‹ Past Exhibitions

Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya

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Beauty has many forms, but it is not every day that a new kind of beauty is born to the world. Such is the achievement of the painters of Papunya in central Australia, whose mark-making, song cycles, and storytelling precede the invention of cuneiform writing by the ancient Sumerians, and hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt. By a miraculous strength of culture and a resilient social organization in a fragile desert ecology, the men who made these paintings adapted the rich meaning of their image-making to a new context, reasserting with pride and intelligence the oldest continuous culture in the world.

In 1971, at Papunya, a government-established Aboriginal relief camp in the desert heart of Australia, the Sydney schoolteacher Geoffrey Bardon provided a group of ranking Aboriginal men with brushes and acrylic pigments, and encouraged them to paint. The resulting works are the first paintings ever to systematically transfer Central Australian cultural imagery to a permanent surface. This exhibition presents some of the first and finest examples from what has become an art movement of international scope and importance, and introduces the story of this pivotal moment of intersection between millennia of Aboriginal culture and traditionally Western modes of understanding art.

The Australian Aboriginal worldview is based on Tjukurrpa, or the Dreaming, a belief that the world was formed by creator ancestors who shaped the topography of the land, made all living things, and laid out the moral code for human interaction with nature and one another. The many disparate Dreamings that relate to specific geographical features, animals, plants, and the elements are the collective responsibility of men and women from numerous Indigenous Nations who ensure their preservation and proper retelling to future generations in song, story, and imagery. Not only are these works tremendously significant as bearers of cultural meaning, but they are painted with a skill and inventive freshness that has caused them to be admired and collected the world over.

Several of the works in this exhibition include sacred imagery and depictions of ritual objects used in men’s ceremonies that would normally be viewable only by initiated men within the Aboriginal community. However, key senior painters have graciously granted permission for American audiences to view these works. For this permission, we are extremely grateful. We also thank John Wilkerson (PhD Class of 1970) and Barbara Wilkerson for their vision and dedication in building a truly significant collection, for their generosity of spirit and friendship, and for the support of their Actus Foundation which makes it possible for so many to enjoy and learn from these works.

Roger Benjamin                                    Andrew C. Weislogel
Guest Curator                                         Associate Curator / Master Teacher