The founding myths of Papunya art (and therefore of the contemporary Aboriginal art movement as a whole) have mainly centred on the well-promoted notion that the whitefellar Geoffrey Bardon kicked it all off with his encouragement of the Papunya school mural and its uniquely tribal design. Well, Luke Scholes repudiated that in his 2017 Tjungtungutja essay when he made it clear that artists such as Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, Mick Namarari and Johnny Warangula were all painting as prolifically as material supply and market response would allow in 1971 before Bardon even arrived in the Desert.

Now, another persistent myth has been punctured. It’s the idea that Desert Dotting – both a literal and a pejorative term – had to be invented by Warangula because angry tribesmen beyond Papunya were insisting that the painted boards coming out of Papunya were profane because aspects of their sacred Tjukurrpa were linked to the artists’ Anmatyerr, Pintupi and Luritja stories.

As it’s now 50 years since these great events happened, it seems remiss that no-one’s analysed these aesthetic, spiritual and political sides of the story before. But now John Kean, an art student inspired by a Kaapa painting on display at his art school to head to the deserts in 1977 and start working for the Papunya Tula Artists organisation, has belatedly taken on the task. He’s pulled together this first hand experience with much research on both the paintings themselves and in others’ writings to produce a magnificent study with the somewhat uninspiring title, ‘Dot, Circle & Frame’.

Half of the book is contextual history taking us back through assimilation times to events like the Coniston Massacre in 1928 (when baby Billy Stockman was orphaned), the missionaries at Hermannsberg who provided succour for threatened tribesmen but insisted on the primacy of Christianity to the point of deliberately exposing sacred Tjuringa to the congregation at a notorious Manangananga gathering, the decade-long drought that forced so many off their Country into constructed communities like Mt Liebig, Haasts Bluff and Papunya, and the much misinterpreted role of Albert Namatjira, Artist, who had proved that art-making was a valid activity for initiated men.

Then there are 70 splendid pages of artworks, separating the pre-1971 history from the deep analysis of art by ‘the Gang of Four’ – the inter-related Anmatyerre trio of Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, Clifford Possum and his ‘brother’ Tim Leura – both Tjapaltjarris – and the expat Pintupi man, Johnny Warangula Tjupurrula.

It was Kaapa who set them going, winning the Caltex Art Award and flaunting his wealth while walking a secret/sacred tightrope to try to match the importance of traditional Tjuringa on his earliest boards while adapting their oval shape to the colonial rectangle. Kean believes that the planar perspective he chose derived from his intimate knowledge as a performer in ceremony rather than his vision as a viewer of it.

Later we move on to the radical interpretations about both the dotting and the challenging comparison of the Possum Brothers with Picasso and Braque in ways in which the two pairs worked together on opposite sides of the world to invent Analytic Cubism and what Kean calls Analytic Desert Art respectively.

“Both pairs of artists devised spatial strategies that were more complex than those of their predecessors….(building) a new visual language, and engaging various ‘morphological, configurational and iconographic possibilities’ to describe the spatial and poetic dimensions of their worlds”. The quote within that quote comes from William Rubin’s 1989 book, ‘Picasso and Braque : Pioneering Cubism’, justifying Kean’s leap of faith.

In detail, Kean then compares Braque’s ‘Woman Reading’ with Leura’s ‘Bush Fire Over Kangaroo Camp’ painting – Braque “approaching abstraction by dissolving the distinction between figure and ground”, while Leura “presents a totalised world in which the background and the foreground are united by firelight”. Leura uses patterns of animal tracks to animate the picture plane just as black lines define Braque’s facets.

As for Warangula’s ‘Invention of the Dot’, Kean is clear that it happened “several months” before the notorious Yuendumu Sports Carnival when Pitjanjtajara men complained so indignantly about their Jukurrpa being stolen. His researches included viewing restricted films by Theodore Strehlow shot at a 16-day Honey Ant Dreaming ceremony in which the eagle chick down used to decorate both bodies and ground paintings is clearly blown by the winds in ways that look like the artist’s dots with their frayed edges. Indeed, dot marking on board or canvas has a similar rhythm to the act of affixing the down to the greased bodies of dancers.

So, arguably, Warangula’s fields of dots are a “manifestation of the affective power residing within each ceremonial site” as well as enhancing the power of the storm that he, as “the living embodiment of Winpa the Lightning Man”, was trying to paint so that viewers could experience how it actually feels to be there.

Clearly the other members of the Gang of Four recognised the power of these dots, as can be seen in a contemporaneous series of white paintings by them all, kicked off by Warangula’s 1972 ‘Water Dreaming’. Kean identifies a significant period in Papunya art after Bardon left in August ‘72 and the influential Peter Fannin was appointed to work for PTA the following December. The 25 founding artists were left to their own devices and an amazing 450 works flowed from their brushes.

Later, Tim Leura’s membership of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council in 1974 was key to its commissioning artworks from PTA, which allowed canvas to be afforded for the first time. Five years later, with many of the works unsold, Clifford Possum’s 2.5 x 3.5mtr canvas, ‘Yuutjutiyungu’ saved PTA’s bacon once again at the cost of its disappearing off to be the star work in an American tour. This miracle of the artist’s map-making series incorporates a multiplicity of sites and ancestors’ actions, including a 3D effect as Honey Ants head underground below the canvas surface. Kean now distinguishes the conceptual Possum from the perceptual Leura.

In his conclusion, Kean reminds us of the interculturality which lay behind the art that came from a collision of such different cultures in the deserts. But behind this sharing of spaces and ideas, Kean clearly believes that his hero Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa was primarily using painting as his way of “refusing to submit to the incremental dissolution of his culture”.

‘Dot, Circle & Frame‘ is published by Upswell Publishing at a reasonably priced $70