The uneasy return of the native

The revival in aboriginal art is celebrated in Australia's Olympic Arts Festival, but its values are not.
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The Independent Online

In 1971 a young white schoolteacher, Geoffrey Bardon, gave brushes and acrylic paints to Aborginal elders in the remote outpost of Papunya and encouraged them to use traditional imagery to set down their sacred "Dreamtime" stories. Idealistic as Bardon was, he never envisaged the consequences: a spectacular and far-reaching renaissance of Aboriginal painting. The work created on scraps of old board at the dusty settlement 160 miles west of Alice Springs became a catalyst for the flowering of the Western Desert movement, whose "dot paintings" of the vast Australian interior have placed Aboriginal art on the international map.

In 1971 a young white schoolteacher, Geoffrey Bardon, gave brushes and acrylic paints to Aborginal elders in the remote outpost of Papunya and encouraged them to use traditional imagery to set down their sacred "Dreamtime" stories. Idealistic as Bardon was, he never envisaged the consequences: a spectacular and far-reaching renaissance of Aboriginal painting. The work created on scraps of old board at the dusty settlement 160 miles west of Alice Springs became a catalyst for the flowering of the Western Desert movement, whose "dot paintings" of the vast Australian interior have placed Aboriginal art on the international map.

Papunya unleashed the artistic talents of other desert communities, such as Balgo, Utopia and Yuendumu, but it retained its own distinctive identity and, three decades on, is still producing work of dazzling innovation. Its development from humble origins to the present day is traced in a landmark exhibition - Papunya Tula; Genius and Genesis - at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney.

The show is the first major retrospective of the Papunya painters and is also one of the highlights of the Olympic Arts Festival, which opened last Friday and will run to the end of September.

The festival, the culmination of a four-year cultural programme, is timed to coincide with next month's Olympic Games, which are expected to draw half a million visitors to Sydney from around the world. It features 50 productions of dance, music, opera and theatre, including a performance of Mahler's Symphony No 8 - with 1,000 musicians and chorists - in the 14,000-seat Olympic SuperDome.

In visual arts, Papunya Tula - one of the largest Aboriginal art shows ever staged in Australia, with 130 paintings by 49 artists - stands out, the most memorable and controversial of dozens of exhibitions. It was a decade before the desert paintings were acknowledged as art rather than ethnography, never mind exceptional art. Now they are accorded the recognition that they deserve, but the issues that they raise - of white Australia's relationship with the country's original inhabitants - remain profoundly unresolved.

The show gives an insight into the extraordinary breadth and depth of a movement of which most people still have only a superficial appreciation. Some of the work is stylistically familiar, but much of it is a revelation, in particular the ethereal minimalism of Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri's Eighties paintings and the mesmerising abstract canvases produced in the Nineties by the likes of Ronnie Tjampitjinpa and George Tjungurrayi.

Papunya was an unlikely birthplace for a phenomenally successful art movement creating works that now generate £20m a year. A centralised township, it was built in the late Fifties to house a variety of Aboriginal peoples - the Pintupi, Anmatyerre, Arrernte, Luritja and Walpiri - displaced from their traditional tribal land. By 1971 it stood as a dismal testament to the failures of the government policy in dealing with the nomadic populations of the Central and Western Deserts.

According to Bardon, it was a bleak and desperate spot. "I found a community of people in appalling distress," he recalled. "It was a brutal place with a feeling of oppressive and dangerous racism in the air... a place of emotional loss and waste, with an air of casual cruelty."

The first work made by the elders was a mural depicting one of their ancestral journeys, the Honey Ant Tjujurrpa ( Dreaming). It was a bold statement of cultural affirmation and it triggered a remarkable explosion of creative energy as the men painted furiously on whatever surfaces they could find. As Bardon said later: "Truly something strange and marvellous had been set in motion."

These initial efforts - on composition boards, floor tiles, scraps of fibro - resurrected icons and symbols used for millennia in sand sculptures and ceremonial body art. Dots and concentric circles predominated. The works were experimental and, in the case of paintings such as Billy Stockman Tjapaltjurri's Yala ( Wild Potato) Dreaming, astonishingly accomplished.

For Hetti Perkins, the curator of the exhibition, they express both "the agony of exile" and "a reconnection with country". Working in the face of institutionalised repression, she says, the artists were "in effect creating title deeds to their land". By late 1972 they had formed a company, naming it Papunya Tula after a local Dreaming site. It was and remains a cooperative wholly owned and run by Aboriginal artists.

In 1980 the wishes of the Papunya exiles were answered; new legislation permitted them to return to their homelands further west. The liberating effects of the exodus are clearly visible, as the symmetry and formal patterns of the early work give way to larger, more ambitious and more elaborate canvases.

Individuals such as Mick Namarari and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri had already emerged as major creative forces; in the mid-Eighties they were joined by, among others, Pansy Napangati, who used idiosyncratic methods of paint application and was the first woman to achieve prominence within Papunya Tula. But it was not until the mid-Nineties that women - hitherto mainly limited to assisting male relatives - asserted themselves as independent artists. Their paintings are wild celebrations of colour and form, quite different from those produced by the men. Works such as Naata Nungurray's Untitled 1999, ablaze with tangerines and ochres, are striking in their immediacy.

For Hetti Perkins, who is the daughter of a veteran Aboriginal activist, Charlie Perkins, the paintings of Papunya Tula reflect "the resilience of people who experienced the last frontier of colonisation". The artists, she says, have transformed the traditions of Australian landscape painting and, at the same time, altered Australians' vision of their own country. She says: "They have shown people an Australia that they never knew existed, alive with centuries-old stories, and in doing so they have reclaimed the interior of the continent as Aboriginal land."

Papunya Tula continues to evolve. The last room contains recent works by some of its founders, including Mick Namarari's final sublime flourish before he died in 1998, as well as paintings by "young" artists such as 42-year-old Ray James Tjangala. It reinforces the thread of continuity that runs through the show: the juxtaposition of ancient values and contemporary images. As Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula states in an inscription above the entrance: "People are changing, but the stories are still the same."

The words are uplifting; so are many of the paintings. Nevertheless, you depart with a sense of unease. Painting has meant a relief from hardship and deprivation for the artists of Papunya and the other desert outposts, giving them an income and enabling them to record their people's stories. But it has also exposed them to accusations of exploiting their culture for monetary gain. The communities are still characterised by grinding social problems - petrol sniffing, alcoholism, alienation. Outside the Northern Territory, Aboriginal ownership of tribal lands is a pipe dream.

The reality is that, despite the success of the Western Desert art movement, there is little respect within the Australian mainstream for Aboriginal identity and culture. Two months ago, Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa, a 1972 painting on board by Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, sold for nearly £200,000 at Sotheby's in Melbourne, setting a record for an auctioned Aboriginal work. Though the art may be highly valued now, the values it expresses are not.

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