Pansy Napangati

Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi

Over the last decade, there has been an explosion of artistic activity in aboriginal communities across Australia. Western desert painting, in particular, has attracted the type of attention that in contemporary art simulates importance. Yet the reception of this art has been double-edged, since most observers have been responding to their own fantasies about an exotic and mysterious art, at the same time as a fascinated media has been talking about “Leonardos of the desert.” To paraphrase Sartre, it is particularly distressing to catch in the act something new, something we neither predicted nor could call to our own account. Such is the art of Pansy Napangati, an aboriginal artist from the Papunya region in the center of the continent. Born in the late ’40s, she has shown regularly only in the last five years; in that time, she has become recognized as one of a group of major artists from her community. Painting such as hers has been called a representation of the tribal Other answering back. And, in fact, post-Modernism’s loss of belief is not an issue for her. Clearly, she has been empowered by her culture in a way that, to the modern Western viewer, looks almost bizarre.

Napangati forgoes the systematic disguise of secret knowledge that is Aboriginal culture’s most exotic characteristic, in favor of a less private style. Her paintings are complex, reflecting her stratagem of filling up the spaces left by absent ghosts. In Untitled, No. 3, 1988, the desert is schematized, becoming a field of uncertain provenance. According to the artist, the field of dots flanking the central line of encampments, digging sticks, and seated women represents waves of desert flowers. Her statement doesn’t so much clarify meaning as reveal the extent to which contradictory significations take place in her work. The use of personal symbolism, such as the field of flowers, indicates the increasing importance of invention in Napangati’s art, as well as an awareness of the role she is now playing . This self-consciousness is at odds with many commentators’ ideas of timeless aboriginal art.

Unlike many other artists working with hybrid styles, Napangati isn’t just showing off what she knows. Her figuration is a strategy, a game of hide-and-seek, and a far-from-disinterested statement of ownership. Perhaps the closest analogy in recent art is with Joseph Beuys’ later work. The game, for a First World audience at least, is inevitably that of a search for the clues of these paintings’ secret origins. The problem for this artist is to attract a more considered response than that of primitivism’s Other. There is evidence, for instance, that aboriginal women have been empowered by the painting phenomenon. It has offered them leverage in evading a particularly brutal poverty trap. This work issues from a metaphoric sensibility; it is the description of experience unfolded temporally and horizontally. The illusion of imperial possession is blocked by the production of a surfeit of meaning.

Charles Green