Is this the most consequential artwork to emerge from the Australian deserts? Certainly, Tommy Lowry’s Two Men Dreaming at Kuluntjarranya (1984) was hailed as “a pivotal work in the history of Western Desert art” when sold to Americans in 2007, and, as a result, was denied an export permit. Now, after more than a decade travelling around America as part of the controversial ‘Icons of the Desert‘ collection, it’s for sale in Melbourne, and only an Australian can buy it. Encouragingly, the funds raised – $2m. is the asking price – will be used to further the education of First Nations art curators in the US.
Giving the artist his full name, Patjarrngurrarra Tommy Lowry Tjapaltjarri, it’s worth understanding that he was born into a fully nomadic Ngaatjatjarra world at WA’s Patjarr around 1935. As his first name suggests, he was absolutely of that Country. And also of the Wati Kutjarra/Two Men Dreaming Songline.
The anthropologist Fred Myers has written that the Wati Kutjarra were charismatic and much-admired heroes, filled with magical power, these two youths travelled all over the Western Desert, destroying many threatening demons. But they were not totally benevolent heroes. They could be lustful, vengeful, indulgent and erratic, just as young men are to this day. Lowry admired the “wild, uncontrolled and somewhat antisocial” personalities of the two young men.
And perhaps it’s not surprising to learn that Lowry himself was killed in Kintore aged 52 over a game of cards.
And perhaps it’s not unrelated that the primary subject-matter of his greatest painting is the brief moment in the Wati Kutjarra saga when the men overdosed on minykulpa – the desert narcotic plant – and ‘died’. Stretched out on a sand dune, they began urinating, the flow continuing so long that they created several saltpan lakes, the white roundels in his painting. Then they went on with their journey.
Former Papunya Tula Artists worker John Kean – who knew the artist and who’s known this work since it was chosen for the ground-breaking ‘Dreamings‘ show in New York in 1988 – has written a brilliant essay that accompanies the sale. The core of it is:
“[Tommy Lowry] was recognised as one of a handful of artists who achieved a level of artistic accomplishment commensurate with their ceremonial knowledge. This group of extremely talented artists, also including Uta Uta Tjangala, Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, are credited with the consistent production of distinctive personal styles.
“He brought to Western Desert art a directness that comes from ceremony. His paint was viscous and laid down dot to dot in a way that resembles the application of womulu (eaglehawk down and plant matter) on ceremonial ground painting, and directly on to the bodies of participants in those ceremonies. The visceral sense of materiality that he gave to Western Desert art is best exemplified in ‘Two Men Dreaming at Kuluntjarranya‘.
“’Two Men Dreaming at Kuluntjarranya‘ is created with an intensity that sings out directly from ceremonial performance, each of the areas of paint is applied as a whole in [a] concentrated burst of activity, each sequence contributing to the whole, like a series of ceremonies, performed for initiates over successive evenings. This is a work of extraordinary power and authenticity,
“The Wati Kutjarra is one of the longest and most significant songlines in Aboriginal Australia, it traverses country from the Great Australian Bight, meandering through the Great Victoria Desert and beyond to the Gibson Desert and on towards the north west coast of Western Australia. The storyline is one of the greatest of Australian epic narratives. This is arguably the powerful visual representation of the thousand ceremonial sites that mark the journey of the Two Men”.
Apart from that esoteric aspect, it’s also clear how influential ‘Kuluntjarranya‘ was in the subsequent history of Desert art. As John Kean explains, “The application of thick paint in strong parallel lines has become one of the defining attributes of Pintupi painting in the last two decades. It is a quality that has contributed to Papunya Tula paintings’ continued pre-eminence in the crowded market for Western Desert art.
“Just as ‘Kuluntjarranya’ marks a moment of shared excitement around the burgeoning homeland movement in 1984, the painting also anticipates the divergent future of desert art. The bricolage of techniques assembled to create it points towards future developments in Desert art. It is notable that Kuluntjarranya was created six years before Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula’s Straitening Spears at Ilyngaungau, 1990, a painting that popularised the use of closely dotted parallel lines. The array of white dotted lines in the top right of Kuluntjarranya, also gestures towards the minimal approach of more recent paintings by Kunmanara (Ray) Ken at Amata, whereas the bands of the top left roundel predict the monumental works that Ronnie Tjampitjinpa would create in the 1990s”.
And the work was created just as homelanders had arrived in Kintore, where no houses were yet built, only windbreaks for each family. Despite them, the canvas shows clear evidence of windblown sand joining the polymer paint.
Some of Kean’s material comes directly from the Papunya Tula Artists Reference Group report which lead to the 2007 export ban. Other members of the Group were Hetti Perkins, who’d curated the ‘PTA – Genesis and Genius‘ exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2000, and Vivien Johnson, author of ‘Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists’. Experts indeed.
But the American buyers (for $576,000), John and Barbara Wilkerson, appealed time and time again. And did at least gain time with this masterpiece. Though the controversy didn’t end there. Their catalogue for ‘Icons of the Desert’ was roundly condemned by authorities in Australia for publishing a variety of non-Indigenous interpretations of early Papunya boards, and, in Australia, several of those boards had to be blanked out to preserve their ‘secret/sacredness’.
Now, the Wilkersons are giving back. Not only the painting itself, but the net funds which will go to a “top-tier” educational program to assist the careers of Indigenous Australian curators. John Wilkerson says he is in discussion with several east coast US universities about how the program would be established. “There’s a lot of minds involved in crafting it and trying to optimise it,” he told ‘The Art Newspaper’. “I’m providing a vision and the wherewithal to get this program going, but it has to be executed by like minded individuals who are qualified for the education side of it, and that’s not me”.
Wilkerson added: “The success would be measured by looking backwards and seeing how many [Indigenous Australians] are now sitting at the board table where goals, strategies and implementation structures are agreed upon and funded”.
Meanwhile, ‘Two Men Dreaming at Kuluntjarranya‘ is for sale in D’Lan Davidson’s Contemporary gallery at his ‘Significant‘ exhibition, in the Melbourne CBD. ‘Significant‘ also contains rippers by Emily Kngwarreye, Charlie Tarawa, Wally Mandurrk and Milliga Napaltjarri. It’s there until 31st July.
Artist: Tommy Lowry Tjapaltjarri, Uta Uta Tjangala, Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula, Kunmanara (Ray) Ken, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Emily Kngwarreye, Charlie Tarawa, Wally Mandurrk, Milliga Napaltjarri,