A bold aesthetic: the Lajamanu panels

The first Lajamanu paintings have an explosive vigour rarely encountered in the field of Aboriginal art. These large works in shiny house paint and shouting colours hit the viewer like a bombshell, challenging our preconceptions about Aboriginal painting. Where are the miniscule dots, the tonal nuances, the complex tessellations and meanders of the Papunya Tula style? Where are the quiescent ochres and organic supports of ‘tradition’? Rough and ‘unpractised’, the Gallery’s Lajamanu collection belongs squarely to the twentieth century. As such, it reflects incongruous elements of settlement living – ‘neon sign’ colours, violent video images, trail bikes, card games and tucker in tins. Yet, more importantly, the forty-two works on uneven, recycled parts of houses affirm, as Abe Jangala states, that: ‘Yapakurlangu or Aboriginal law is still our law. It is the law of Walyajarra, the people who lived and died a thousand years ago, and we cannot change that’.1Stories from Lajamanu, Northern Territory Department of Education, Darwin, 1985, p. 4. 

The paintings proclaim the shared belief system that must be retained for Warlpiri survival and serve as symbolic charters to the land. In the truth of their content – blatant in comparison with some of the more reticent current canvases – lies their power for the makers. 

The Lajamanu Aboriginal community (originally named Hooker Creek) is situated on the edge of the Tanami Desert, mid-way between Alice Springs and Darwin, in country belonging to the Gurindji people. The settlement was established in 1949 by the Native Affairs Branch of the federal government, with twenty-five Warlpiri trucked there from Yuendumu (a sister Warlpiri settlement established in 1946). In 1951 a further 150 Warlpiri were trucked there from Yuendumu … ‘Again nobody was asked if they wanted to go, they were just told’.2ibid. Faced with being away from their Dreaming sites, the people simply walked back, all the way, to Yuendumu, a distance of some 400 kilometres. The notion of being cut off from close relatives and from sources of spiritual power is never taken lightly by Aboriginal people. In fact, two further resettlements and Aboriginal walkbacks to Yuendumu occurred, in 1958 and 1968, before older Warlpiri residents were prepared to accept the new community at Hooker Creek. 

The transition to settlement living created some shattering social problems for many of the original inhabitants. Maurice Jupurrula Luther remembers: 

The superintendent used to line up the people in the morning, like in an army camp, men across here, children in the front, women across the back … Everybody had to shave, everybody had to have short hair, everybody had to have clean clothes, everybody had to wear shoes. All the workers in the settlement were trained ‘Army style’ and they had to March! March with their heads up and arms straight and legs moving in time. If we didn’t do it properly we had to get back to the parade and line up again … We were nothing to [the superintendent] we just had to obey. We were just like toy soldiers on a table he could play around with.3ibid., p. 12. 

Ronnie Jakamarra Lawson sums up the people’s sense of disempowerment and loss when he says: ‘Now you will not find many people with those strong ngangkaya stones inside their bodies any more. We have become weak from sweet food and drinking cordial’.4ibid., p. 29. Beneath the chronic health problems associated with poor diet and dust ingestion lies the root cause of dislocation for the Warlpiri of Lajamanu – severance from their Dreaming country and the breakdown of the nomadic life-style. Reassurance issues primarily from deep attachment to land as a sacred icon which, as Maurice Jupurrula Luther implies, is unalterable and unquestioned: ‘I not only learned the white man’s way, but I also learned … where my country was and where my dreaming starts and ends’.5ibid., p. 13. As Abe Jangala explains: 

According to our law other people could not come to my dreaming country, just as I could not come to theirs. That is why I always went back to the same place. My father taught me the Water-dreaming, that belongs to Jangala and Jampijinpa. One of the Dreamtime heroes, from whom Jangala and Jampijinpa are descended, travelled through that country from Thompson’s Rockhole to Kurlupurlurnu, a lake south of Lajamanu. This is country of the Water-Rain-Clouds-and-Thunder-dreaming and is therefore sacred to us.6ibid., p. 2.

