The Fowler exhibit, “Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya,” features 49 paintings and focuses largely on the early years of Western Desert Painting’s development. A companion exhibit, “Innovations in Western Desert Painting, 1972-1999,” gives museum-goers a chance to see how aboriginal Australians began masking the sacred images in their work. Both exhibits run through August 2, 2009.

“During the early years, they painted these sacred designs. Later, they realized they needed to disguise the sacred designs, and they began experimenting with marketable forms very quickly,” Hamilton explained. Human figures disappeared as the images became more abstract, and natural, traditional earth tones gave way to bold colors.

The aboriginal Australians originally painted the patterns on the ground or on their skin during ceremonies when historical tales were handed down. The designs tell stories of their ancestors creating the landscape and passing down the rights to use sacred sites, Hamilton explained. In the early ’70s, many Aboriginals gathered at Papunya, one of several settlements built by the Australian government to settle people scattered throughout the desert. They were encouraged to relocate to the settlements to be close to services, and although there was a movement to return to their ancestral lands within a few years, enough Aboriginals gathered at Papunya so that modern civilization began to disrupt their traditions, including painting.