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“Too hot for you,” the Aboriginal woman says. So here, smack in the middle of the Australian Outback, thousands of miles from anywhere, I station myself in the meager shade of a burnt pine.
Gray-haired Bessie Nakamarra Sims, 73, and her older sister Kumanjai Nakamarra Spencer hunch over and scrutinize the ground as they walk off, disappearing across the flat, red-earth terrain. Each carries a long, metal “digging stick.”
They are seeking “bush tucker,” meaning wild plants and small game. Hunting subsistence food is “women’s business” here, and the sisters, who belong to one of Australia’s scores of distinct Aboriginal tribes, have traveled 40 miles from Yuendumu — itself a four-hour jeep ride from frontier town Alice Springs in the vast north-central Western Desert. They finally reappear with three huge, dead lizards — caught with bare hands, digging sticks and skills honed over millennia.
Australian Aboriginal artist Gulumbo Yunupingu from Arnhem Land region won a $40,000 prize for her painted memorial poles seen behind her. The work titled "Garak - The Universe" was inspired by her bark-painter father's tale about the Milky Way. Photo: Glenn Campbell/Fairfax Photos
Cooked over a noontime campfire, the goanna lizards (a little stringy) are shared along with a white grub (rich, like sautéed mushrooms) amid festive talk in Warlpiri, their guttural tribal tongue.
This act of hunting and cooking has a ritual aspect. For some 40,000 years, this life has been recorded in sand-, body- and rock-painting, passed from parent to child to grandchild.
More recently, encouraged by market forces, those images have made their way onto canvas and other surfaces, becoming what Time critic Robert Hughes has called “the last great art movement of the 20th century.” And women like Bessie and Kumanjai are at its center.
In Australia, Aboriginal paintings — which appear to be extraordinarily contemporary despite the millennia of tradition from which they arise — are displayed in prestigious museums alongside such modern masters as Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler and Agnes Martin. They’re also hung in airports, government buildings, grand private homes and modest apartments. The Aboriginal art industry now grosses some $20 million in annual sales, despite the fact that the seminomadic people who fashion the work grew up wandering the bush, have never gone to art school and have never seen a Picasso.
Originally the purview of males, the genre has become increasingly dominated by female artists — many quite aged — who are becoming household names among collectors in Europe and Asia. Next year, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., will stage a major survey. Then Americans, too, may become fans of this mystical, intoxicating art.
On the way back to Yuendumu, Bessie says, “Stop, stop!” With her shock of white-gray hair, her dusty housedress and blue tennis shoes, she trundles out of the jeep to gather red rocks from the unpaved roadside, testing their colors. Ground into powder, the ocher will be used the next day for body paint in a Warlpiri women’s ceremony. Complex pigment markings will cover participants’ upper torsos and faces. These are not just decorations but ideographs, part of a saga of origins — a dreaming.
Dreaming is an Aboriginal term clumsily translated as “myth cycles.” Dreamings often involve epic journeys and contain knowledge critical in harsh desert territory — the whereabouts of water holes or bush tucker, for example. Elements of dreamings have long been portrayed in body painting, rock art and sand painting — temporary forms nomadic peoples developed to convey information.
These days, the most recognizable style of Aboriginal painting is the much-admired Western Desert “dot painting,” usually done in acrylic on canvas, linen or board. It originated in the arid region around Alice Springs, where temperatures can reach 120 degrees and poisonous snakes and insects always threaten.
Its most revered artist is the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye (1910–1996), who handled camels and livestock at a cattle station called Utopia and didn’t begin painting until age 77. In a dizzyingly short period, she moved into virtuoso realms, creating “allover” fields of dots, quavering stripes and networks of grids. No less than New Mexico Minimalist Agnes Martin came to admire her technique when both were exhibited at the tony 1997 Venice Biennale (a towering achievement for any artist, let alone an Aboriginal woman).
“She was so dramatically different,” says Hetti Perkins, head of Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander department, “a catalyst in changing appreciation of this art as a dynamic contemporary expression.”
Back at Yuendumu, population 1,300, a parched community of Western-built, low-slung houses along partially paved roads, Bessie, her sister and I enter the local art center, Warlukurlangu, which occupies a vaulted warehouse. Dozens of regulars work here on large plastic sheets, painting side by side on unstretched canvases laid on the ground. (Men are separated from women: Gender segregation is common in Aboriginal culture.) Dozens of such government-funded centers supply acrylics, brushes, canvas and solvents to artists, then distribute their works to galleries and act as community support facilities.
