It would be impossible to experience the Johnson’s exhibit Icons of the Desert without being profoundly disconcerted. Though the works on display are extremely graphic (so much that they could be confused with the works of Piet Mondrian or Robert Slutsky from a distance — both of whom lingered on patterns as well), these paintings are not to be confused with typical “fine art.” What is disconcerting about this exhibition is explained by their source:
In 1971, an Australian school teacher Geoffrey Bardon traveled deep into the Australian desert to place called Papunya. There, he introduced the indigenous peoples to Western materials of “fine art:” masonite board, paints and brushes. The men of Pupunya produced a series of works in their traditional aesthetic — rollicking swirls, dots in reds, browns and whites and symbolic representations of the human figure. However, the production of these paintings was unprecedented for the people of Pupunya, as they were commodities with no other value than the value of the image itself (unlike, say, decorated objects for the home, or religious body art). The show’s curator, Andrew C. Weislogel, made it clear that Bardon “tapped into existing potential inherent in these men:” the artists currently exhibited were tradesmen whose own work included creative design.
However, unlike Mondrian’s works, which seem to have been born to the canvas — straight orthogonal lines, adhering to the boundaries of the page — these Aboriginal paintings seem to have grown from the wild desert under the bright sun. The paintings of Icons of the Desert, in palette, form and figure, all feel intrinsically tied to the earth and a culture fundamentally different from ours. Their presence in a gallery setting, formally mounted, is jarring.
When asked about the disparity between a Western art gallery and the works of an indigenous people whose works seem to eclipse clean white walls, Weislogel responded “It’s problematic, it’s not straightforward.” Ultimately, nothing is straightforward about this show: from the concealed images of secret ceremonies, to hidden figures painted into the slice of a yam.
It is interesting that many of the paintings have the word “dreaming” in their titles, as it does not refer to what Western culture understands dreams to be. “Dreaming,” for the artists whose works are on exhibit, means a time long ago before people and cities when the world was created. Images of “dreaming” range from what seems like stewing primordial waters, to the silhouettes of the very first humans. Weislogel introduced “Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa” by Johnny Warangkula as the most important work in the piece. It is a rare work because, like several others, it is only being exhibited to women and non-initiates in the United States because the Pupunya elders have deemed us unable to interpret the secrets shown in the paintings. Warangkula’s work, however, uses formal designs to hide the shapes of the ceremonial figures: diagrams key to precious traditions. “The imagery isn’t every day,” Weislogel says. “It’s intensely personal, intensely spiritual.”
Beginning on Tuesday, February 10, visitors to the Johnson will have the unprecedented opportunity to see two Aboriginal artists create a ten-foot-square “ground work” in the gallery using sand and plant fibers. Icons of the Desert will be open through April 5th.