At the arrival of the Europeans in the eighteenth century there were more than two hundred different aboriginal languages and some eight hundred dialects: only about fifty of them remain in common use today. We can say that there has never been a homogeneous aboriginal society in Australia because of the immense size of the continent, the difficulties of the terrain which had to be travelled on foot (there were no beasts of burden or draught animals which facilitated exchanges with other continents) and the great differences in climate, fauna and flora. This is why tribal groups, living from hunting and harvest, adapted to their environment and developed their own linguistic, cultural and artistic characteristics. Thus, bark paintings and wood carvings were produced in the communities of the northern rainforests and coastal regions. Petroglyphs and body paintings are found in the central and western desert regions.
There is, however, one crucial element that links all these aboriginal groups together: their relationship to the universe. The religious life of the Australian Aborigines revolves around the notion of dream, a word borrowed from the vocabulary of the Europeans and used by the Aborigines to express the physical, moral and spiritual order that governs the universe. The Dream evokes a period that begins with the genesis of the world and that embraces an immemorial past. This period is also called the Dreamtime, that is to say the time of the Creation when mythical beings, male and female, came out of the Earth under human, animal or vegetable appearance to give it shape, to create day and night, to establish the cycle of life... These mythical heroes established the first religious ceremonies, sang the first songs, painted the first signs that they revealed to men in their Dreams.
By inheriting a Dream of which he becomes the owner, each individual is also the guardian of one or several specific sites associated with this Dream. Some Dreams are linked to mythical paths that stretch for hundreds of miles. These routes form a complex network of family, social and cultural relationships that constitute the essentially mythical geography of Australia.
As a people without writing, the Australian Aborigines read the Earth like a book, the Earth is their living memory which includes everything that is linked to it: sea, sky, Milky Way, etc...
Stéphane Jacob-Langevin, Galerie Arts d’Australie – Stéphane Jacob
The origins of contemporary Aboriginal art
It is in the Central, Western and Southern Desert that contemporary Aboriginal painting was born: in the vicinity of the old religious missions established there since the 1930s and especially within the "reserves" where the Australian authorities had settled the nomadic tribes, they wished to assimilate by settling them down – Ernabella (1937), Haasts Bluff (1941), Yuendumu and Lajamanu (1955), Papunya (1960). Sometimes very far from their ancestral lands, the Aborigines had kept the nostalgia and they continued to celebrate their wonders during their ceremonies in honor of the Dreamtime: when Great Ancestors, coming out of the original magma, created the continent in their image; crisscrossed the desert to establish laws and customs; and, at the time of their disappearance, left to men the memory of their exploits in the form of dreams to be celebrated by dances, songs, sculptures, engravings (on wood and stone) and paintings (body, on ground or rock). Thus, was born a religious art dedicated to the celebration of sites and journeys. The symbolism of the works produced was quite similar from one tribe to another: concentric or non-concentric circles represented water points and the sacred ceremonies that took place there as a reminder of their creation; the "U" shapes that surrounded them evoked the initiates and the Great Ancestors who had created the site. When these forms were accompanied by an "I" and or an oval, they were women with their digging stick and basket. Straight or wavy lines represented the elements of the landscape (sandhills, hills, canyons or rivers) or the paths – real and initiatory – linking the various sacred sites. In this way, a real cartography of the Aboriginal territories was created, with a ritual value above all: beyond a simple celebration, it was also a question of ensuring the perpetuation of the Dreamtime by representing its most secret components.
A rapid development between cultural claim and aesthetic originality
From the 1970s onwards, the Aborigines began to reproduce on cardboard, plywood and then canvas the motifs they drew for their religious ceremonies: it was in Papunya that the adventure was to begin at the instigation of a white teacher, Geoffrey Bardon (2003). A cooperative was created. The works produced met with great success, partly because of their very abstract character bringing them closer to modern Western painting. The example of this experience then spread to other communities where true talents were revealed, both faithful to the pictorial tradition of the desert and of great originality. Thus, the aboriginal artists were able to diffuse their production in optimal conditions: both from a strictly economic point of view and in the perspective of a political claim. Their painting was to do much for the cultural recognition of the desert communities and during the land restitution trials that took place from the 1980s onwards, certain paintings were considered as proof of ownership of the traditional sites represented: these were then returned to the communities that were native to them.
"Pointillism", satellite vision, macrocosm and microcosm
The most significant aspects of desert aboriginal painting owe much to the ground painting from which it is largely derived. Thus, the pointillist technique so characteristic of this art comes from the habit of using sticks coated with natural pigments and covering the areas to be painted with a multitude of dots. Originally, these dots were used primarily to emphasize the contours of the objects depicted. By changing the medium, the Aborigines generalized the use of dots and extended them to the entire surface of the canvas thus creating a true pictorial style. On the other hand, in accordance with the tradition of painting on the ground, the works continued to be produced flat: this explains the predominance of "satellite" views in desert art, the sites evoked appearing as if seen from the sky, a canvas being able to represent very vast spaces at the same time as a precise place - macrocosm and microcosm merging indeed in the mystical universe of the Dreamtime.
The art of batik
Utopia is located 250 kms northeast of Alice Springs and is home to a large community of Anmatyerre and Alyawarre Aborigines who have now (since 1979) regained full ownership of the land which, without being displaced, they had lost control of during the 19th century.