The visual economy of works such as Abe Jangala’s Water Dreaming 1986 (fig. 1), stripped of artifice and subsidiary patterning, confirms the artist’s certainty of the ‘eternal’ or ‘uncreated’ laws of existence, laid down in the Jukurrpa (Dreaming). The artist shows power rain, imaged by random curving lines, emanating from the sacred site of Ngutpulurrngu, a permanent water source represented by the central roundel. This natural spring was formed by the actions of the water ancestor (ngapa) who awoke from his eternal sleep and burst up through the earth’s surface. From here ngapa spread out, soaking the country, accompanied by lightning, shown by parallel bars. The painting stamps Jangala’s authority over the Water Dreaming and his responsibility to care for a particular tract of land through which the water ancestor travelled and left his sacred power. The right to paint this specific design, the personal property of the artist, is held in trust from Jangala’s father. It will eventually pass to Abe’s son, thus ensuring that this Dreaming – its songs, dances, designs and layers of meaning – lives on and is perpetually recreated in ritual and art. 

In Lajamanu paintings such as this, feeling, knowing and touching country, kin and the spirit world transcend the western imperative to reproduce what is seen in nature. Yet Abe’s Water Dreaming differs from many other examples of Aboriginal art because it relies on primary colour and form, not modulated, composite tones and tessellations. To explain why this is so, we must first explore the context in which these works were painted. 

Lajamanu Warlpiri art, like that of the Yuendumu Warlpiri, began with a series of ‘action paintings’ produced communally with encouragement from local educators. In place of functioning school doors, made use of at Yuendumu in 1983–84, the artists worked on huge sheets of composition board taken from derelict houses. There was nothing neat or pristine about either their recycled materials or their method of working. The catalyst at Lajamanu was an Adult Education officer, John Quinn who, as late as March–April 1986, organised a Traditional Painting Course in the local TAFE (Technical and Further Education) centre.7John Quinn began as a teacher at the Lajamanu Bilingual Community School in November 1982, before his time as adult educator in 1986. For further details of the TAFE project, in which about eighty senior men and women were involved, see J. Ryan, Mythscapes: Aboriginal Art of the Desert, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1989, pp. 82–6. 

Before 1986, in spite of the success of the Papunya Tula movement, there were conservative forces operating within the Lajamanu community, inhibiting the production of art for sale. Paradoxically, the Lajamanu artists were far from reluctant to make ground paintings in an exhibition context and were a much-travelled group. In 1982 they produced a sand painting for the Sydney Biennale and the following year twelve of them ventured to Paris to make a large ground design for an exhibition of contemporary Australian art – D’un Autre Continent: L’Australie le Rêve et le Réel. On such visits they noticed Papunya Tula artists painting commercially on the pavement. At first the older men were scornful and feared that the Papunya painters might have lost their mythologically sanctioned rights in land by giving away too much of their secret heritage. Their attitude is strongly worded in the catalogue: 

We will never put this kind of painting on to canvas, or on to art board, or on to any ‘permanent’ medium. The permanence of these designs is in our minds. We do not need museums or books to remind us of our traditions. We are forever renewing and recreating those traditions in our ceremonies.8D’un Autre Continent: L’Australie le Rêve et le Réel, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris, 1983, p. 49. 

Part of their reticence may have stemmed from the controversy at Papunya in 1972–73 when founding artists inadvertently included depictions of sacred objects (tjurunga) and ritual head ornaments (wanigi) in works brought into Alice Springs for sale.9See Ryan, Mythscapes, p. 27. This perhaps accounts for the Lajamanu artists’ delay in starting to paint. 

Before the TAFE project began, the communal elders held a large meeting where some of these problems were raised. Important figures in the discussion included Peter Blacksmith Japanangka, Abe Jangala and Lumi Jakamarra Walker (now deceased). Finally, in late 1985, the elders who still control communal and tribal law reversed their Paris resolution that ‘we are not, and do not ever, want to become professional painters’10D’un Autre Continent, p. 49. and determined instead to present Europeans ‘with a glimpse of the way we venerate the sacred Heroes who have given us our identity so that Europeans can have some understanding of what we are, and of how strongly we feel about being allowed to remain ourselves’.11ibid. As in other desert communities, the people of their own volition decided that painting was a means of holding onto their sacred custody of the land. 

