In his seminal text, Aboriginal Art, Wally Caruana provides a succinct introduction to the place, and the art, of the wonderful western desert artists of Australia:
“The deserts are places rich in spiritual meaning and physical sustenance.
The desert region is home to a number of Aboriginal groups sharing mainly common cosmology and social systems, as well as art traditions. Across this landscape spreads a web of ancestral paths travelled by the supernatural beings on their journeys of creation in the Jukurrpa or Dreaming.
The first European explorers came in 1860 and occupied the best grazing land around Hermannsburg. Waterholes were polluted and many groups of Aboriginal people were forced off their traditional lands. Groups right across the desert were affected by the influx of refugees from settled areas, and diseases, long before they even sighted Europeans.
In 1941 Haasts Bluff, west of Alice Springs, was declared a reserve, and by 1955 government settlements were established at Yuendumu and Lajamanu, with the last settlement of the assimilation era created at Papunya in 1960. Aboriginal people were taken to live in these settlements, under government policies, until 1966. In the 70s, federal political changes permitted and sometimes encouraged people to move back to their ancestral lands.
Classical desert art takes many forms, from decorated weapons and implements to personal adornments, from sacred and secret incised boards and stones, often called tjuringa, to rock engravings and paintings, and the more ephemeral arts of body painting, sand drawings, ceremonial constructions and ground paintings.
The basic elements of pictorial art are limited in number but broad in meaning. The iconography of desert art is separate and distinct from that of Arnhem Land. Conventional designs and icons may denote place or site, or indicate paths or movements. Concentric circles may denote a site, a camp, a waterhole, or a fire. In ceremony, the concentric circle provides the means for the ancestral power which lies within the earth to surface and go back into the ground. Meandering and straight lines may indicate lightning or water courses, or they may describe the paths of ancestors and supernatural beings. Tracks of animals and humans are also part of the lexicon of desert imagery. U-shapes usually represent settled people or breasts, while arcs may be boomerangs or wind-breaks, and short straight lines or bars are often spears and digging sticks. Fields of dots can indicate sparks, fir, burnt ground, smoke, clouds, rain, and other phenomena.
The interpretations of these designs are multiple and simultaneous, and depend upon the viewer’s ritual knowledge of a site and the associated Dreaming.”
At the beginning of this year, relishing the intensity of the all pervading heat I travelled to Yuendumu, in the Tanami Desert, to live and work in that community. Later, when I left that extraordinary place, I brought home a selection of beautiful paintings, many of which I have reproduced below. They are accompanied by their stories, as provided by the artists.
(2016 – I have just been enjoying my memories of this wonderful place and it struck me that it may seem odd to the occasional visitor to my website that there are no images of Aboriginal people among the text and photos. This is no accident. I have deliberately excluded the locals from the pictures of Yuendumu. As much as I would have liked to include them, it is important to establish a protocol which is centred on the achievements of the artists)
Copyright of all artworks and texts remains with the artists and Aboriginal traditional owners and is administered on their behalf by Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Corporation.
Warlukurlangu Artists of Yuendumu
Sabrina Nangala Robertson
Mina Mina Jukurrpa (Mina Mina Dreaming) – Ngalyipi
107 x 46 cm Cat 223/15
The country associated with this Jukurrpa is Mina Mina, a place far to the west of Yuendumu which is significant to Napangardi/Napanangka women and Japangardi/Japanangka men. All of them are custodians of the Jukurrpa that created the area. This Jukurrpa tells of the journey of a group of women of all ages who travelled to the east gathering food, collecting ‘ngalyipi’ (snake vine [Tinospora smilacina]) and performing ceremonies as they travelled. The women began their journey at Mina Mina where ‘karlangu’ (digging sticks) emerged from the ground. Taking these implements, the women travelled east creating Janyinki and other sites. Their journey took them far to the east beyond Walpiri country. The ‘ngalyipi’ vine grows up the trunks and limbs of the ‘kurrkara’ (desert oak [Allocasuarina decaisneana]) trees. ‘Ngalyipi’ is a sacred vine to Napangardi and Napanangka women that has many uses. It can be used as a ceremonial wrap, as a strap to carry ‘parrajas’ (wooden bowls) that are laden with bush tucker, and as a tourniquet for headaches.
Pauline Nampijinpa Singleton
Yankirri Jukurrpa (Emu Dreaming) – Ngarlikurlangu
61 x 61 cm Cat 204/15
This particular site of the Yankirri Jukurrpa (Emu Dreaming [Dromaius novaehollandiae] is at Ngarlikurlangu, north of Yuendumu. The ‘yankirri’ travelled to the rockhole at Ngarlikurlangu to find water. This Jukurrpa story belongs to Jangala/Jampijinpa men and Nangala/Nampijinpa women. In contemporary Warlpiri paintings traditional iconography is used to represent the Jukurrpa, associated sites and other elements. Emus are usually represented by their ‘wirliya’ (footprints), arrow-like shapes that show them walking around Ngarlikurlangu eating ‘yakajirri’ (bush raisin [Solanum central]). In the time of the Jukurrpa there was a fight at Ngarlikurlangu between a ‘yankirri’ ancestor and Wardilyka (Australian bustard [Ardeotis australis]) ancestors over sharing the ‘yakajirri’. There is also a dance for this Jukurrpa that is performed during initiation ceremonies.
