically revolutionary painting shows, Western, non-Western, whatever—I’ve ever seen.”
Doug Harvey, LA Weekly, June 26, 2009

In 1971–1972 a group of Australian Aboriginal men began transferring their sacred ceremonial designs to pieces of masonite boards in the tiny settlement of Papunya. This is the first exhibition to focus on this crucial founding moment of Papunya art, which has a unique status in the history of Western Desert painting. Since then Australian Aboriginal art has grown into an extremely popular international phenomenon and has been widely exhibited and acquired by museums, galleries and collectors. Icons of the Desert brings together forty-nine extraordinary paintings—including some of the earliest and finest boards—as well as later works, created by leading Papunya artists Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, and Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, among others.

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Exhibition In Depth

In 1971, at Papunya, a government-established Aboriginal relief camp in the Central Australian desert, Sydney-based schoolteacher Geoffrey Bardon provided a group of ranking Aboriginal men with the tools and the encouragement to paint. The resulting works became the first paintings ever to systematically transfer the imagery of their culture to modern portable surfaces. The designs from which these are drawn are thousands of years old but still in regular use today; they appear in body painting for religious ceremonies and in the temporary ground-paintings of Pintupi and Warlpiri ceremonial sites.

This is the first exhibition to focus on the crucial founding moment of Papunya art, which has a unique status in the history of Western Desert painting. Icons of the Desert brings together forty-nine extraordinary paintings—including some of the earliest and finest boards—as well as later works, created by leading Papunya artists Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, and Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, among others. This is a traveling exhibition and the Fowler is the only West Coast venue.

The Australian Aboriginal worldview is based on Tjukurrpa, or the Dreaming, a belief that creator ancestors who shaped the land formed the world, made all living things, and laid out the moral code for human conduct. The many Dreamings that relate to specific geographical features, animals, plants, and the elements are the collective responsibility of numerous Indigenous Nations who ensure their preservation for future generations in song, story, and imagery.

The exhibition’s centerpiece is Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula’s Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa of 1972; this work twice made Australian national headlines when it was sold for world-record auction prices in 1997 and 2000. The artist depicts the vital activity of the male elder who brings forth rain, rites that are associated with the sacred water hole at Kalipinypa. The painting reflects the artist’s deep ceremonial knowledge of the site, but also his desire to obscure sensitive details.

Depictions of Water Men Ancestors and tjurungas (sacred ceremonial boards) are camouflaged and merge with the rest of the painting. Water holes, springs, caves, and other features of the sacred landscape are all subsumed in dozens of delicately drawn, irregularly shaped compartments, each with its own pattern: waving parallel lines, stippling, staccato dots, radiating curves, and crosshatches. Such detailed, abstract designs typify the paintings on display—replete with imagery in which biomorphic shapes, concentric circles, dots and lines are repeated to outstanding effect in a startling array of compositions. Most of the paintings are small in scale yet compelling in their use of saturated colors and intricate designs seemingly unbounded by the picture plane.

Several of the works in the exhibition include sacred imagery and depictions of ritual objects used in men’s ceremonies that would normally be viewable only by initiated men within the Aboriginal community. However, key senior painters have granted permission for American audiences to view these works.

Lectures:

Fowler OutSpoken Lecture with Roger Benjamin
Affective Visions: Early Papunya Boards(2009)

Fowler OutSpoken Lecture with Benjamin Genocchio
Dollar Dreaming: The Rise of the Aboriginal Art Market (2009)

Fowler OutSpoken Lecture with Vivien Johnson:
Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists (2009)

Exhibition Credits

The exhibition and catalogue were organized by the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, with the generous support of the Actus Foundation, New York, NY. The exhibition was curated by Roger Benjamin, Research Professor in Art History, Actus Foundation Lecturer in Aboriginal Art, Power Institute University of Sydney.

The Los Angeles presentation is made possible through the generosity of the Ethnic Arts Council of Los Angeles and the Shirley and Ralph Shapiro Director’s Discretionary Fund and Australia’s Northern Territory.

Funding for the accompanying programs is provided by the Yvonne Lenart Public Programs Fund, The Kelton Foundation, and Manus, the support group for the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

Hotel Angeleno is the official Hotel Sponsor of Icons of the Desert.