(Excerpt from ‘Tjukurrpa – Desert Paintings of Central Australia by Roslyn Premont and Mark Lennard, Published by the Centre for Aboriginal Artists in 1988)
Aboriginal art is not confined to its traditional forms. What makes it so exciting is that it is continuing to evolve. This is encapsulated by Barney Daniels Tjungurrayi’s paintings on pieces of furniture like the chair and the televisions set that he did for the Australian Bicentennial exhibition in 1988. Here he adapts his painting style to three-dimensional forms. His statement on this work is that even if confined to an urban society, it is the dreaming that is all-important. He never loses sight of his link with the land.
It is this total respect for the dreaming, therefore the environment, and the intimate knowledge of animals, plants, seasons that has allowed Aboriginal people to live for tens of thousands of years in areas that appear to be so inhospitable. This knowledge of the land is passed down from the ancestors through the art in a symbolic visual language.
What may appear to be abstract expression to the European eye is in reality a narrative – enacted upon the artist’s “country”.
To those who can interpret, the ideograms depict in a symbolic language, stories of the ancestral beings of the Dreamtime, Tjukurrpa and by extension the social codes, land and food.
Traditionally, elaborate ground drawings in the sand were constructed for ceremonial purposes. These were accompanied by sacred dance and song performances that occurred in cycles. Body paint and decorations were worn. As the performers enacted these sacred ceremonies, they became on with their totem, their ancestor, their creator. Depending on the ceremony, only those with the correct level of initiation and knowledge could attend. The ritual could last several days. When they finished the sand painting was destroyed as not be viewed by the uninitiated eye. These sand paintings could cover a very large area and meant a good deal of preparation and organisation. There was the plant down, feathers and ochre to be collected. Red and yellow ochres, white lime and black charcoal were, and still are, the traditional colours for ceremony.
In the early 1970’s at Papunya, a transition from this traditional sand painting to the contemporary movement took place although it should be stressed that the sacred and secret traditional ceremonies and ground designs are still made at the appropriate times. Papunya is a government settlement that during this period housed many different peoples and language groups brought together from a nomadic desert life in the sixties. Many had never been in contact with white people before.
The art movement was first stimulated by Geoff Bardon, a teacher at the school in Papunya was was attempting to achieve some semblance of ‘aboriginality’ in a school mural by using geometric shapes and symbols such as circles and zig-zags. Intrigued, some of the older men came closer and upon encouragement, took over the task, completing a traditional design over the whole wall. Other murals followed and the interest and fervour of the men to paint their Dreamings grew until up to twenty artists were producing available scraps of Masonite and board, and grinding ochres or obtaining pain from Bardon, producing many paintings in completely traditional symbols.
Although immediately appreciated by European audiences they caused some Aboriginal concern and a reassessment by the artists. After the artists had held lengthy meetings the use of some symbols and the realistic portrayal of some particularly sacred objects were subsequently omitted from the paintings. In the enthusiasm for the new medium and pride in what the recognition and appreciation of was most dear to them, their Dreaming stories, the painters had inadvertently revealed too much and they drew back, seeking a compromise. (by J. Isaacs ‘Australia’s Living Heritage’ p217). The paintings were thus adapted and edited accordingly so that outsiders could see them with safety.
Each symbol used in a painting has several meanings; it is therefore only the artist who can interpret his or her work completely. At this point one should understand that each artist can only paint themes relating to the dreaming he or she has inherited. This is the traditional form copyright.
Access to the different levels of interpretation that exist within a painting depends on the degree of initiation. An example of this is the witchetty grub legend that tells on a simple level of women gathering witchetty grubs for food and which on a deeper level is the story of the transformation from a young boy into a man. The deeper level of understanding is considered secret-sacred and therefore usually not told by the artist. This certainly does not detract from the beauty of the work.
The transition to canvas in the early seventies enabled the artists to use the paintings as an educational tool. In the past children learnt from songs, from their mothers, from male relatives, from explanations of body paint designs and from finger drawing in the sand. As they grew older they learnt more from the ground designs during ceremonies. Elders have been concerned that this knowledge would be lost. As they moved away from their traditional lifestyle and went to school, and the non-ceremonial context in which it was provided in the home, the new medium has provided them with an opportunity to pass on their heritage.
Another aspect of course is that paintings are an important source of income. Since the mid seventies many people have returned to the land preferring the life of the small outstations to that of the larger settlements. Many artists have been very active in the outstations movement and have use the - money earned from their paintings to purchase equipment and transport enabling them to resettle on their homelands.
Often senior men emerge from the desert, canvas tucked under their arms. They proudly unfold this before us in the gallery like a magic carpet. This is the only income that they can earn with a sense of freedom. They display the painting saying “I’m a free man”, “this one private canvas”. The income from art enables Aboriginal people to follow their dreaming tracks to organise or attend sacred rituals and epic song cycles often hundreds of miles away, often a costly business. Ownership of 4 wheel drive vehicles is of paramount importance. Some say there is a new dreaming, “Toyota Dreaming”.