"Bush Carrot Dreaming" by Bessie Nakamarra Sims
The centers also distribute profits to artists. A surprising amount of international art market funds have streamed into humble, sun-baked settlements like Yuendumu, usually no more than a Quonset hut grocery store and a gas pump. Some collectors, eager for the best work, even fly in to choose paintings.
Yet individual earnings remain modest: A medium-sized work selling for $12,000 at a Sydney gallery might net an artist just $3,000. Since these communities have a more flexible sense of ownership, the money then flows out according to complicated kinship obligations, purchasing an electrical generator or perhaps a secondhand automobile to bounce over the treacherous landscape.
Bessie takes out a canvas to show me. Points of pigment dotted against a flat-painted background give it a psychedelic vibrancy. “Bush Carrot Dreaming” is one of the themes, or dreamings, “owned” by her and her extended family.
Aboriginal painting uses a variety of symbols — large circles can represent water holes, wavy lines might indicate sand ridges — and Bessie decodes her work for me. She points to circles with S-shaped tendrils: “Sweet carrot,” she says, tendrils snaking outward, indicating root systems. “Person seated,” she says, pointing to a “u” shape below a circle — the “u” being somebody’s bottom. “Digging stick”— a slashed stripe on one side of the “person,” the “u” shape. On the other side, there’s an oblong “bush potato.”
The imagery falls into place. The painting depicts the harvesting of small tubers at a location that Bessie’s family, or clan, would be ritually responsible for.
Earlier at Warlukurlangu, I’d met remarkably spry Judy Napangardi Watson, 80, a rheumy-eyed, wizened mother of 10, dressed in a striped shirt much too large for her tiny frame. (A huge percentage of Aboriginal women don’t start making art until after 40, past childbearing age, perhaps because of the slow initiation into ritual secrets and the prestige given to age. Some don’t reach their creative primes until their 70s.)
Judy showed me a canvas taller than herself in which sinuous curves divided the pictorial space into cool pastels. “Mina Mina Dreaming,” though completely abstract, easily conveys its subject matter: a ceremony involving dancing. Several lines snake around a central figure, who reaches in exultation toward the sky.
"Mina Mina Dreaming" by Judy Napangardi Watson
Remarkably crafted, the painting formally resembles nothing less than Pablo Picasso’s Surrealistic Cubism of the 1930s, depicting multiple realities simultaneously. But Judy, a soiled bandage on one leg, her hair bound by a faded kerchief, figured out this approach more or less on her own.
“Big place,” she says, spreading her hands to describe the images in her painting. We are both frustrated by a language barrier. She begins to sing softly. I realize she is demonstrating the music that would happen during the Mina Mina ceremony. She pats her skin to show how body paint would be applied. The more one looks at the canvas, the more the undulating designs dance before the eyes.
The dot-painting style originated a few hundred miles from Yuendumu in Papunya, a desultory settlement of tin-roofed buildings where tribes were grouped artificially during a low moment in Aboriginal history. A cruel government “assimilation” policy forced tribes off their lands, aiming to “breed” them quickly into colonial society (a policy spelled out in the unsettling 2002 film Rabbit-Proof Fence). In 1971, however, an idealistic Australian art teacher in Papunya, Geoff Bardon, encouraged dispirited senior men to record their traditional symbols in acrylic paint. Sophisticated compositions soon evolved, using a palette limited to the earthy ceremonial hues of ocher, white, yellow, black and brown.
Regarded as tribal curiosities, the early art pieces were taken to Alice Springs for sale. They showed such an affinity, however, to Western avantgarde trends such as Art Brut or Minimal painting, as well as to the gestural graffiti canvases of Cy Twombly or Jean Dubuffet, that urban collectors began to covet them. By the early 1980s, the market began to explode, the first “stars” being such male artists as Uta Uta Tjangala, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula.
Painting was “men’s business,” though, as male elders controlled ceremonial information. But 1970s feminism played a direct role in changing the art’s history, as female anthroplogists and art-center directors began visiting settlements and encouraging Aboriginal women to start recording their dreamings. (Some experts even assert that an early patrilineal bias arose from the fact that indigenous women were reluctant to share stories with male ethnologists.)
In 1977, at nearby Utopia Station, Australian Jenny Green launched the first art program enlisting Aboriginal women, training them to work in batik. The locals who took part included Kngwarreye, who made batik for 10 years before turning to painting. Another local whose work would later be prized was Gloria Tamerre Petyarre, 59, known for her style of tiny, serially repeated gestures.
At Yuendumu in the early 1980s, ethnologist Francoise Dussart began teaching women to transfer their bodypainting designs to canvas. First, though, elders had to give permission to use the sacred “dots.” A compromise was reached: Women could paint as long as they used colors in addition to the ceremonial ochers, yellows, whites and blacks. Ironically, this livelier palette became highly praised, along with the Aboriginal women’s freer handling of paint.
