Art of the Desert - Wally Caruana

SYDNEY- 8 March 2015

The revolution that was Papunya in the early 1970s did not spread like wild-fire across the desert. Not immediately at any rate. Artists and elders in the neighbouring communities, from Balgo to Yuendumu, were reluctant to display their cultural designs before an uninitiated and unrestricted audience. This, despite the fact that in previous decades several had had encounters with outsiders seeking examples of their art; but these were often created to educate researchers and anthropologists in the cultural ways of the Anangu (desert peoples), and as such were made within defined contexts. In 1953 and 1954 Warlpiri artists residing at Lajamanu (Lorna Fencer Napurrurla’s domicile), produced a series of over 100 crayon drawings on paper and card at the behest of the anthropologist Mervyn Meggitt. While many of these drawings reflect ground and body painting designs that are seen in Warlpiri canvases from Lajamanu and Yuendumu today, several artists availed themselves of the opportunity to depict images of quotidian life, personal experiences and commentaries on a changing world. All in all, the very same subject matter of desert canvases today.

Nonetheless, a wait-and-see attitude prevailed in most western desert communities during the 1970s. Yet, a decade later at Yuendumu, male and female Warlpiri artists had grown confident enough to create paintings for sale outside the community without loss of any cultural value. A catalyst was the Yuendumu School Door project whereby in 1983 a group of senior artists painted the local school doors with traditional designs. As at Papunya, the Yuendumu artists organised themselves into a cooperative, Warlukurlangu Artists which was established in 1985, where Maggie Napangardi Watson was one of the stalwarts.

Meanwhile, over in the eastern desert lands around the cattle station of Utopia, a group of Alyawarre and Anmatyerre women, which included Emily Kame Kngwarreye, had their first foray into introduced materials by creating batik designs as part of an adult education program. By the late 1980s, these artists experimented with a number of art forms, including printmaking, and in the summer of 1988/89 they commenced to paint on canvas. Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Angelina Ngale Pwerle and others are now household names in the world of art.

The wild-fire of painting that had reignited in the 1980s continued to spread across the deserts through to the turn of the 21st century, further west and south to the Gibson and the Great Victoria Deserts. A host of elder, experienced but previously unknown artists emerged – artists such as Tommy Watson and Nyakul Dawson at Irrunytju, and Dickie Minyintiri from Ernabella who won the Tesltra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award in 2011 at the grand age of 96.

Colin and Liz Laverty’s collection of art from the desert kept pace with each new development; their enthusiasm took them to several of these communities to meet artists who invariably also became their friends.