In a rather original way, Utopia first became known for its production of batik on silk - a technique consisting of applying wax to a textile support that will then be dyed, the prerogative of women who in 1977 formed a cooperative to market the works made in the workshops they had created. Originally, this technique imported from Indonesia was used to decorate clothing, but little by little it became autonomous and gave rise to real works of art. A first exhibition took place in 1988, bringing together 88 pieces, including the Dream of the Morning Star, which depicts two great ancestors who created the stars. Inspired by the motifs of body paint with which they covered themselves to celebrate their fertility rites, the artists of Utopia soon mixed in drawings inspired by the rich flora of their native region which she reproduced freehand (sometimes with a brush and sometimes with a wax crayon).
Between decorative arts and painting on canvas: the aesthetic eclecticism of Utopia
On the other hand, woodcarving was also widely practiced both by women who made and painted cups, trays, or digging sticks, but also by men who specialized in making engraved ceremonial shields and boomerangs, or even animal figurines decorated with red iron. But it was of course buoyed by the success of batik that the Utopia community began to take an interest in painting, which was developing in the rest of the desert, especially in Papunya. It was soon to excel in it, with men and women first transposing onto canvas the motifs developed in the context of batik production: as early as 1989, the exhibition "Summer Project" ("A Summer Project") brought together the works of several painters of very diverse styles first grouped together in the Central Australia Aboriginal Media Association and then (from 1991 onwards) each one managing his or her own career and organizing his or her own particular exhibitions. This individualism can be found in the paintings of the Utopia artists: one of the main characteristics of their style is indeed its profound iconographic eclecticism: sometimes the works are in the tradition of ground paintings by proposing ritual motifs (body paintings, ceremonial headdresses), sometimes they exploit all the resources of pointillism to evoke the richness of Utopia's flora, and sometimes they are figurative.
The artists of Utopia
At the origin of the group of women involved in the production of batik, Emily Kame Kngwarreye is certainly the most famous artist of the Utopia community, which she led until her death in 1996. Alternating between pointillism and patches of vivid color, or crossing her canvas with vigorous brushstrokes to evoke the rich vegetation of the desert, she produced more than 3,000 works in eight years, all of them of the greatest brilliance and energy. The quality of her work, which has sometimes been compared to that of Claude Monet for its impressionistic and luminous style, led her to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1997. The community is not specifically female, important male artists are also part of it: Dave Ross Pwerle, Greenie Purvis Petyarre ... Today, Utopia counts more than 200 artists, a proof of the richness and the artistic diversity of this community always full of future. Around this one, others have recently formed, each with a new and specific style, such as the Ampilatwatja community, currently in full expansion (Lily Morton Akemarr, Eileen Bonney, etc.)
The origins of contemporary Aboriginal painting
It is in Papunya, in the middle of the desert, 250 km from Alice Springs, that contemporary Aboriginal art was born. In 1971, when Goffrey Bardon asked his young students to decorate the walls of their school with episodes of the "Dream of the Honey Ant", traditionally celebrated in the form of ritual paintings on the ground. This experience caught the attention of the initiates responsible for this dream and they themselves began to reproduce some of these elements: first on plywood, then on canvas and using acrylic paints, which gradually replaced natural pigments, which are more difficult to preserve.
The interest aroused by their works led the first Aboriginal artists to form a cooperative: the "Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd", despite the reluctance of the official authorities. Thus, they were able to distribute their production under optimal conditions: both from a strictly economic point of view and from the perspective of a political claim: Aboriginal painting was to do a lot for the cultural recognition of the desert communities and during the land restitution trials, certain paintings were considered as proof of ownership of the traditional sites represented.
An art of diversity
At the beginning, all the artists expressed themselves in the same minimalist graphic code: the forms were relatively few (circles, lines) and were inscribed on ochre, black or yellow backgrounds reminiscent of rock or soil paintings. Then, their palette widened and integrated much more diverse and original colors: pink, green, orange... before becoming more moderate again.
In the early 1980s, the Australian government began to give the Aborigines back their ancestral lands and they left Papunya to spread out in various communities: the Pintupi joined Kintore on the border of Western Australia and founded a new school there.
This redeployment of tribes allowed Aboriginal art to reveal all its diversity, each one revealing its own myths and according to a particular aesthetic sensibility: the artists of Kintore favored a very austere geometric style bordering on abstraction. Those of the Anmatyerre and Arrernte clans proposed much more complex evocations whose teeming motifs were reminders of the passage of the Great Ancestors through their territories.
Papunya from yesterday to today
The Papunya community has always constituted an important pole of Aboriginal (and Australian) artistic life: as early as 1972, the Caltex Art Award was attributed to one of its members; most of the major national and then international museums quickly acquired works by Papunya artists or organized exhibitions centered on their productions (for example, in the USA, in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago in 1988-9 or in Moscow in 1991). In 1988, Michael Nelson Tjakamarra was commissioned to decorate the esplanade of the new parliament building in Canberra - a sign of recognition that is now well established.
Since the 1980s, the number of Papunya artists has grown steadily, and women have also begun to paint - particularly in the Kintore community.
Among the greatest names, let's mention Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa (1920-1989) who was the first president of the Papunya Tula cooperative, or Ronnie Tjampitjinpa whose works are present in the collections of the Musée du Quai Branly, Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri and of course Clifford Possum Tjapaljarri (1932- 2003) : His works, in which a spinifex bush often shines or specters pass through, are among the most original of this school.Read more