Minnie Pwerle, 85, also from Utopia Station, is now regarded as the prime innovator following in Kngwarreye’s footsteps. She specializes in mesmerizing, loosely chain-linked patterns in gorgeous, translucent colors. And then there are the artists from a slightly younger generation, who have blended Western art instruction with traditional forms.
Alice Springs-based Dorothy Napangardi, 51, of the same clan as Judy Napangardi Watson, also treats the “Mina Mina” theme, but with haunting, Minimalist strings of dots. Another Judy Watson, 46 — unrelated to the Yuendumu artist and of mixed heritage — uses conceptually based photography and print techniques to reference her Aboriginal heritage.
Finally, New York City-based Tracey Moffatt and Melbourne’s Destiny Deacon, both in their 40s, are celebrated on the international festival circuit for their conceptual, photo-based “identity politics” work.
Aboriginal women’s art once could be picked up for as little as $25; nowadays paintings go as high as $40,000. In Melbourne or Sydney galleries, unscrupulous dealers can be heard hawking the latest 75-year-old “discovery” — “Only painting for six years, but sure to ‘pop’ at auction soon, so buy her works while you still can!”
But artists don’t always benefit from the ever-higher prices. In 2003, a Kngwarreye painting garnered $260,000 at auction, the second-highest ever, but such profits go not to the original creator but to the reselling dealer or collector. Reportedly, the highest-priced work ever at auction — over $370,000 — was originally purchased from its creator 20 years earlier for $115.
The western desert is not the only territory where indigenousAustralian art-making flourishes. On the Tiwi Islands off the north coast, ritual patterning on memorial poles has been adapted to pottery, textiles and jewelry, much of it crafted by women. At Australia’s tropical Top End, Arnhem Land, woven baskets and fish traps are a traditional purview of women.
Gulumbu Yunupingu, 59, a Yolgnu Aborigine medical worker and healer from Yirrkala, captured Australia’s coveted $40,000 Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art award in 2004 for three memorial poles she crafted, covered by small marks suggestive of the stars of the universe. “They are wishing stars that bring bush tucker,” she says.
Gulumbu’s father was a leading figure who developed bark painting in the 1950s, and was also was one of a handful of men who took the radical step of teaching their daughters art alongside their sons. As a child, Gulumbu watched him painting bark with traditional designs, particularly remembering his tale about the Milky Way, a river of stars, of souls far away in the sky. Now, she has been commissioned to install this same dreaming in a major new Parisian museum near the Eiffel Tower, one of eight Aboriginal artists whose work will cover its walls and ceilings.
Unfortunately, as Aboriginal women’s art surges in importance, men have been held back by unfortunate societal circumstances. Near Yirrkala, a bauxite mine was dug and a mining town installed in the 1960s, selling alcohol against the wishes of the Yolgnu people. Now, even in this idyllic region of aquamarine waters and soft sands, Aboriginal society is being torn apart by “petrol sniffing” and high suicide and jail rates among young males.
“The ladies are much stronger now,” says Gulumbu, who is a senior woman charged with maintaining traditions. “Before, clapsticks [men] were the leaders. Now miyalk [women] are dal bungawa [strong leaders].”
Gulumbu has a sweet smile, squat face, narrow slits of eyes and a gruff reserve. As with many of the other Aboriginal women, there’s a watching in her, an inner silence, and currents running as deeply as those in this rarely visited region where clear and salt waters meet. The art she and others make charts the ebb and flow of cosmic forces, with a conceptual grasp as sophisticated as their innate understanding of pictorial space. Their works provide a window into a profound and sensitive culture — one whose beautiful artworks, ironically, are being enthusiastically embraced by the very nation (and world) that has been so committed to eradicating the indigenous cultures that create them.
Related: Owning a Dreaming
Short of a trip to the Western Desert, the best way to learn about, and purchase women's Aboriginal art is to visit Australia's not-for-profit art centers online, 65 of which can b e accessed via www.aboriginalart.org. Leading centers with a venerated history include Yirrkala, Warlukurlangu, Maningrida and Papunya Tula. Devoted only to women are Ikuntji, Hermannsburg Potters and Tjanpi Aboriginal Women's Baskets and Crafts.
When you view works online, keep in mind that most Aboriginal art has a vital three-dimensional aspect that will be missing onscreen.
With each purchase, you should receive a certificate of authenticity that will also describe the dreaming to which the work is connected. The astounding thing about Aboriginal art is how much of it is good; you can't really buy a "bad" painting, and its totemic power will increase the more time you spend with it. -- Ms.