Sometime in August of 1972, the Aboriginal artist Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula sat down to work in the recently dedicated “painting room” in Papunya, a government settlement in the vast and barren Western Desert region of Australia. This room had been set aside to give the adult men a place where they could make art without violating the taboos governing who could see or participate in their activities, which feature secret religious practices and stories considered dangerous to the uninitiated. Although the men of Papunya had only been using permanent paints on stable panels for a matter of months, the painting he made that August combined unexcelled aesthetic sophistication with accurate depictions of powerful rituals. Employing visual symbols developed for drawing on sand, carving on wood, or painting on oiled skin, it maps geographical data so accurately that his peers could instantly recognize a ritual, or the location where a specific story takes place.
The stylistic refinements developed at Papunya, which formed the foundation of Aboriginal art, run the gamut of abstraction from mythic human figures to symbolic shapes able to summarize an action, who does it, and even its purpose. The men of Papunya could, and often did, fold this entire range into a single panel, and indeed early collectors were drawn to their eyewitness accounting of Aboriginal life. However, in 1971, when the settlement school’s art teacher Geoffrey Bardon gave painting materials to the men of Papunya, no one had foreseen a problem with making permanent these physically ephemeral details of their lives. By late 1972, though, excess candor was becoming a serious problem. Each painter was the oldest member of his family group and, in accordance with tradition, the family’s culture bearer. Until they started painting, there had been no need for negotiation about which truths were personal and what was communal property. But in order to make art that mattered to them, they needed to include sensitive materials, including images and information reserved to them by their common social roles that they were expected to safeguard. Their first real dilemma was how to keep the content without violating taboos.
“Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa” was painted during this crisis, and aside from the importance of its subject, what makes it especially noteworthy is that while the artist was painting it, someone took a photo of him in which the work in progress is clearly visible. It doesn’t look anything like the finished painting, which at the Harrison hangs beside the photo, and yet with careful study, it’s possible to see that the organizing composition is identical. This contrast hints at the solution to the challenge of painting secrets that the artists were working out while it was taking form. What happened between the two versions not only allowed the men of Papunya to go on painting, but permitted the spread of painting throughout the Western Desert.
While all artworks can be appreciated without complete understanding of their subjects, the Dreaming is so central to Aboriginal art that it almost requires knowing something about it. While not a direct translation of any Aboriginal word, Dreaming has been adopted by English speakers to identify a vital concept in no way related to the dramatic episodes that occur in the mind during sleep. It’s also one of those words, found in every language, that change meanings according to the speaker’s level of abstraction, so the particular meaning of any given use must be intuited by the listener. At one of its more fundamental levels, the Dreaming refers to the world its users perceive themselves actually inhabiting, as opposed to the visible world in which they appear to spend their days. On another level, it invokes the process whereby elements of that intangible realm cross the boundary into the physical world. The way two images can overlay a single painting reflects the way these two worlds coexist. The Dreaming is known through mythic stories that guide the living, and while, on yet another level, a Dreaming may be used to label an artistic theme or specific ornamental framework, naming it always implies reference to the importance of place.
After World War II, the Australian government had forcibly relocated the sparse Western Desert population into settlements, so the painters at Papunya belonged to at least five separate ethnic heritage and language groups. Painting together helped them resolve some of their differences, and combining their artistic resources may have precipitated the discovery that sympathetic layers of abstract imagery could be superimposed. This strategy not only camouflaged the more narrative ground image, but encouraged painting more freely when covering it. The elements chosen for use in the second layer, including patterns of dots or spots, with and without cloud-like backing colors, proved not only useful in obscuring the ground level beneath, but to be a rich ornamental language on their own. Over time, it became harder not only to discern the underlying image, but to tell if there even was one. The doubled markings, meanwhile, work something like the ”voices’’ deployed in musical counterpoint, where two seemingly independent tunes are joined into a third composition that the audience primarily hears. In the paintings, an initiated viewer can see the concealed painting, while a novice will enjoy remaining on the surface. And just like Giotto’s discovery of how to give the ethereal figures of Byzantine art mass and weight, which spread through Europe and launched the explosive growth of art during the Renaissance, this development in Aboriginal art spread quickly throughout the Western Desert and prompted those in other settlements to take up painting.
