Drawn into the world of Aboriginal Art" - A Conversation with Vivien Johnson, Curator of Papunya Painting: Out of the Desert Exhibition

Posted by Aboriginal Art Directory | 29.07.08

The Aboriginal Art Directory talks to Vivien Johnson, University of New South Wales Global Professor and curator of Papunya Painting: Out of the Desert. An exhibition currently showing at the Australian Museum bringing together for the first time in a major public exhibition, some of the early masterpieces of the renowned Papunya Tula art movement that spanned the 1970s and early 1980s. Vivien is an eminent scholar of Australian Indigenous art as well as an expert on the Papunya Tula movement. Vivien has been researching the history of Western Desert art for almost 30 years. Her monumental Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists will be published by IAD Press (Alice Springs) in 2008.

Viven JohnsonAn obsession with Aboriginal art
It has been long understood that the genesis of art within Australian Aboriginal culture was vastly different to that in the Western tradition. The creativity of creating art was, for pre-invasion Aboriginal communities, solely part of the cultural practices that showed, connection to country and honoured ancestors. The end result was often discarded and destroyed, made in non-permanent mediums like sand and not kept for aesthetics or valued as property.

The recognition of Aboriginal art as aesthetic, not mere artefact, has meant Europeans reconceptualising ethnographic objects into art. Aboriginal people were encouraged to put their fragile and non-lasting artwork into permanent forms - on canvas, board and bark (where it was not traditionally done) and with watercolours and acrylics.

This mirrored the process of changing the mediums for Aboriginal artists - turning sand paintings into acrylic paintings, placing body paint onto canvas, the classification of functional pieces - baskets, boomerangs, shields - as sculpture. These new mediums were an extension of the traditional motifs, symbols and representations and remained fundamentally and intrinsically Indigenous. Aboriginal artists were producing and selling a whole new genre of art specially created to communicate with the outside world.

Papunya ExhibitionAboriginal art: the connection of beautiful objects and real value to the richness of Aboriginal culture
Aboriginal art has been incredibly important as a means of connecting over beautiful objects and real value, not just monetary value, but the richness of Aboriginal culture. People didn't understand this a generation ago and it has been a bit of a revelation. People have more respect for Aboriginal people because they have an increased understanding of their culture.

Reconnecting with land, water, storms, honey ants, wind and fire
The popularity has been driven by the sense of meaning, of relation to an ancient culture, a culture connected with the land, water, storms, honey ants, wind, and fire. People in the city are often cut off from these factors and Aboriginal art is a means of reconnecting with these basic elements.

There is an intellectual challenge too. Aboriginal art has been appreciated like European art, however Aboriginal art especially its tradition based forms is very different to European art. Aboriginal art is based on stories, and dreamings, there is always a meaning behind the physical. This exhibition gives people the opportunity to see the art with meaning.

Curating the exhibition Papunya Painting: Out Of The Desert - a big decade of change for Aboriginal people and for Australia
YumariYou can look at the paintings in isolation from their cultural context, which is often how Aboriginal art is displayed, but showing paintings together in this exhibition does everything that can be done to allow visitors to understand what they mean, why they were painted and how they came about.

These paintings were painted in the first decade of this new form of Australian art, the 1970s. At the time the Aboriginal Art Board supported the struggling Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd. During this time artists painted as a group, working together in a men's camp. Now artists are seen as stars and are promoted individually.

These works were part of a big decade of change for Aboriginal people and for Australia. There was the Lands Right Act in 1976, for example, and the artists conveyed their attachment to the land and the sites in their artworks as a validation of their rights.

When the private market started to take off these art works were put away and now they are coming back in a different light due to the developments in the industry over the intervening time.

What is also significant is these pieces were commission by the Aboriginal Arts Board, and some are enormous, as big as 8 by 12 feet, but they were commissioned as the centrepieces for exhibitions to teach people about Aboriginal art, hence the size of some of the pieces.

When these were painted in 1974 and 1975 such energy and looseness had not been seen in Aboriginal art before, one particular painting Yumari 1981 (pictured right) is a great example of this.

An Artwork example: Connecting the meaning behind the physical
Using the example of Yumari, 'Yumari', is a name of a place and it also means 'mother in law', and the painting depicts the land and the cultural relationship men have with their mother-in-laws. In this culture, men are not allowed to have any contact or relationship with their mother-in-law and many don't speak to them, ever.

This artwork describes a man who has a sexual relationship with a woman of his mother-in-law skingroup and the physical punishment the community and the Dreaming law enforces because of this taboo relationship. Yumari is also the name of the place where this forbidden liaison happened.

A few words on style and colour of these early Papunya works
Two Women Dreaming

These works vary due to the restrictions they had in resources back then. The palette was limited, but they were still able to mix colours, and there are some interesting mixes, and even some psychedelic colours. The artist of Yumari 1981 demanded a fire engine red colour for this painting, so he could convey the ceremonial importance of the story.

Each painting also has its own song as well, and we have two of these playing at the exhibition beside their paintings. Because everything in this society had to be committed by memory, they used the song to remember the story. Finally, the artworks often weren't primed, so they have a different 'soaked in' look compared to the 'piled on' look of today's artworks.

The exhibition has some great masterpieces, and viewing them in this exhibition is a whole experience.

There is lots of information, maps, pictures of the artists, and we have tried to provide this information in a way that doesn't interfere with the appreciation of them as art.

Papunya ExhibitionDesigning an exhibition of stories
The exhibition is designed to teach people the stories about the culture. These artworks were commissioned for this very reason, so the exhibition doesn't assume any knowledge.

The exhibition has a detailed catalogue that enables you to 'read the painting like a book', as it explains the symbols and the meaning, even provides diagrams of the symbols.

However some levels of understanding are not for you or I.

They can only be understood and appreciated by initiated Aboriginal men, members of their community.

Clifford Possum and the artists in this exhibition
We have a Clifford Possum in this exhibition, although it is only a small piece, but it is a fine piece related to Warlugulong that sold recently for $2m the National Gallery of Australia. Clifford Possum was very lucky artist, as he was provided with 5 large canvasses, which was highly unusual in this decade and he became the first art star of the contemporary Indigenous art movement.

Papunya ExhibitionWe also have some amazing paintings by his 'brother' Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, which are probably my favourite in this exhibition.

I also really love the artwork Yumari 1981 which I spoke of earlier. This artwork was one of the reasons I was very excited to work on this exhibition, it is really very special.

- Aboriginal Art Directory. A special slideshow of these works can be viewed through the Aboriginal Art Directory gallery » View the slideshow

'Papunya Painting: Out of the Desert' is now showing at the Australian Museum, Sydney Australia until 2 November 2008. Opening hours are 9:30am - 5pm seven days a week. This exhibition is a travelling exhibition developed and presented by the National Museum of Australia, Canberra.

Photos: Courtesy National Museum of Australia. All works are © the artists or their estates and are licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency 2007. They must not be reproduced in any form without permission.

(1) Vivien Johnson and Papunya Painting: Out of the Desert Flyer featuring Honey Ant Hunt 1975 by Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 1995 x 1710 mm.

(2) Storm Camps on the Rain Dreaming Trail 1978 by Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, synthetic polymer on canvas board, 710 x 555 mm

(3) Yumari 1981 by Uta Uta Tjangala, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 2268 x 3672 mm

(4) The Two Women Dreaming 1975 by Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi,synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 1652 x 496 mm. (Please note this artwork is rotated)

(5) Exhibition Hanging 1

(6) Exhibition hanging 2 of Punyurrpungkunya 1977 by Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 2792 x 3495mm

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Last modified: November 12, 2008 3:54 PM