Exhibition of some of the earliest and rarest paintings by Indigenous Australian artists; artists to visit Ithaca and create ground work

The Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University presents Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya, on view January 10“April 5, 2009.

It is not every day that a new kind of beauty is born, says Professor Roger Benjamin of the University of Sydney, the exhibition’s guest curator. Such is the achievement of the painters of Papunya, who adapted the rich meaning of their image-making to a new context, reasserting with pride and intelligence the world’s oldest continuous culture.

In 1971, at Papunya, a government-established Aboriginal relief camp in the Central Australian desert, the Sydney schoolteacher Geoffrey Bardon provided a group of ranking Aboriginal men with the tools and the encouragement to paint. The resulting works became the first paintings ever to systematically transfer the imagery of their culture to a permanent surface.

This exhibition will be the first to focus on this founding moment, presenting some of the finest examples from the period drawn from the collection of John Wilkerson (Cornell PhD Class of 1970) and Barbara Wilkerson, never before exhibited as a group. The collection includes important works by such great names in the history of late twentieth-century Australian art as Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa, Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, Uta Uta Tjangala, Charlie Tarawa (Tjaruru) Tjungurrayi, and Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi, and many others. The exhibition’s centerpiece is Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula’s staggering Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa of 1972, whose visual intricacy has been likened to a page in a medieval illumination manuscript; this work twice made Australian national headlines when it achieved world-record auction prices in 1996 and 2000.

The visual qualities of these so-called Papunya boards”of which only 750 or so were ever made”make them a unique body of work. Not only are these works tremendously significant as bearers of cultural meaning, but they are painted with a skill and inventiveness that has caused them to be admired and collected the world over, said Andrew C. Weislogel, the Johnson’s associate curator and master teacher, who organized the exhibition with Benjamin.

The Australian Aboriginal worldview is based on Tjukurrpa, or the Dreaming, a belief that the world was formed by creator ancestors who shaped the land, made all living things, and laid out the moral code for human conduct. The many Dreamings that relate to specific geographical features, animals, plants, and the elements are the collective responsibility of numerous Indigenous Nations who ensure their preservation for future generations in song, story, and imagery. Several of the works in the exhibition include sacred imagery and depictions of ritual objects used in men’s ceremonies that would normally be viewable only by initiated men within the Aboriginal community. However, key senior painters have granted permission for American audiences to view these works.

Beginning on Tuesday, February 10, visitors to the Johnson will have the unprecedented opportunity to see two Aboriginal artists create a ten-foot-square ground work in the gallery using sand and plant fibers. The work will remain on view for the duration of the exhibition.

A fully illustrated exhibition catalogue will be distributed by Cornell University Press. Professor Benjamin is the chief contributor and edited the volume with the Johnson’s Weislogel. The catalogue includes contributions by prominent scholars and historians present during the movement’s early years.

Organized by the Johnson Museum, Icons of the Desert will travel to the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at the University of California, Los Angeles (May 3“August 2) and the Grey Art Gallery at New York University (September 1“December 5).

Related public events at the Johnson Museum:

  • Andrew Weislogel will give a tour of the exhibition as part of the Johnson’s Art for Lunch series on Thursday, February 5 at 12:00 noon.
  • Guest curator Roger Benjamin will give a lecture, Aboriginal Art from Papunya Tula: From the Beginning, on Thursday, February 12 at 5:15 p.m.
  • Benjamin will give a gallery talk on Friday, February 13 at 4:30 p.m., prior to the Johnson Museum’s reception for winter exhibitions, from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m.
  • On Sunday, March 1, from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m., the Johnson will host A Day of Australian Art and Culture, featuring a performance of excerpts from the new play Yanagai! Yanagai! by the Australian Aboriginal Theatre Initiative, plus exhibition tours, children’s art activities, and more.

On Saturday, February 14, the Johnson will host a symposium, Papunya Then and Now, featuring presentations by Roger Benjamin; Fred Myers of New York University; Vivien Johnson and Jennifer Biddle, both of the University of New South Wales; Paul Sweeney, manager of Papunya Tula Artists in Alice Springs; and Bobby West Tjupurrula, artist and son of first-generation Papunya artist Freddy West Tjakamarra. The symposium is free to advance registrants but seating is limited. Please call 607 254-4642 by Friday, February 6. A talk with the artists who created the ground work will be open to the public at 3:00 p.m.

This exhibition and its programs at the Johnson Museum are made possible by generous grants from the Actus Foundation and the Cornell Council for the Arts.

Additionally, Cornell Cinema will present a film series, Visions of Aboriginal Australia, in conjunction with the exhibition, featuring four Australian films: The Tracker (2002) on January 29 and 31; Ten Canoes (2006) on February 5 and 8; and Benny and the Dreamers (1993) and Mick and the Moon (1978), screening together on February 11 with an introduction by Fred Myers of New York University. Visit cinema.cornell.edu for ticket information, screening times, and locations.

The Johnson Museum has a permanent collection of over 30,000 works of art from Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and South America. The museum building was designed by I. M. Pei. Funds for the building were donated by Cornell alumnus Herbert F. Johnson, late president and chairman of S C Johnson. The building opened in 1973.