January 27, 2013

Sacred Landscapes: Australian Aboriginal Paintings at the Hood Museum

Lena Nyadbi, Jimbala, Jeering and Daiwul Country, 2001; ochres on canvas.

It is amazing to me that an art that comes out of a strong spiritual tradition, with deep roots over millennia, can seem so vibrant and fresh to my eyes. The Australian Aboriginal paintings on canvas can stand with the best contemporary abstraction in formal terms, with additional emotional weight coming from their meaning. There is a beautiful selection of these works currently in an exhibit, Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art.  I wrote a blog post about the paintings on bark in the exhibition, which you can read here; in this post I am showing the paintings of the central desert, which are mainly acrylic on canvas, which seems a strange medium for work so tied to tradition. The story of the beginnings of these paintings is very interesting: for thousands of years, Australian aboriginal painting was done on rocks, on sand, on bodies. It wasn't until 1971-2, when art teacher Geoffey Bardon encouraged the men at Papunya in central Australia to put their ephemeral sand paintings onto canvas, that a new world of painting began. At first the work was quite controversial; sacred designs meant to be solely for ritual and only seen by initiates were being shown. Soon the artists confined themselves to depicting symbols that were not secret and could be seen by the public, but they still used traditional dot patterning, and the paintings continued to be immersed in the sacred landscape. The curved forms in the painting above refer to caves where, in the Ancestral period, the fish Daiwaul took shelter from a group of women seeking to net him. He escaped by jumping over them and shedding his scales, which became varied colored diamonds in the landscape. This site in Western Australia, has been despoiled by a mine, now the largest producer of diamonds in the world.

Narputta Nangala Jugadai, Murrtja Kapi, 2003; acrylic on canvas.

Small curves, the mounds of hills separated by the blue of rarely running creeks in the artist's ancestral home. In this painting, she is paying homage to the land of her mother, south of Uluru, also known as Ayer's Rock.

Raymond Tjapaltjarri, Litjardi, 2005; acrylic on canvas.

Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Fire Dreaming at Murmunya, 2003; acrylic on canvas.

In these two paintings, the linked circles represent the travels of Tingari men during the Ancestral period, when they created the land. Litjardi is a water site in the Western Australia desert, and at Murmanya the Tingari established the technique of burning the land for regeneration. It is wonderful to know the stories behind these paintings, but the images themselves, without knowing their meaning, have the power to enchant. 

Joseph Jurra Tjapaltjarri, Pukaratjina, 2006; acrylic on linen.

This remarkable painting, made up of thousands of dots making wandering lines across its large surface (all these paintings are medium to large sized; this one probably five feet wide), shows a water site. There the men would camp and weave hair-string belts which were worn during ceremonies.

Pukaratjina, detail

The dots are made by sticks dipped into paint. The technique has a mesmerizing effect as you follow the meandering marks.

Danny Gibson Tjapaltjarri, Mukula, 2009; acrylic on canvas.

Mukula, detail

I love the geometric patterning of this painting, with the sense of shapes moving outwards from a central site. This image is also about the journeys of the Tingari men of Ancestral times. Mukula is another ancient ceremonial site. 

Yukultji Napangati, Yunala, 2006; acrylic on canvas.

I felt awed when I stood in front of this painting; the power of its repeated dots, subtly shifting, was palpable.

Yunala, detail

Perhaps an online viewer can get more of a sense of this from the detail, which you can imagine spreading across the entire surface of the canvas. Yunala is a site were Ancestral women gathered food, the roots of the silky pear vine, twining underground.

George Tjungurrayi, Karrilwarra, 2009; acrylic on canvas.

Red and orange lines angle and curve in a stunning pattern that seems geometric and organic at the same time, or like a topographical map. Karrilwarra is an ancient site associated with the Snake ancestor, who created the sand hills, water soakages, and rock holes of the area.

Makinti Napanangka, Lupulnga, 2005; acrylic on canvas.

This painting was different from most in the exhibition with its free handling of expressive vertical marks, seemingly untied to a traditional expression. But I learned from the wall label that the lines refer to hair-string belts worn at the waist for sacred occasions. Lupulnga was a ceremonial site for women, and the artist's birthplace. Because this was a women's site I assume the artist is a woman; a good and important characteristic of the Aboriginal art movement is the large number of women painters involved. It is wonderful that the thousands of years of Aboriginal culture has interacted with the contemporary world to give us these works, so tied to the past yet so alive.

*To see a blog post on the bark paintings in this exhibition, click here.


  1. Thanks you for bringing these wonderful works to our attention. Seeing them like this on line with explanations is an entirely different experience then seeing them in a gallery. It seems more personal. The internet continues to amaze.

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed seeing these paintings, Nancy, and reading my text, which owes so much to the excellent wall labels at the show. The internet is an incredible resource, but it still doesn't beat standing in front of the actual paintings.

  2. Thank you for sharing. It must have been amazing to see the originals.

  3. This show was exhilarating, and I'm glad some of that comes across in this blog post.
    Thanks for the comments, Mia and Nancy.