What followed was a period of even more inventive painting. As is almost always the case, the early works feature richly detailed content, as though popular stories had just been waiting for their chance to pour out of the artists’ fertile imaginations. Layering then brought a gradual transition, in which as more ornamental approaches caught on, works featuring multiple symbols began to give way to less story oriented, but no less elaborate visual displays. At the Harrison, George Tjangala’s very early, untitled panel of late 1971 can be compared with Ningura Napurrula’s also untitled canvas of 2006. While each contains numerous repetitive geometrical figures, it’s possible to see how the function of those forms in the earlier panel is symbolic, enabling the panel to relate a complicated narrative about people camped at various places along the way to ceremonial sites, accompanied by the provisions required for such a long journey. In the later canvas, similar forms appear more abstract, without specific referents, but forming a visually satisfactory decorative pattern that makes a universal aesthetic statement rather than telling a specific tale.
While ”Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa” is one of the most celebrated Western Desert artworks, there are dozens of paintings surrounding it in the Harrison Museum that tell equally elaborate, equally private stories. Anyone who hasn’t seen them, but has heard them described, might be forgiven for wondering what they might have to offer a casual viewer. A work of art full of secrets that it doesn’t intend to share, which would probably not make sense if it did, may sound too little or, depending on the individual taste, too much like what can be seen in art museums and galleries everywhere. Yet without regard to what may be known about it, “Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa” and many of the works that surround it, could hold their own among the catalog of world masterpieces for their maker’s superb control of painterly elements: composition, visual engagement, variety and variation of textures, and subtle use of color being among their virtues. The originality displayed by these 33 painters is astonishing, the cumulative impact of Abstraction and the Dreamingoverpowering. By inventing and deploying patterns that feel entirely meaningful, if not verbally translatable, they make the case for abstraction being the fundamental language of art.
The final chapter of the story told by Abstraction and the Dreaming concerns the belated admittance of women into the ranks of Aboriginal painters—although no one paying attention to the behavior of women around the world will be surprised to learn that some women refused to wait and sought out unsanctioned opportunities to paint. Officially, though, women’s work presented the same challenge to secrecy and propriety that the men’s did, and they waited a decade until a second private space could be set aside for them. Fifteen years later, around 1995, the entire painting community moved to better facilities in another settlement, and women could fully take their place in Aboriginal art. Of course, they were already showing original work, suitable to their very different role in society, and their bold use of color and less symbolic, freer approach to landscape profoundly influenced the men who had inspired them. The last painting in Abstraction and the Dreaming, in the room set aside for the women’s work, sums up the show and, in a way, brings it back as closely as may be possible to the beginning. Anatjari Tjakamarra’s 1989 “Yarranyanga” depicts a place through which a legendary people called the Tingarri traveled. The artist’s choice to paint this particular Dreaming is tactically advantageous, because paintings concerned with the Tingarri usually contain few specific symbols beyond the places they visited and the tracks they left. Thus this painting evokes the early narrative paintings, yet belongs entirely to the moment of its making, when less risky subjects dominate and more accessible content allows bolder handling. Each painting is unique and requires its own contemplation to appreciate, but “Yarranyanga” represents them all as well as any can. Every part of its 24 target-like circles, the bands that connect them, and even the asymmetrical background, which is locally varied but also presents two dominant tones, is made entirely of tiny, painted dots. Features like the irregularity of background happen far too often to be an accident, but participate in both the localizing of the scene and the dynamics of the composition. Aside from the extensive, rhythmic variation in the circles and straight bands, set against the regular pattern that controls them, the rigidity of the overall scheme is broken by several major variations. While contemplating it, eye and mind are drawn into ceaseless motion over scintillating regions that refuse to be still or to repeat, but constantly redirect the viewer along new directions, much like the desert in which a few vital landmarks are surrounded by the infinite inventiveness of nature. If a symbolic reading is required, one is not hard to find in life and the labors it calls into being.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.