Nicholas Rothwell reviews/previews the 2008 Desert Mob Art Show in Alice Springs:

The most appealing works on view in this year’s Desert Mob hold to the recent pattern: newly established art centres seem to nourish a special creative fire. Martumili Artists, based in the Pilbara mining centre of Newman and set up in 2006, has enjoyed a degree of success with its first group shows, but the wall of Martumili art on display here, drawn from the northwestern deserts, marks a distinct shift from transcription of traditional design towards artistic exploration. Pitu, a rockhole map by Jakayu Biljabu, recalls the work of the Fitzroy Crossing colourist Stumpy Brown. Minyawe Miller’s Jila Kujarra fuses ancestral figures and sand-dune landscape. Bugai Whylouter’s monumental Balfour Downs describes a stretch of pastoral country near Jigalong community but, in its modulations of brick-pink and rose-red, set on a black ground, it lays out an ordered, haunting psychological terrain.

Far south, on the fringes of the Nullarbor, lies Tjuntjuntjara community, home to the Spinifex Art Project, whose painters have been engaged in making traditional works of austere splendour during the past decade. This year, they have chosen Desert Mob to unveil a new inflection of their style: deep black voids for sacred soakages, fringed round with pink and blue-accented shimmers and infill lines. The art from nearby western desert centres continues to exert its pull: Kayili’s Pulpuru Davies and Warakurna’s Taparti Bates stand out from the throng. Perhaps the single most arresting piece in the show is the ultra-traditional Men’s Design by Cliff Reid, the best-known painter at Blackstone’s Papulankutja Arts: his work possesses the hieratic strength of Pintupi masterpieces from the early 1970s, when the sacred underpinnings of desert men’s paintings lay close to the surface of their work.

Intense, traditional-seeming pieces by old men and women from lesser-known communities hang close by. And these canvases, by figures such as Harry Tjutjuna and Dickie Minyintiri from Ernabella Arts, and Nyarrapyi Giles from Tjukurla, near the dry shore of Lake Amadeus, offer a striking reversion to imagery of the past. To some extent, this is because artists of this stripe, steeped in law and culture, have never wished to depart from the core of their religious practice and their work marks the continuity of desert belief systems in pure, unalloyed form.

He concludes:

It is far too much to hope an art exhibition may find the answers to such questions. But it may be that, amid the wash of beauty and ceremonial splendour on the walls, many of the questions that need urgent response today are not being posed with the right inflection. What exactly do senior desert men and women dream of for their children, and what hope is there for anything beyond a Third World life to be built in the outstations and bush communities of modern, prosperous Australia? What is the role of the sacred art and design of the desert, and how much of that art should be probed and known and studied by the outside world? Has that art become an export product and how will it be kept strong by new generations?

Desert Mob 2008 may be an aesthetic triumph, but the art current it showcases confronts a range of baffling quandaries.