“Papunya Tula”

“Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius” was the first major museum survey to systematically trace the history of Western Desert Painting beginning with its unlikely emergence in 1971 at a hellish, dysfunctional settlement forcibly created by racist government policies. The exhibition focused on a core group of Aboriginal painters who organized themselves into a cooperative called Papunya Tula Artists. Along with artists from other Desert communities, and encouraged by Geoffrey Bardon, a young white artist turned schoolteacher, they rapidly created paintings of enormous ambition on a scale that was both public and political—arguably the most significant corpus of art made in Australia from the 1970s on. Against the drift of postcolonial art worldwide, their declarations of micronationhood were parsed within, rather than against, the syntax of reductive abstract painting. It therefore seems as if, after the failure of Clement Greenberg’s version of great art in the ’60s, formalist painting migrated to the vast Western Desert.

Though acrylic painting did not exist in the region before 1971, the Papunya Tula artists were quite familiar with an earlier tradition of fairly conventionalized landscape painting in watercolors, which had evolved during the ’50s. Things moved fast: The first jewel-like boards and small canvases, such as Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri’s Yala (Wild Potato) Dreaming, 1971, mutated immediately into recognizably cartographic, monumental landscapes such as Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri’s Warlugulong, 1976, which was shown to immediate acclaim at the 1981 Australian Perspecta, Sydney’s version of the Whitney Biennial. From the ’80s on, many artists stripped away the immediately overcommodified trademark dots, magnifying images and exaggerating the inflections of bodily movement in linear, often deliberately repetitive gestures.

The simple, if well-meaning, formula by which these indisputably great canvases are supposed to be representations of the unpaintable—of each artist’s particular Dreaming heritage—falls apart in the face of thirty years of continuously evolving, self-reflexive production. More subtly, through the agency of an immensely serious project such as curator Hetti Perkins’s exhibition, the paintings now begin to escape the interpretative constraints of intentionality. They both articulate a profoundly detailed map of identity and reidentify the limits of articulation—through the production of endlessly enigmatic signifiers—as the central problem of painting itself. In other words, and without in any way eliding their political dimension as emblems of spiritual and legal custodianship, the Papunya Tula paintings now escape their local significance as signifiers of land ownership and ethnicity into another terrain.

How does a self-consciously artistic movement like this detach itself from the perspective of postcolonial identity politics, within which it has been created, without losing its political agency? Why are works by the younger artists in the exhibition—for example, Timmy Payungka, Tjapangati’s Untitled, 1998—no longer titled according to the stories that they represent? After all, the paintings still start from the premise of incommensurable, untranslatable sacred secrets, drawing on traditional body paintings, sacred objects, and vast song cycles. Yet the images were always modified and hybridized, even in the artists’ first major work, now destroyed, the collaboratively painted mural Honey Ant Dreaming, 1971, in which they gradually painted over areas where secret designs could have appeared, using other representational systems. The inscrutability of these works simply does not give way through symbolic decoding to maplike legibility. They insist on the most complex meditations about withholding, and these have little to do with establishing the “right” meaning. Even though their production is the painterly performance of land title deeds, their stories are, in a painterly sense, decoys.

Charles Green