Aboriginal art has travelled a long way since the early days at Papunya in the 1970s.

Painting about his culture and country, and in an uncharacteristic pink, senior law man Ginger Wikilyiri spends weeks just sitting and thinking before he picks up a brush.

At 78, the man from South Australia’s far northwest is new to painting, having begun to translate his stories from body art to canvas only five years ago.

“I’m just thinking, thinking, thinking and painting,” Wikilyiri says. “Long and slowly work.”

Representing Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara artists, Wikilyiri’s work, Kunumata, is one of 100 Aboriginal works from South Australia, Northern Territory and Western Australia featured in Desert Country, which is billed as the most comprehensive exhibit of desert paintings shown.

The Art Gallery of South Australia show, which opened at the weekend, charts the evolution of indigenous art from Albert Namatjira through to colourful contemporary pieces. Curator Nici Cumpston says the decision to open the exhibition at the AGSA was significant because it was the first to buy an Aboriginal artist’s work when it bought a Namatjira landscape in 1939.

“It’s charting right from the very beginning when Aborigines painted on something, rather than the body or the ground for ceremonial purposes,” Cumpston says.

“Namatjira was the first person to really paint country.”

Desert Country is at the Art Gallery of South Australia until January 26 next year.