After the project had been officially sanctioned, John Quinn remembers that in March 1986 about forty senior men and a similar number of older women gathered in the Lajamanu TAFE centre. Here the men worked tirelessly, in a ‘frenzy’ of excitement, paralleling the atmosphere at Papunya seventeen years earlier when about thirty-five ritually mature men first experimented with western materials under the guidance of Geoffrey Bardon. The major difference was one of scale. Instead of scraps of fruit-box ends, floor tiles, narrow wedges of plywood or composition board, the artists appropriated huge sheets, 2.5 x 1.3 metres, of unwieldy, untransportable composition board. The resultant works, forty-two of which are in the Gallery’s collection,* have a raw, untrammelled vigour, quite unlike the miniaturised intensity of the first Papunya works. As at Papunya, materials could not keep pace with demand. Sometimes only cardboard and tins of red or white high-gloss enamel house paint were available, but this did not deter the artists’ frenetic creativity. 

It is interesting to note that the artists consulted, from time to time, the two publications then available on Papunya Tula art – Geoffrey Bardon’s Aboriginal Art of the Western Desert and Andrew Crocker’s Mr Sandman Send Me a Dream. One of the few Papunya Tula works to prefigure the ‘bare bones’ approach taken by the Lajamanu artists is Old Walter Tjampitjinpa’s Man’s Water Dreaming 1971 (fig. 2) in red and white house paint on a tiny piece of composition board. Tjampitjinpa shows a custodian of the Water Dreaming, indicated by the double half circles, sitting at a waterhole represented by concentric circles. Running water is depicted by the spiralling lines permeating the desert sand, shown by dots. As Bardon notes, ‘these simple motifs declare the essence of the Water Dreaming concept’12G. Bardon, Aboriginal Art of the Western Desert, Rigby, Adelaide, 1979, p. 24. so vital for the survival of desert people. Bardon touches on its intangible power when he says: 

The Water Spirit Being is the corroboree man singing at his fireplace in a cave and inducing the sky to rain. It rains but he does not partake of the rain. He does not get wet; he is the rain itself. Sometimes people can see his fire at night in his cave in the mountains after a storm.13ibid. 

This classic water (ngapa) design in red and white house paint is found on five of the Gallery’s Lajamanu works – all equally free of extraneous detail. None of these versions, by members of the Jangala/Jampijinpa subsection, deals with the impact of rain on country, the burgeoning of wildflowers and bush tucker, so often the subject of works by Luritja artist Johnny Warrangula Tjupurrula. The ‘pointillist’ effects of dots and overdotting characteristic of his painting technique have no place in any of the Lajamanu works. A clear instance of this is Peter Jangala Ross’s Water Dreaming 1986 (fig. 3) in red and white high-gloss enamel. The iconography of this work echoes that of Old Walter’s quintessential version, although Jangala is Warlpiri and Tjampitjinpa (deceased) was Pintupi. A major distinction is one of place. Tjampitjinpa depicts the sacred site of Kalipimpinpa, six days’ walk north-west of Sandy Blight Junction, in Pintupi country. Jangala, by contrast, represents the important site of Yumurrpa in Warlpiri territory. In place of the water spirit being, Jangala represents rain clouds, shown by the paired bars, and lightning, the long bars. 

This manifestation of the Water Dreaming, that of lightning, is given prominence by Freddy Patrick Jangala in his forceful version, Water and Lightning Dreaming 1986 (fig. 4). Here the composition is dominated by three potent verticals which show big bars of red and yellow lightning or ‘cheeky rain’. The lightning struck ‘one, two, three times’ in the Jukurrpa (Dreaming) to make ‘big rain’ right up to Darwin. Lightning (wirnpa), which ‘splits the clouds and trees’, has been referred to by Meggitt as the ‘penis of the Rain Dreaming’14M.J. Meggitt, Desert People: A Study of the Walbiri Aborigines of Central Australia, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1962, p. 68. and, according to Munn, may be personified ‘as a young man who stands up’ and ‘goes into the sky’15N. D. Munn, Walbiri Iconography: Graphic Representation and Cultural Representation and Cultural Symbolism in a Central Australian Society, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1973, p. 180. as in this work. The notion of fertilising the land, indeed of fertility itself, is crucial to the Water Dreaming complex, borne out by the fact that raindrops are thought of as ‘children’. Above the lightning Jangala has shown small clouds moving in to bring rain which, after lightning has struck, is imaged in criss-crossing paths. The red graphs with yellow edges dramatise the movement of the Cloud-Rain-Water-Lightning Dreaming through the land.

