When I was a boy there was only one hard-top road in the whole of Australia's remote Northern Territory: the Stuart Highway, known locally as "the Track." The Track runs a thousand miles from Darwin on the northcoast of the continent to Alice Springs in the center, then another thousand miles down to Adelaide on the southern coast.
An old Aboriginal man once drew a rough map of the Territory for me in the sand with a stick. "Here is the whitefeller's road," he said, and scratched a north-south straight line—the Track. "And here is the sun's road," he added, scratching an east-west intersection. "And here," he said, jabbing the intersection repeatedly, "is the middle of the world. Alice Springs."
The Alice region should be the beginning of any journey to explore the art of the desert peoples—and this is where my partner Lisa and I start ours. We have been collecting Aboriginal paintings for years, but mainly from commercial galleries in Australia, and our curiosity to know more about its origins has led us here.
It was just 150 miles west of the Alice, in the community of Papunya, that an art teacher named Geoffrey Bardon first introduced some senior men to acrylics—and the modern Aboriginal art movement was born. This was in 1971, and many of the early "Bardon painting men"—such as the famed Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri—have since passed on. But a new generation of Papunya artists still use the ocher colors—the reds, whites, and yellows—and traditional symbology.
At the Papunya Tula Artists gallery in Alice, we see their latest work. These artists speak Pintupi, the language of the Gibson Desert. Many of them grew up in harsh conditions, hunting lizards and gathering seeds; some didn't know white people existed until well into their adult lives. The toughness of that world is reflected in their spare, abstract paintings. Simple symbolic representations are plentiful: a stick shape for a man, a horseshoe for a woman, concentric circles for water holes. I'm struck by the vivid orange palette used by Tjunkiya Napaltjarri, and the broad, uncluttered compositions of Ningura Napurrula. These paintings are much more polished, in a Western sense, than the pioneering dot paintings that came out of Papunya in the seventies, which can often appear careless in their technique.
The Australian poet Les Murray describes the great flourishing of Aboriginal art in recent years as "Australia's jazz." It's an apt comparison—like jazz, Aboriginal art takes new forms in different regions and communities, and blends traditional stories, beliefs, and iconographies with Western materials and "instruments." It has become Australia's best-known cultural export of late—along with Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett. Works by art stars Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, and Rover Thomas have fetched hundreds of thousands of dollars at international auctions. These days, serious collectors of Aboriginal art are just as likely to be from New York City or Holland as from Australia. Tim Klingender, director of Aboriginal art at Sotheby's Australia, says some of his top buyers are based in the United States.
Australia has three main regions for Aboriginal art: tropical Arnhem Land and the Tiwi islands, specializing in rock art and bark paintings, respectively; the Kimberley in the tropical northwest; and the art of the desert peoples, with the Alice as their focus. The art of these last two areas, traditionally painted on bodies or drawn in sand, is now largely done on canvas with acrylics.
Within these broad regions there are different communities and language groups, each with their own styles and forms of art—but many are based on the Dreamings, the creation stories of Aboriginal Australia. The Dreamings tell of the adventures of the mythic totemic ancestors— kangaroos, birds, lizards, men and women, even yams—who made the land and its people and food. The Dreamings can also provide a "song-map" of the location of water holes, ocher pits, food sources, and sacred sites.
The artist Evelyn Pultara is painting such a Dreaming when Lisa and I arrive in the Aboriginal community of Wilora, 200 miles north of Alice Springs. Evelyn sits cross-legged on the bare concrete veranda of her modest house, brushing away flies and dabbing blotches of blossom-pink pigment onto a large black canvas. A shy woman in her sixties, she says little, concentrating on her work. Her older, white-bearded husband, Clem, a former drover and stockman (cowboy), sits on a chair watching, offering advice, and entertaining us with stories of the thousand-mile-long cattle drives of his youth. Dogs walk over the canvas from time to time, "signing" it with a possessive squirt of urine. Forgeries of indigenous art are not unknown, and the conservator Gloria Morales in Yuendumu has suggested that a urine stain is one way to identify the genuine article. While Evelyn dabs, a chicken also walks straight through the fresh paint and across the canvas, leaving a spoor of vivid pink bird tracks. We are a long way from the galleries of Sydney and Milan, where Evelyn has recently had solo shows.
