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Australia's Aboriginal Art

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.

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