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.