Fowler Museum of Cultural History, University of California, Los Angeles, CA

May 3 — August 2, 2009

(Previously at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. Also to be exhibited at the Grey Art Gallery, New York University, New York, NY September 1 — December 5, 2009.)

The recent formation of private collections of Australian paintings raises the vexed matter of the cultural appropriation of indigenous art. Is the commodification of Native products within a value and exchange system initially unfamiliar to Native artists simply exploitation? When his 1972 painting Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa (Cat. 27) was sold at auction in 2000, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula (c. 1918-2001) was quoted as saying that “he would not mind a slice of the $486,000 having received only $150 for the work when he sold it … to ‘get tucker’” [buy food]. The purchasers in 2000 were John and Barbara Wilkerson, from whose collection this exhibition is exclusively drawn. Where did that extra “sumptuary value” (to use Jean Baudrillard’s term, referred to by Roger Benjamin in the excellent exhibition catalogue) come from?

Yet no one could have anticipated the consequences of encouraging the male elders at the central Australian settlement of Papunya, west of Mparntwe (Alice Springs) to adapt their highly sophisticated pictorial representation of traditional knowledge. Until 1971, these elders had practiced their pictorial skills in temporary ceremonial sand paintings, and on sacred tjurunga boards. Then they began to use acrylic paints on masonite. This move has accrued its own mythology, recounted in the exhibition. A white Australian—the teacher Geoffrey Bardon—was the facilitator. The founding moment was the painting of the mural Honey Ant Dreaming on an exterior wall of the local school by elders including Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri, Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra, and Old Mick Tjakamarra. This was a highly visible local breakthrough, for even though painting on a wall entailed adaptation to a white fella medium, those running a white fella institution—the local school—were clearly valuing an indigenous form for the first time.

The founding myth recounts how Bardon then made modern painting materials available to the older men who had the considerable traditional knowledge proper to initiates and cultural guardians. They worked in the Men’s Painting Room, a secluded space where they could articulate that knowledge without fear of their paintings being seen by those susceptible to the harm they can cause. These are powerful objects. The most potent among them are exhibited in the United States only with the permission of responsible elders, and reproduced in a removable supplement to the catalogue available only in the United States.

The men worked seated on the ground, painting on small, often irregular panels of masonite, composition board, or scrap wood balanced on their laps. Their earliest works are the least guarded in their expression of sacred knowledge, often concerning the highly charged desert topography invested with numinous significance by a people who have lived in and guarded it for countless generations. Following the early sales of their works, the painters soon realized that they should be more circumspect in their representation of potent imagery. Defining the proper boundaries of their own practice, members of the Papunya Tula artists’ collective no longer included subtly expressive human figures, such as Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri (c. 1932-2002) had depicted in his first painting on composition board, Emu Corroboree Man in February, 1972 (Cat. 18, reproduced only in the removable supplement). Even if silhouetted human figures were an adaptation of European conventions, their use in representations of ceremonies (corroborees) by indigenous artists was long established, as can be seen in the work of Tommy McCrae (1835-1901). The Papunya artists drew veils over sensitive details, often using stippling, as they made the transition to working on an increasingly large scale on canvas.

Once white administrators recognized the value of such works as emblems of Australianness, government funds became available. Paintings were snapped up for the decoration of embassies. They ceased to be “tourist art,” and entered the international art market. A number of the Papunya artists’ later works are included in the exhibition for comparison with their early pieces. But, contrary to received opinion, this is not a story of naïve indigenous people doing the bidding of white fellas, compromising their traditional artistry by adopting white media to enter the globalized art world. From the very beginning, and at every turn,  Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi (1920-1987), Mick Namararri Tjapaltjarri (c. 1927-1998), Charlie Tarawa (Tjararu) Tjungurrayi (c. 1921-1999), and their fellows, exercised their own judgment, made their own choices, and took the initiative in selectively adapting their pictorial traditions to new circumstances. On their own terms, they led the way in reconciling the conditions of modernity with one of the oldest cultural traditions on the planet. The achievement is stunning.