Imagine that you could travel back in time to meet a Stone Age hunter-gatherer, that you could hand him a paintbrush and ask him to paint something on a board or canvas—not warpaint on his body or daubings on a cave, but a proper picture, one that gave us a glimpse of his inner landscape and his aesthetic universe. This is precisely what happened at Papunya in 1972 near the remote outpost of Alice Springs in the heart of the Australian outback. The products of that early encounter gave rise to the internationally celebrated phenomenon of Aboriginal art, an école of sorts, that we all recognize today. Many of those seminal paintings are now in “Icons of the Desert” at the Grey Art Gallery of New York University. The show, dedicated to those early years, is composed of works from the private collection of John Wilkerson, former president of the American Folk Art Museum, and his wife.
The Grey Art Gallery, New York UniversitySee more works that are on display at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University
How to look at Aboriginal painting? If we knew nothing else, the sheer joyous vitality of the images themselves—with their dot-pattern chiaroscuros, elemental colors and buzzing lines—would amply satisfy the eye. But as the exhibition shows us, there’s a great deal more to know, a host of backstories that deepen and illuminate our sense of the art—and often leave us baffled by its mysteries. The paintings themselves are full of embedded narratives connected to the Dreaming, the Aboriginal genesis mythology—itself a series of disparate narratives, as most genesis mythologies are.
Then there’s the genesis backstory of how the art form was born, a pivotal moment of Australian social history when blacks and whites first tentatively bonded through art. The show features videos chronicling the story of the groundbreaking Papunya painters and their “whitefella” mentor, the now-famous Geoffrey Bardon (1940-2003), who acted as midwife to their talent in the early 1970s. Bardon’s own life reads like a moral fable: A sensitive schoolteacher and art student, a pioneer spirit, he befriended the Aboriginals, supplied them with materials, encouragement and funding despite resistance from his own kind, and finally suffered a nervous breakdown for his exertions.
Many of the show’s paintings have attained iconic status in Australian popular culture. Works such as Shorty Lungkarta’s “Tingarri Ceremony,” with its multicolored vorticist whorls, and his more austere “Children’s Water Dreaming” lay out the basic codes of the art form. In the latter a concentric circle at the core links to similar circles through black lines, and the entirety forms a kind of memory map of waterholes connected by rivulets from the artist’s region. A black cross-cum-stick-figure on the upper left is part of a ceremonial object, according to Prof. Fred Myers, a consultant to the show who lived with the Papunya artists in the 1970s as a young anthropology student. Sacred objects feature regularly in Aboriginal painting but are often considered taboo and need to be disguised.
Perhaps the show’s masterpiece, its most renowned painting according to Prof. Myers, is the intricately webbed and dotted “Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa” by Johnny Warangkula. Complicated and beautiful, the painting creates a line-and-dot pulse effect common to the genre that Prof. Myers compares to the effect of firelight on painted bodies during ceremonial dances. In this and in paintings that give off similar optical illusions, such as Cifford Possum’s “Women Dreaming About Bush Tucker,” the artists show how “ancestral beings, in their creation of the landscape, entered the ground and traveled beneath its surface before emerging elsewhere,” Prof. Myers says.
To the Western eye the visual patterns often seem oddly familiar, and one wonders if any mutual exposure occurred between Papunya painters and, say, Paul Klee or Jean-Michel Basquiat. No one has proved any such cross-pollination yet; certainly the Papunya artists had no access to foreign images at that time, and Paul Klee, at least, came and went too soon. One is left with the baffling conclusion that the poetic déjà vu sensation sparked by works such as Mick Namarrari’s “Big Cave Dreaming” and Uta Uta Tjangala’s “Medicine Story” is an accident. Perhaps the works simply remind us that our species shares a limited range of coherent visual motifs and that disparate cultures can stumble on them independently.
A lot remains mysterious in the genre, not least because Aussie whites and Aboriginals at its inception could barely understand each others’ languages. Deepening the mysteries are the confusing codes of taboo and secrecy that the artists suspended temporarily during the first paintings and reimposed soon after. Some customs of the aborigines seem distasteful to Westerners, such as the exclusion of women and children from adult male power rituals. Breaking such taboos can still be punished by tribes with death or excommunication or spearing.
As a result, the exhibition even has a secluded lower floor with a vivid culture-clash backstory. The paintings displayed there, when conceived, had revealed a great deal of the artists’ sacred ceremonies. The artists originally thought only the Aussie white man would see the art—which they didn’t mind. We, too, are free to see them—but, to this day, women and children from the artists’ tribes may not. For this reason, the exhibition catalog includes a detachable insert of those works, which gets removed from any copies sold in Australia. On the lower floor, Mr. Possum’s “Emu Corroboree Man,” for example, looks like a graphic guide to animist rituals and the use of sacred objects. One could compare the phenomenon to the Eleusinian mysteries of ancient Athens or the Villa of Dionysian frescoes in Pompeii, which were secret in their time and still remain suggestively opaque to us.
In looking at Aboriginal art, we are, after all, looking back at our species in a more primitive state, though it sounds politically incorrect to say so. The asymmetries between the sexes, the guarding of male power with secrecy, the tribally enforced segregation and the like should not detract from our enjoyment of the art. Such things do present a painful quandary to strict multiculturalists who would like all genders and cultures to be interchangeably equal when, alas, many of their favored subcultures don’t see things that way. But for the rest of us, the show offers a chance to enjoy a glimpse of how, eons ago, in an ancient landscape, our species was able to find patterns of beauty in nature.
—Mr. Kaylan, a columnist for Forbes, writes on culture and the arts for the Journal.