Steven Japanangka Marshall
Pikilyi Jukurrpa (Vaughan Springs Dreaming)
76 x 61 cm Cat 228/10
Pikilyi is a large and important waterhole and natural spring near Mount Doreen station. Pikilyi Jukurrpa (Vaughan Springs Dreaming) tells of the home of two rainbow serpents, ancestral heroes who lived together as man and wife. The woman ‘rainbow serpent’ was of the Napanangka skin group, the man was Japangardi. This was a taboo relationship contrary to Warlpiri religious law. Women of the Napanangka and Napangardi subsection sat by the two serpents, picking lice of them. For this service, the two serpents allowed the women to take water from the springs at Pikilyi. This was because the serpents were the ‘kirda’, or ceremonial owners for that country. The spirits of these two rainbow serpents are still at Pikilyi today.
Rosie Nangala Flemming
Yankirri Jukurrpa (Emu Dreaming) – Ngarlikurlangu
30 x 30 cm Cat 1989/12
This particular site of the Yankirri Jukurrpa (Emu Dreaming [Dromaius novaehollandiae]) is at Ngarlikurlangu, north of Yuendumu. The ‘yankirri’ travelled to the rockhole at Ngarlikurlangu to find water. This Jukurrpa belongs to Jangala/Jampijinpa men and Nangala/Nampijinpa women. In contemporary Warlpiri paintings traditional iconography is used to represent the Jukurrpa, associated sites and other elements. Emus are usually represented by their ‘wirliya’ (footprints), arrow-like shapes that show them walking aroung Ngarlikurlangu eating ‘yakajirri’ (bush raisin [Solanum central]). In the time of the Jukurrpa there was a fight at Ngarlikurlangi between a ‘yankirri’ ancestor and Wardilyka (Australian bustard [Ardeotis australis]) ancestors over sharing the ‘yakajirri’. There is also a dance for this Jukurrpa that is performed during initiation ceremonies.
Mickey Jampijinpa Singleton
Ngapa Jukurrpa (Water Dreaming) – Puyurru
107 x 30 cm Cat 112-15ny
The site depicted in this painting is Puyurru, west of Yuendumu. In the usually dry creek beds are ‘mulju’ (soakages), or naturally occurring wells. The ‘kirda’ (owners) for this site are Nangala/Nampjinpa woman and Jangala/Jampijinpa men. Two Jangala men, rainmakers, sang the rain, unleashing a giant storm. The storm travelled across the country from the east to the west, initially travelling with a ‘pampardu Jukurrpa’ (termite Dreaming) from Warntungurru to Warlura, a waterhole 8 miles east of Yuendumu. At Warlura, a gecko called Yumariyumari blew the storm on to Lapurrukurra and Wilpiri. Bolts of lightning shot out at Wirnpa (also called Mardinymardinypa) and at Kanaralji. At this point the Dreaming track also includes the ‘kurdkurdu mangkurdu Jukurrpa’ (children of the clouds Dreaming). The water Dreaming built hills at Ngamangama using baby clouds and also stuck long pointy clouds into the ground at Jukajuka, where they can still be seen today as rock formations.
The termite Dreaming eventually continued west to Nyirrpi, a community approximately 160 km west of Yuendumu. The water Dreaming then travelled from the south over Makanji, a watercourse with soakages northwest of Yuendumu. At Mikanji, the storm was picked up by a ‘kirrkarlanji’ (brown falcon [Falco berigora]) and taken further north. At Puyurra, the falcon dug up a giant ‘warnayarra’ (rainbow serpent). The serpent carried water with it to create another large lake, Jillyumpa, close to an outstation in this country. The ‘kirda’ (owners) of this story are Jangala men and Nangala women. After stopping at Puyurra, the Water Dreaming travelled on through other locations including Yalyarilalku, Mikilyparnta, Katalpi, Lungkardajarra, Jirawarnpa, Kamira, Yurrunjuku, and Jikaya before moving on to Gurindji country to the north.
In contemporary Warlpiri paintings, traditional iconography is used to represent the ‘Jukurrpa’ (Dreaming), associated sites, and other elements. In many paintings of this Dreaming, short dashes are often used to represent ‘mangkurdu’ (cumulus & stratocumulus clouds), and longer, flowing lines represent ‘ngawarra’ (flood waters). Small circles are used to depict ‘mulju’ (soakages) and river beds.
Bessie Nakamarra Sims
Karnta Jukurrpa (Women’s Dreaming)
91 x 76 cm Cat 4542/09
This painting depicts Nakamarra and Napurrurla women hunting for bush foods. The sacred site associated with this Jukurrpa is represented as a circle around which the women sit. They are looking for sweet berries that are only available at certain times of the year. The ‘kirda’ (custodians) for this story are the Nakamarra/Napurrurla women and Jakamarra/Jupurrurla men.