Bird and animal tracks are frequently used symbols in Aboriginal art, but this painting is a Bush Yam Dreaming, not a Chicken Dreaming, and Pultara soon paints over the tracks. The influence of Evelyn's relatives—she is a niece of the late legendary painter Emily Kame Kngwarreye, and a cousin of the well-known Lindsay Bird Mpetyane and of the Petyarre sisters—can be seen in the flowing, impressionist shapes that slowly emerge from the flecks of soft pinks and whites and yellows. Ownership of a particular Dreaming is shared by a kinship group, or "skin" group—many of these women have painted Bush Yam Dreamings. Pultara's is a painting of desert abundance, of plentiful food after rain.
As Lisa and I drive back to Alice Springs late in the day, we see this abundance. Wildflowers are everywhere, their soft purples and yellows reminiscent of the paintings by Pultara and other artists of the Utopia homelands. Ubiquitous red-termite mounds tower above the grasses and flowers like soldiers in a baked terra-cotta army. We also see wildlife—kangaroos, big monitor lizards, smaller dragon lizards, majestic wedgetail eagles, parrots, and Australia's favorite pet bird, the beautiful green and yellow budgerigar, or budgie.Snakes crawl away from the side of the road from time to time, and there is a multitude of crows.
The following day, we drive 200 miles west along the "sun's road"—to the Haasts Bluff, or Ikuntji, community. This is hilly country, with gorges carved through the red and orange mountains of the West MacDonnell Ranges. The road is unpaved, and our Land Cruiser must pick its way across dry, rocky creek beds, through sand drifts, over stony ridges. We see Haasts Bluff itself—a stunning granite escarpment at the eastern end of the Papunya Range—from many miles away.
Ikuntji Art Centre is a cooperative of female artists. Best known is the aging Narputta Nangala, who sits on the floor of the art center painting a giant blue canvas, its stylized and undulating horizontal lines seeming to echo the hills of the surrounding country and the granite cliff of the Bluff itself. We also meet her eldest daughter, Molly Napaltjarri, who paints more figurative, naïve work, and Eunice Napanangka Jack, who is working on an exquisitely detailed Hairstring Dreaming.
We eat with the community—an excellent meal of lamb and vegetable stew cooked by Molly's husband, Steve. When Lisa is asked who her husband is, and points to my thin, six-foot frame, the old women nudge her and laugh. "Long one, that one," Narputta says. The famous local artist Long Tom Tjapanangka is now living in Alice. In his absence, I like the idea of temporarily appropriating the name for myself—Long Peter Goldsworthy.
Even if you've come here only to buy art, it's invaluable to see this country at ground level—to taste, smell, and even swim in it. We make our base at the spartan Glen Helen Resort, which sits at the entrance to a gorge in a high red sandstone escarpment. In the morning we step out of our cabins and watch the rock wallabies hopping from ledge to ledge like marsupial mountain goats. An hour later, and 30 miles away, we pause for a dip in the Ellery Creek Bighole, where the bone-cold waters of the lagoon run from the shadowed side of the gorge out into sunlight on the other: a heavenly oasis. I could spend the day floating among the water birds and dragonflies.
The community of Hermannsburg (Ntaria) is another oasis in the desert. This is the country of the late Albert Namatjira, whose watercolors of the MacDonnell Ranges and Hermannsburg Mission from the forties and fifties are still justly famous in Australia. New York-born potter Naomi Sharp and her daughter Simha coordinate the Hermannsburg Potters project. For 14 years Sharp has helped in the evolution of a distinctive style: rounded clay pots made and painted by the artists, then capped with lids, usually topped with a painted animal sculpture. Clara Ngal Inkamala, one of the best of the younger potters and Namatjira's great-niece, shows us photographs of the old Lutheran mission and of her ancestors. She tells us about a time when a half-dozen Hermannsburg potters traveled to Spain for an exhibition of their work and were accosted by a group of gypsies in Seville who couldn't place the strange, foreign faces of these Aboriginal women. Eventually they decided they must be "Italian gypsies." Inkamala was amused when the Spanish gypsies attempted to beg from this group of Australian Aboriginals—the most underprivileged group in their own country.