When documenting this work with the artist in the absence of the painting, I asked Freddy Patrick to sketch it from memory. This he did, shakily but unerringly, proving the design to be part of himself, his property as a man. The nervous, clumsy use of the biro showed that he, in common with other Lajamanu older artists, had not learnt to use a pencil or brush. Fingers and sticks would probably have sufficed at first, evidenced by the thick and uneven splotches of paint and crooked lines. Such spontaneous effects serve to intensify the content and heighten the visual impact of Jangala’s Water and Lightning Dreaming. Messy, almost gestural, the artist’s technique is in accord with men ‘painting up big for ceremony’ without fussing with surgical cotton sticks on a stretched canvas. 

The only parallel for this bold Lajamanu aesthetic exists in the set of thirty-six school doors painted with major Dreaming designs by Warlpiri male elders at Yuendumu in 1983-84.16See Warlukurlangu Artists, Kuruwarri: Yuendumu Doors, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1987, in which thirty of the doors are illustrated and fully documented in Warlpiri and English. Their intention was to teach the children their law so that they would not grow up like white people with no Jukurrpa (Dreaming). Working with the brash speed of graffiti artists, these five painters dared to challenge Papunya Tula convention and opted for bright colours, scribbling their designs down with untidy abandon. No white advisers attempted to school these painters in the niceties of their craft. They were painting for themselves alone, independent of market expectations. Their works are therefore at one with the fabric of the community17Ironically, the thirty-six doors have since been defaced with graffiti by Warlpiri teenagers and young adults who resisted this statement of authority from the elders. and have not been made subject to the notion of an Aboriginal arts industry. Neither the message nor the means of communication has been watered down by the pressure to service the needs of corporation board rooms or those who would buy for investment. This absence of white intervention is of vital import for Warlpiri people, as Maurice Jupurrula Luther stresses: 

We have no great affection for anthropologists or art advisers because our ceremony is, by the decrees of the Supernatural Heroes, sanctioned by time immemorial, exclusive in its essence. The people who know our traditions through and through are our old people. They require service, and are not of a mind to have thrust upon them unrequested analysis and advice concerning matters upon which they, and only they, have expertise and authority.18D’un Autre Continent, pp. 23–4. 

The Gallery’s Lajamanu collection is also an art of free gesture divorced from inhibiting market demands, and inextricably bound up with communal living. Apart from their obvious Warlpiri connectedness, however, the two painting styles are distinguishable. One difference is that Lajamanu artists have eschewed naturalistic motifs, apart from schematised snakes. The panels are all hieroglyph to the exclusion of animate form, akin to Pintupi paintings but in bright colours. There are no realistic depictions of spears, boomerangs, woomeras, trees or human footprints, all of which enliven the hyperbolic Yuendumu doors. 

Most of the backgrounds are composed of monochrome white dots, as in Dick Japaljarri Raymond’s Budgerigar Dreaming 1986 (fig. 5). The compositional field is kept sparse – unlike the busy, cluttered vistas of recent canvases. The use of white as a ground serves to heighten the ancestral graphs which are isolated in space and can be read without confusion or camouflage, like graphic symbols written on a clean sheet of paper, Japaljarri tells of budgerigar ancestors who emerged from a place called Wirliyajarrayi, represented by the central roundel; some travelled through Chilla Well, others went to Tanami. The arcs above and below the lines, indicating ancestral travel in two directions, represent Japaljarri/Jungarrayi men and Napaljarri/ Nungarrayi women, custodians of the Budgerigar Dreaming. The irregular cross shapes are tracks of the budgerigar ancestor, large in scale to emphasise their importance. The short bars are nulla nullas or clapsticks used for Budgerigar Increase ceremonies. As with Abe Jangala’s Water and Emu Dreaming 1986 (fig. 6) the design is terse and concentrated and serves as an exemplar, crystallising the elemental core of the artist’s Dreaming. The style is boldly linear rather than flamboyantly painterly or baroque as in many of the Yuendumu doors. The use of a startling white ground is in marked contrast to the dark priming Geoffrey Bardon taught at Papunya and which has generally been followed elsewhere. 

