Western Desert Art
In 1971, a young school-teacher named
Geoff Bardon arrived at a remote Government settlement north-west
of Alice Springs, called Papunya. Papunya was established to enable
government agencies to provide essential services to various language
groups of Aboriginal people, increasingly dispossessed by the incursion
of white invasion, and struggling to maintain the hunter-gatherer
way of life they had pursued for some 50,000 years.
Listen to Geoff Bardon interview, 1990.
Completely lacking in
any understanding of Aboriginal culture, their relationship to their
land, and the complex rules for living and relating to each other,
the Government built rows of tin huts for the people to live in,
mess halls, workshops, and a school. Language groups which would
rarely associate with each other except on ceremonial occasions,
were thrown together. 'Avoidance' relationships and traditional
family groupings were placed under extreme pressures.
Out of this unhappy beginning,
Geoffrey Bardon helped to begin a movement in artistic expression
which is today very much the face of Australia to visitors and collectors
from around the world. Bardon's stay was relatively short, in no
small measure because of the opposition he encountered from those
who lacked his caring and inquisitive nature, but his legacy is
enduring, and the Papunya Tula Artists organization he established
flourishes to this day. Importantly, and to some extent because
of the 'evidence' of the art proving relationship to the land, the
Aboriginal people are increasingly moving back onto their traditional
country, and establishing 'out-stations', more in keeping with the
family groupings of the past.
Geoff Bardon at Papunya 1971
An artist and an art teacher, Bardon encouraged his pupils to draw
on their own culture for artistic expression, rather than imitating
the 'white-fella' in style and content. As the children began to
use symbols, tracks and circles to portray the stories of the creation
and in particular their own ceremonial attachment to particular
regions, he became increasingly excited. He encouraged the children
to paint a mural on the school building, but this was too large
a scale for them. It did however, attract the attention of the older
men, who were intrigued by this strange white man who showed an
interest in their ways. Delighted by the results of the mural painting,
and fascinated by the accompanying stories which explained it, Bardon
began supplying the men with acrylic paints and canvas boards. From
this inauspicious beginning, the art of the western desert emerged
to educate the wider society about Aboriginal culture and lifestyle,
in a manner which far surpassed previous efforts to bridge cultural
chasms formed during the preceding 200 - odd years.
The western desert art,
encompassing a wide area of central Australia, is an extension of
ceremonial expression, with ancient symbols representing the Tjukurpa,
or Dreaming; the time of creation when ancestral beings rose from
the featureless earth, and wandered across its surface. The adventures
of these ancestors, who displayed all the traits of human frailty
and heroism as they fought, hunted and made love, not only established
the Law, under which all of life was structured, but physically
shaped the landscape. Although without the written word to pass
on these laws, the Aboriginal people had their songs, ceremonies
and oral traditions. They also had the land itself, with every feature,
from the loftiest mountains to the tiny honey-ants, as evidence
of the ancestor's travels and as 'tablets of stone' to ensure correct
These creation stories
were executed as rock art, with ochres, clays and charcoal. The
same materials were used to decorate the body during ceremonies,
or to adorn weapons, shields, and sacred objects.
The stories were also depicted during elaborate ceremonies, including
initiations, as huge 'ground paintings' , were created using the
same colouring ingredients, mixed with feathers, tufts of grass,
and sand. The elaborate configurations, carefully prepared over
many days, were used during song and ritual to pass on knowledge
of the Dreaming, and would be effaced by the dancing, and eventually,
the forces of nature. It was this art, omnipresent for the Aboriginal
people throughout their lives, which was first put into a portable
form by the far-seeing Geoff Bardon, and which has given the artistic
expression of Australia its unique face.
as 'dreams' in the Pitjantjatjara language groups, but while it
is said that much sacred knowledge is passed on during dreams, there
are many other language groups which use a word which does not translate
directly as 'dreaming', but still refers to the creation period.
Although the artistic depiction of this period is expressed differently
in other regions, the cross-hatching and the x-ray depictions of
fish, birds and animals of the northern coastal areas for example,
the Dreaming binds each person to particular parts of the land,
and to particular plants and animals.
In the desert regions,
the place where a person is conceived or probably more correctly,
where the woman realises she is pregnant, determines that person's
totem. A person conceived in a region created by the kangaroo ancestor
for example, will be related to the kangaroo in spirit and in ceremonial
responsibilities. There are other ways in which people relate to
the land. The 'skin grouping' of the tribe in some regions, also
passes on direct responsibilities via the father/son line. A Jabaldjardi
man has a Jungarai son, who has a Jabaldjardi son and so on. Thus
Ngarlu, Old Cassidy's country, is referred to as Jabaldjardi/Jungarai
There are eight 'skin'
groupings, Jabaldjardi/Jungarai, Jabanardi/Jabanunga, Jambajimba/Jungala,
Jabarula/Jackamara. Every inch of country is covered by one of these
father/son lines. These skin groupings also relate to women, but
with an N depicting women as against a J for men. A Jabaldjardi
man has a Nabaldjardi sister for example.
Also crucial are correct
relationships. If the Jungarai man does not marry a Nungala woman
(a Jungala's brother) their offspring will not be of the Jabaldjardi
(male) or Nabaldjardi (female) skin, and the complex ceremonial
webs will disintegrate.
The physical sites of
the landscape depict the journeys of the ancestors during the Jukurpa.
These stories are usually told in song, in which every detail of
the the part /animal/human/plant creature’s journeys are repeated.
It is not surprising that these ‘songlines’ can last
for days. These songs are so evocative, that people could find their
way across country hundreds of kilometres away, which they had never
seen, but which they knew about because it was linked to their country
and depicted in the songs. It is these epic journeys, sites and
spiritual symbolism which is encompassed in the magnificent paintings
which have emerged from the desert. The art is the very soul of
this ancient continent.
The last of a group of
the Pintibi tribe who had never seen a white man emerged from the
western desert in 1984.