Mickey Jampijinpa Singleton
Ngapa Jukurrpa (Water Dreaming) – Puyurra
122 x 61 cm Cat 637/14ny
The site depicted in this painting is Puyurra, west of Yuendumu. In the usually dry creek beds are soakages or naturally occurring wells. Two Jangala men, rainmakers, sang the rain, unleashing a giant storm. It travelled across the country, with the lightning striking the land. This storm met up with another storm from Wapurtali, to the west, was picked up by a ‘kkirrkarlan’ (brown falcon [Falco berigora]) and carried further west until it dropped the storm at Purlungyanu, where it created a giant soakage. At Puyurru the bird dug up a giant snake, ‘warnayarra’ (the rainbow serpent) and the snake carried water to create the large lake, Jillyiumpa, close to an outstation in this country. This story belongs to the Jangala men and Nangala women. In contemporary Warlpiri paintings traditional iconography is used to represent the Jukurrpa, associated sites and other elements. In many paintings of this Jukurrpa curved and straight lines represent the ‘ngawarra’ (flood waters) running through the landscape. Motifs frequently used to depict this story include small circles representing ‘mulju’ (water soakages) and short bars depicting ‘mangkurdu’ (cumulus and stratocumulus clouds).
Alicka Napanangka Brown
Yanjirlpirri or Napaljarri-Warnu Jukurrpa (Star or Seven Sisters Dreaming)
91 x 30 cm Cat 50-15
The Napaljarri-Warnu Jukurrpa (Seven Sisters Dreaming) depicts the story of the seven ancestral Napaljarri sisters who are found in the night sky today in the cluster of the seven stars in the constellation Taurus, more commonly known as the Pleiades. The Pleiades are seven women of the Napaljarri skin group and are often depicted in paintings of this Jukurrpa carrying the Jampijinpa man ‘wardilyka’ (the bush turkey [Ardeotis Australia]) who is in love with the Napaljarri-warnu and who represents the Orion’s Belt cluster of stars. Jukurra-jukurra, the morning star, is a Jakamarra man who is also in love with the seven Napaljarri sisters and is often shown chasing them across the night sky. In a final attempt to escape from the Jakamarra the Napaljarri-warnu turned themselves into fire and ascended to the heavens to become stars. The custodians of the Napaljarri-warnu Jukurrpa are closely associated with men’s sacred ceremonies of a very secretive nature.
Yanjirlpirri Jukurrpa (Star Dreaming) tells of the journey of Japaljarri and Jungarrayi men who travelled from Kurlurngalinypa (near (Lajamanu) to Yanjirlypirri (west of Yuendumu) and then on to Lake Mackay on the West Australian border. Along the way they performed ‘kurdiji’ (initiation ceremonies) for young men. Women also danced for the ‘kurdiji’. The site depicted in this canvas is Yanjirlypiri (star) where there is a low hill and a water soakage. The importance of this place cannot be overemphasized as young boys are brought here to be initiated from as far as Pitjanjatjara country to the south and Lajamanu to the north.
In contemporary Warlpiri paintings traditional iconography is used to represent the Jukurrpa, associated sites and other elements. Often depicted in paintings for this Jukurrpa is the female star Yantarlarangi (Venus – the Evening Star) who chases the seven Napaljarri sisters for having stolen the night from her.
Stephanie Napurrurla Nelson
Janganpa Jukurrpa (Brush-tail Possum Dreaming) – Mawurrji
76 x 76 cm Cat 45444/14
Janganpa Jukurrpa (common brush-tail possum [Trichosurus vulpecula] Dreaming) travels all over Warlpiri country. ‘Janganpa’ are nocturnal animals that often nest in the hollows of white gum trees (‘wapunungka’). This story comes from a big hill called Mawurrji, west of Yuendumu and north of Pikilyi (Vaughan Springs). A group of ‘janganpa’ ancestors resided there. Every night they would go out in search of food. Their hunting trips took them to Wirlki and Wanapirdi, where they found ‘pamapardu’ (flying ants). They journeyed on to Ngarlkirdipini looking for water. A Nampijinpa woman was living at Mawurrji with her two daughters. She gave her daughters in marriage to a Jupurrurla ‘janganpa’ but later decided to run away with them. The Jupurrurla angrily pursued the women. He tracked them to Mawurrji where he killed them with a stone axe. Their bodies are now rocks at this place. Warlpiri people perform a young men’s initiation ceremony which involves the Janganpa Jukurrpa. The Janganpa Jukurrpa belongs to the Jakamarra/Jupurrurla men and the Nakamarra/Napurrurla women. In Warlpiri paintings traditional iconography is used to represent this Jukurrpa. ‘Janganpa’ tracks are often represented as ‘E’ shaped figures and concentric circles are used to depict the trees in which the ‘Janganpa’ live, and also the sites at Mawurrji.