In keeping with the uncompromising rigour of this language of ‘hieroglyphs in space’, close to ritual designs found on the body, in sand or on sacred objects (tjurunga), human figures are not directly depicted. The tiny decorated performers included in early Papunya works, such as Mick Namerari Tjapaltjarri’s Medicine Story 1972 (fig. 7), or of spirit men depicted in Paddy Japaljarri Stewart’s Two Men Dreaming 1984, are deliberately excluded. Spirit ancestors are visible only by their trace, the sign or mark of their presence in a metaphysical landscape conceived of as a constellation of sacred, named places. Ancestral power is recreated, made manifest in objects or symbols. Hence we see spirit men symbolised by clusters of parallel straight lines, standing for spears or travelling paths in Jack Jungarrayi’s Two Men Dreaming 1972 (fig. 8) and Paddy Japaljarri Gibson’s Two Men Dreaming. The presence of the two men – one Japaljarri, the other Jungarrayi – is doubly reinforced by the repeated half-circles showing their seated presence at a succession of sites which bear their spirit essence. The small loops attached to some sites in Jungarrayi’s Two Men Dreaming (Watijarra) indicate novices for instruction. Characteristic of many of these older men’s works is the dominant vertical thrust of the composition which, as Munn has noted, is an allusion to masculine potency.


Another work characterised by reiterated elongated marks is Joe Japanangka James’s Rock Wallaby Dreaming at Pulaja 1986 (fig. 9). The composition is cascaded by wallaby-tail tracks, signifying the penis of the rock wallaby ancestor. The central striated section is on one level a geometric allusion to head-dresses used in men’s ceremonies, but also indicates the caves in Pulaja country where the ancestor rested in the heat of the sun. The large arcs represent Japanangka and Japangardi men seated at important sites. The small loops below the central lower roundel depict novices for instruction. The work has a raw gestural quality which is matched by Juntiyi Japaljarri’s Rainbow Snake Dreaming at Lapi Lapi 1986 (fig. 10). In this iridescent vision of metaphysical landscape, devoid of black and white pigments, Japaljarri shows two strident rainbow snake ancestors from Lapi Lapi (near Lake Hazlett) who brought people to an important ceremony in the ancestral past. These large snakes were hungry, and bit the participants during the ceremony, a reference to initiation. When the snakes finished travelling they went back into the ground. This painting in its unconstrained vibrancy reflects Warlpiri belief that the rainbow snake lives under the water of many Dreaming sites and that his body shines with the colours of the rainbow and lightning. The rainbow snake is also thought to have the power to send out rain. Each time he emerged from his underground travel he made an eternal spring, imaged in concentric circles which echo the meanders of the snake. 

The potent force of the snake ancestor is immortalised in Peter Blacksmith Japanangka’s Snake Dreaming 1986 (fig. 11). Japanangka depicts the snake who came from the salt water in Western Australia, travelling with fire in search of water. When the snake man and his brother reached Catfish (Mundululu), they found a large group of barramundi, catfish and other fish ancestors all speaking the Gurindji language. The fish said to throw boomerangs at the snake because he was usurping their waterhole. The snake became frightened and retreated to Wadjipilli, a spring 25 kilometres from Lajamanu. The snake’s journey was followed by a rainbow, then by rain. This is the power of the snake which replenishes the land, and out of whose body more snakes spring. By caring for and performing ceremonies at Wadjipilli, the artist’s grandfather’s Dreaming place, the continuity of the species and of Japanangka/Japangardi subsections is ensured. 

