It was not until the second half of the 20th century that Aboriginal art gained true international recognition. This is staggering, especially when considering the long history and rich culture of Indigenous Australians; but the explanation is simple. Not until a few decades ago, when provided with art materials ” such as canvases, paints and boards ” did Aboriginal artists create many lasting artworks that one day could become collectible, travel, and educate an international audience.
Though the creation of art has been an essential part of Aboriginal spiritual and ceremonial practices for thousands of years (in order to mark territory or record history for example), it was largely expressed in transient form. Besides a few ceremonial objects and cave paintings, body and temporary ground paintings were much more common. Stories of the Dreamtime, which describe the time when according to Aboriginal belief the world was created, were usually painted in the desert sand and only lasted until a wind would blend them back into nature.
Even in New York, the initial introduction to Aboriginal art and culture did not occur until as recently as 1988 ” when the exhibition Dreaming: The Art of Aboriginal Australia was held at the Asia Society. Included there was a small group of acrylic paintings from a government-established Aboriginal community in Central Australia called Papunya ” representing an art movement which now has become the sole focus of a stunning survey at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery.
Fred Myers, Professor and Chair of Anthropology at NYU ” who undertook his doctoral research around Papunya from 1973-75 when the movement was still in formation ” explains that the exhibition can be considered a local art history of sorts. One can see the formal development of the painting, the diversity of painters, and the crystallization of a visual language, he notes.
Entitled Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya, this exhibition contains about fifty acrylic paintings, all of which were drawn from the Manhattan-based collection of John and Barbara Wilkerson. Fewer than six hundred of these so-called Papunya boards are in existence and they contain a unique status within the history of Australian Aboriginal art as they initiated the so-called Western Desert art movement, in which since Aboriginal artists from many different areas have explored their cultural heritage on permanent surfaces.