Aboriginal Women Use the Canvas to Connect the Dots
To get a better understanding of Yuendumu, an Aboriginal community in the central western desert of Australia, connect the dots. The vibrant, colorful paintings created by female artists in the Tanami Desert using carefully plotted dots recount centuries-old fables, but more and more frequently, they include a modern twist, as the new artists struggle to find their place in contemporary art.
Some of that art has found a temporary home at the Australian Embassy this summer with the exhibition “Yuru-yururla: Women’s Painting from Yuendumu.”
Yuendumu, a Warlpiri settlement, was the first central Australian community in which women started to paint, said Brendan Wall, director of cultural affairs at the Australian Embassy. The women first took up a paintbrush in the early 1980s. Before then, only men were thought to have enough knowledge and understanding of “Dreaming,” or creationism stories, added Scott Bolitho, first secretary for public affairs.
“For a long period of time, so much Western art referenced the Bible and biblical stories, creation stories, so it’s a bit in the same vein really,” explained Wall. “They’re all kind of contemporary takes, but they’re all kind of contemporary takes in a sense of archetypal stories. The main thing is it’s sort of a contemporary art from a living culture, one of the world’s longest-standing continuing cultures really — at least 50,000 years—– and this is a contemporary manifestation of all that has come before and these individual artists’ engagement with the world as they know it today.”
It all began with a simple mission. In 1984, the women of the community (population 1,500) decided to buy a four-wheel drive Toyota so they could travel to sacred sites, visit far-flung relatives, and pursue new hunting and gathering spots. To raise money, they painted. The more they painted, the more attention they received.
Three principle stories emerge in the exhibit’s 38 paintings by 36 artists, according to Wall: themes of geographical locations, food gathering and landscape.
For instance, “Lappi Lappi Jukurrpa” — a square-shaped work done in 2008 and dominated by blues, purples and yellows — tells of a “soakage,” a waterhole where water flowing underground emerges on the desert’s arid surface. The dots and curves represent women and children celebrating the hole.
It sounds pleasant enough, but the work has a dark side. “Waterholes not only are the center of the community because they’re a life-giving source of water, but it’s also often a spiritual site,” Wall said. In this case, the painting also tells the tale of rainbow serpents, creation figures in Warlpiri lore, popping up through the waterhole to eat the women and children.
Wall interprets it as a warning about minding resources, but a definitive explanation is almost impossible to get. “All these stories have various layers to them,” he said. “Depending on where you fit in the kinship system and whether you’re male or female, you have access to different parts of the story. So a male will have access to the male portion of the stories, and depending on their seniority, to different levels within that, and depending on their skin group, which is the kinship group, they intersect with that again. Exactly the same for the women.”
He added: “When we look at these works, we can form an interpretation, but we need to understand that our interpretation is very much bound by where we fit into that scheme.”
In “Pirlarla Jukurrpa,” which translates into “Bush Bean Dreaming,” black curves represent women gathered around colorful bushes happily gathering beans. It depicts a joyous time of plenty in the desert. “When the food’s available, you really go for it, so it’s kind of a celebration of that kind of moment,” Wall said.
Although in some paintings, such as “Mina Mina Jukurrpa,” the dots are so close together that they look like solid lines, the equal-size dots are present in every work. That is because the style has its origins in sand and body painting, which also use dots. When the women acquired acrylics and canvas, they started to make the same marks on that new medium.
Because the Yuendumu community’s art is relatively new and produced by an ancient tribe, it was first looked at through an anthropological lens, but acknowledgement of it as contemporary art is growing, according to Wall.
“When we think about painting, we think about the Western tradition of perspective. This art is quite a bit different from that,” Wall said. “I like to think of it as a new mathematics and physics where we see the world very much as it ebbs and flows, and from a whole range of dimensions and perspectives. This work operates not just from a single point in perspective, but in a single canvas you get a whole series of events over a period of time all layered together, and you get geography sometimes from an aerial view and sometimes from a ground-based view, and from a whole range of dimensions simultaneously.”
“Yuru-yururla: Women’s Painting from Yuendumu” through Aug. 28 Embassy of Australia 1601 Massachusetts Ave., NW. For more information, please call (202) 797-3000 or visit www.usa.embassy.gov.au/whwh/EmbGallery.html.
About the Author
Dena Levitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.