The painting was retouched prior to its purchase because much of the blue-black pigment had weathered in the community. Japanangka worked with freshly-purchased acrylic and a brush pieced together from a stick and part of a broom, assisted by his wife Florrie Napurrula Blacksmith. He commented that he was ‘making the snakes and the waterholes strong and alive again’. Napurrula applied some dots but touched none of the graphic symbols – the source of mythological content. Japanangka’s remark reminds us that for Warlpiri people the very act of painting is one of ritual recreation and renewal whereby the life-giving myths break through into the present from the heroic past. The power of the snake has been ‘sung’ into the painting; the law has been fulfilled. 

Equally expansive in its visual impact is Fred Jigili Jampijinpa’s Big Rain Dreaming 1986 (fig. 12). The tracks of ancestral emu and water whoosh across the surface, writ large in the imagination of the artist. The central roundel represents Pirlinyanu, the artist’s father’s sacred place where there is an important cave. From here a big rain (ngapa) spreads out from two ancestors, Jampijinpa and Jangala, who are still the custodians of this specific Dreaming, crucial for the survival of desert people. The work is untrammelled in its energy, which is a major feature of all of the panels. It is as if the act of painting on a solid, uneven piece of board – chipped and worn through use – is closer to the traditional surfaces of ground and body. It seems to have promoted in the Warlpiri painters an unselfconscious fluency of technique which is all too readily curtailed by the transition to the marketable surface of canvas. 

Of interest in this regard is Juntiyi Japaljarri’s Bush Potato Dreaming 1986 (fig. 13), painted shortly after his works on composition board. Instead of the riotous colouration of his Rainbow Snake Dreaming at Lapi Lapi (fig. 10), the composition has been built up in layers on a black ground. Subtle tonalities and colour mixes, as in the work of Johnny Warrangula Tjupurrula, Nintaka and the Mala (Wallaby) Men 1973 (fig. 14), have been heightened by dotting and the spare use of red and yellow pigments. The bush potato (yarla) springing from waterhole to waterhole, shown by lines running through a network of roundels, suggests fructification. 

This principle of fertility, of magical increase, is celebrated in two further works – Paddy Japaljarri Gibson’s Marsupial Mouse Dreaming 1986 (fig. 15) and Kenny Jupurrula Walker’s Snake Dreaming (fig. 16). Japaljarri shows the ancestral paths of the marsupial mouse ancestor (jungunypa), represented by the meander of his tail (penis) bisecting two lines of paw marks. The concentric circles show the hole or camp of the mouse where its young are born and also signify special places for Japaljarri and Jungarrayi men – custodians of this Dreaming. The design is marked by a profusion of serpentine tail paths evocative of the increase of the species. It is these core designs of the path (male) and camp (female) which are used on the body of the dancer to represent the jungunypa (marsupial mouse) in men’s banba or fertility ceremonies. As Munn explains:

In this ceremony, the elaborate headgear, consisting of two large circular forms [constructed of red ochre and feather down] pancaked one on top of the other, represents the hole or nest (camp) of the mouse where its young are laid. Lines of red and white fluff winding from the headdress across the face and around the torso represent the mouse’s tail (penis and path).19Munn, Warlbiri Iconography, p. 200. 

The dancer is therefore decked out in forms representing both female and male elements, the camp and path, expressed in the combination of linear body design and circular head-dress. The dancer’s actions and ritual quivering symbolise procreation. 

The composition of Japaljarri’s painting reverberates with the rhythm of male performers painted with appropriate jungunypa designs. In common with other of his works, Japaljarri has used a spectrum of colours tinged with white – blues, roses, greens and yellows – apart from the basic red and white pigments customarily found on the body of the dancers. 

Kenny Jupurrula Walker’s Snake Dreaming 1986 (fig. 16) is also characterised by a swirling flurry of ancestral paths which in this case double as the body of a powerful snake man and his children. The artist shows the snake (warna) emerging from a place near the Granites, shown by the central roundel, where the artist and his father were born. The snake travelled extensively, implanting his spirit essence at many sites and shedding his progeny as he went. If white is the sacred space through which the snake moved, the colour blue signifies his Dreaming paths and the sites in the landscape which are permanent sources of spiritual power. The short bars are clapsticks used in ceremonies held to re-enact the snake’s heroic adventures in shaping the land and making its eternal springs, and to sing its power into participants and the terrain. 