Ten years ago, I spent a week camping in the Tanami Desert with three old Warlpiri men, and after helping one with some medical problems was informally adopted in the Warlpiri fashion, and given the skin name of Japaljarri—one of the eight male clans. Yuendumu is the capital city of the Warlpiri homelands, 200 miles northwest of Alice Springs. There is a feeling of great energy about the temporary art house in Yuendumu. The house provides painting materials and floor space for up to 100 artists, and will soon be replaced by a new art center. Two Chilean women,Cecilia Alfonso and Gloria Morales, are overseeing this ambitious project. They also run the local painters' cooperative, Warlukurlangu Aboriginal Artists Association, which had a turnover of more than $1 million last year. Morales, a former conservator at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, introduces us to the work and the artists—and their numerous camp dogs.
The new era of art began at Yuendumu in 1984, when a group of senior men painted their Dreamings on 42 school doors. Thirty of these doors are now in the South Australian Museum in Adelaide, but one of the men—PaddyJapaljarri Stewart, my classificatorybrother, or grandfather—has just produced another 24 door-sized canvases, to be auctioned later this year. Spread out by Morales on the concrete floor around us, the paintings are stunning. To find this light and color, this diversity of palettes and Dreamings—Budgerigar, Possum, Two Kangaroos, Wedgetail Eagle, Small Yam and Big Yam, Milky Way—all in one artist's work is remarkable. Standing amid Stewart's luminous "doors" in the tin shed that is the temporary art house, I feel as if I were surrounded by the stained-glass windows of a great cathedral.
Stewart works till sundown on another, smaller canvas. He's struggling to keep the dogs away, but the bird tracks that crisscross this canvas have been made by the artist, not by a stray chicken. This is another Budgerigar Dreaming, and he sings softly as he works, reminding himself of the places and travels of the Budgerigar Ancestor.
Lying in our sleeping bags under the stars that night, Lisa and I cannot get Stewart's images out of our heads. The Milky Way with all its Dreaming stories stretches above us, the embers of the campfire still glow—but the memory of Stewart's paintings glows brighter.
Geoffrey Bardon, the white art teacher who catalyzed all this in Papunya, wrote in 1989 of how western desert art's glory "surged forth in the immense, almost desperate, creativity of a people seeking only to be themselves." Having crossed the continent, we feel astonished by that glory, but also profoundly humbled by its immensity and generosity. As with the blues and jazz of America, the art we have just seen is also in some sense a voice of the dispossessed—a voice that now gives back to the world far, far more than it ever received.
Australian Aboriginal Art & Culture Tour
Sydney native Suzun Bennet opened the Australian Aboriginal Fine Art Gallery of New York in 2001. Now she leads an annual trip to all the major art centers in the Central Desert and northern Australia, allowing clients to meet artists and visit some of the world's oldest rock-art sites.
917/459-8874; www.aboriginalvisions.com; July 31-August 14; $4,000 per person, including hotels and most meals but not airfare.
Didgeri Air Art Tours
Pilot and former art student Helen Read has been organizing insider excursions to the Kimberley region, Central Desert, and Arnhem Land (where her next tour is headed) for 13 years.
61-8/8948-5055; www.didgeri.com.au; May 9-13; from $4,242 per person, including airfare within Australia, hotels, and meals.
Buying art through community-owned cooperatives, which charge a commission of 40 percent or so, ensures that you are getting the genuine article and that your money is going to the right people. Contact them before you visit: you'll need to make an appointment, and they can help you apply for a permit with the local Land Council—a requirement for entering indigenous territories. (The permit is usually free and can take a few weeks to process.)
Papunya Tula Artists
Ikuntji Art Centre
Warlukurlangu Aboriginal Artists Association
Warlayirti Culture Center (450 miles northwest of Alice Springs)
The senior artists in this remote community—Eubena Nampitjin and Tjumpo Tjapanangka—have international reputations. 61-8/9168-8960; www.balgoart.org.au.
Numerous other communities offer links through the Desart site at www.desart.com.au.
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Aboriginal art—including paintings by Emily Kame Kngwarreye—is a strength. Art Gallery Rd., The Domain, Sydney; 61-2/9225-1744; www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au.
Ian Potter Centre
This new building, part of the National Gallery of Victoria, has a suite of galleries devoted to indigenous art, with an emphasis on work from Torres Strait islanders. Federation Square, Melbourne; 61-3/8620-2222; www.ngv.vic.gov.au.
Red Sand Art Gallery
Ti Tree (150 miles north of Alice Springs); 61-8/8956-9738; www.redsandart.com.au.
South Australian Museum
The largest collection of Aboriginal art and artifacts in the world houses the original Yuendumu doors. North Terrace, Adelaide; 61-8/8207-7500; www.samuseum.sa.gov.au.