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National Gallery of Victoria opens exhibition by the founding artists of the Western Desert art movement
Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra (foreground) and Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, founding Papunya Tula artists who attended the opening night function for Tjukurrtjanu: Origins of Western Desert Art.

MELBOURNE.- Opening on 30 September, the National Gallery of Victoria and Museum Victoria present Tjukurrtjanu: Origins of Western Desert Art, a superb exhibition which features over 200 of the first paintings produced at Papunya in 1971-–72 by the founding artists of the Western Desert art movement. Works by such celebrated artists as Uta Uta Tjangala, Shorty Lungkata Tjungurrayi and Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula display the mastery of colour and style that characterises the work of the founding Papunya Tula painters.

This important exhibition is presented in partnership with Papunya Tula Artists, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Papunya Tula movement and the 150th anniversary of the NGV.

These extraordinary works sparked the genesis of the Western Desert art movement, now internationally recognised as one of the most important events in Australian art history. The period 1971-–72 was a critical turning point, when the ancient visual language of the Western Desert was rendered permanent on sheets of composition board and thereby transformed into a rich new art form.

Frances Lindsay, Deputy Director, NGV said: “This highly significant exhibition investigates the origins at Papunya of a major contemporary art. At Papunya in the early 1970s a group of senior Indigenous men began to transpose their ephemeral ritual designs on to board. This new art form has changed the way we see the land and the history of art in this country.”

Today’s Papunya Tula art has an undeniable edge: the shock of the ancient made new. It issues from the burning and freezing red sand of the central Australian desert, not being transplanted or appropriated from any other art tradition.

Judith Ryan, Senior Curator of Indigneous Art, NGV said: “The founding Papunya artists brought to the world an iconoclastic vision expressed in new compositional practices, new forms and new meanings unforeseen in any reading of the history of the avant-garde. The cultural resurgence that was prefaced in the men’s painting room at Papunya in 1971 marked a new beginning for art in Australia.”

Painted on scraps of recycled board, the first paintings are startling in their raw intensity and visual power. Encountering new kinds of materials – pencils, brushes, shiny enamels and acrylics, the founding artists learned to fit their archetypal designs on irregular squares and rectangles.

Tjukurrtjanu establishes the connection between these first works on board and their iconographic sources: the ancestral designs that embellish objects, the human body and the ground in ritual contexts. The exhibition will begin with a massing of painted shields and will feature separate groupings of richly decorated spear throwers, stone knives, pearl shell pendants and men’s headbands.

This important selection of rare historical objects will prepare the viewer for a once in a lifetime opportunity to see 200 of the first paintings on composition board by 20 great pioneering Papunya Tula artists.

Dr Philip Batty, Senior Curator (Anthropology) in the Indigenous Cultures Department, Museum Victoria said: “The complex symbolism inherent in all the early Papunya boards originates in an iconographic language that has existed in Western Desert Aboriginal societies for several thousand years or more. The early Papunya painters not only drew on this extensive heritage but employed it in new and creative ways, which continue to challenge and enchant us.”

Ms Ryan said: “Initially used sparingly to provide edging, graphic augmentation or texture, and subsequently extended into veils or phases of dots and expansive colour fields, the dot is integral to the visual language of Western Desert painting. Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula was instrumental in pioneering the over-layering of masses of filigree dots to create atmospheric effects of light and shade that have been likened to those of pointillism.”

Mr Paul Sweeney, Manager, Papunya Tula Artists said: “No one could possibly have imagined how far reaching the social and economic benefits would be to Western Desert Aboriginal artists following the birth of Papunya Tula Artists in 1971–72. The 1971–72 Papunya works, like those of their descendants and relatives today, represented far more than simple objects that could be exchanged for money, but rather a complete and total representation of who the men were and the country they came from.”

The 1971–72 works on board are followed by a selection of six monumental canvases also painted by the founding artists from 1974–93. These more of a complex ancestral narrative and aproximate the scale of large ceremonial ground paintings. Artists such as Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and Uta Uta Tjangala created complex topographical works that expressed their profound affinity with place.

The NGV and Museum Victoria have curated and developed the exhibition in partnership with Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd, the Indigenous owned company established by the founding Papunya artists in 1972. Tjukurrtjanu is jointly curated by Judith Ryan (NGV) and Dr Philip Batty (Museum Victoria) in close consultation with Paul Sweeney, Manager PTA and its artist shareholders who include living masters Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra and Ronnie Tjampitjinpa.

A comprehensive and lavishly illustrated book, with essays by Philip Batty, John Kean, Dick Kimber, Fred Myers and Judith Ryan et al, is being published to accompany the exhibition. RRP $69.95.

Tjukurrtjanu: Origins of Western Desert Art is on display from 30 September 2011 to 12 February 2012 at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia. Open Tues–Sun. 10am–5pm. Admission free.

Western Desert art | National Gallery of Victoria | Museum Victoria | Tjukurrtjanu |

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