It is interesting to compare this work with the elongated version of Jupurrula’s deceased father, Lumi Jakamarra Walker, Snake Dreaming 1986 (fig. 17). Instead of multi-directional movement, Jakamarra isolates the core of this powerful myth of procreation. He shows in one single meander the body and path of the snake man from whom many small snakes magically spring. The two roundels indicate Willowra and Yumurrpa, boundaries of country for which Kenny Jupurrula is now responsible. The snake did not confine his travelling to moving between these two major sites, he also travelled to other places of lesser religious significance. The artist considers, however, that only these two ‘big’ centres are of sufficient importance to be depicted. They serve as markers defining the extent of his Dreaming country. 

The notion of travelling from waterhole to waterhole, shown by configurations of paths and circles, which also have male and female connotations, is vital to the Warlpiri sense of the world. As such it dominates Lajamanu art and Western Desert art generally. Jimmy Jampijinpa Robertson’s Seed Dreaming 1986 (fig. 18) tells of two ancestral women of the Nangala subsection, seated in the upper and lower sections of the composition with their digging-sticks. Starting from different locations, they journeyed south, north, east and west, indicated by transverse lines. The arc shapes represent seed (ngurlu) being gathered in many places and carried in coolamons. Finally, the women met and made their home at the artist’s Dreaming place, the central roundel, where there is always plenty of seed. The design of diagonals converging on a central roundel echoes that used by senior custodian Abe Jangala in his version of the same Dreaming. Jangala’s Two Nangala Seed Dreaming at Paralu 1986 (fig. 19), in keeping with other of his works, has a more open composition in which white space plays a vital role. In Jangala’s painting the fructification of the seed, suggested by Jampijinpa’s repetition of arc shapes along diagonals, is given less emphasis. Of more importance are the two half circles, the Nangala women who, while drinking from a soakage, were bitten and killed by two rainbow snakes who had travelled from Chilla Well. 

Jimmy Jampijinpa does not always depict ngurlu in this manner. Another version, Seed Dreaming 1986 (fig. 20), shows women grinding seed which has been gathered from a tree. The outer scroll shapes represent drying seed pods, the source of the seed. The repetition of these scroll forms imparts a heraldic rhythm to the painting. Towards the centre of the composition the dominant half circles depict seated Nangala women with adjacent paired sticks. Children, shown by small arcs, are grabbing the seed to taste it, only to be smacked by their mothers. The ground seed is made into damper and cooked in the fire, indicated by the large roundel. The site of this Dreaming is Junjawarriyi, just north of the Granites. In contrast to the bright orange and green coloration of figure 18, Jampijinpa has chosen sepia, ochres and white as his main pigments. 


The surface of the earth and its permanent features, made by the ancestral beings who are eternal therein, is for Warlpiri people the supreme religious icon. As such it provides the spirit centre and iconography of their art. And it is the signs or marks of spirit ancestors (kuruwarri) which are made the foreground of the Lajamanu panels. Loud and bright, they invade the viewer’s space. As in no other desert works, the artist emboldens and enlarges the symbols used to invoke a specific ancestor who inhabits a sacred space. Whether it be the meander for water (ngapa) or snake (warna), the long bar for lightning (wirnpa), or the scroll shape for seed (ngurlu), these graphic elements animate the composition and determine its spirited rhythm. 

All of these works are simple visual statements in which decoration is subordinate to mythological content – the backbone of the art. They resemble sacred ground paintings in negative, the designs being laid in dark tones on a white ground instead of the reverse. The mighty scale seems to have increased the artist’s freedom of invention, enabling design elements to spread out or expand to fill the composition as in figures 12 and 18. Paint is thickly or messily applied (figs 4, 11); lines are unruly, even crooked; the surface itself is often chipped, gashed or warped, lending to the works an ephemeral or textural quality at one with the ground surface on which the artist sits while painting. Sometimes colour, as uninhibited as the free-spirited Warlpiri themselves, is used to sing the ancestor to life (figs 10, 15). In other works harsh tonal contrasts serve to reinforce eternal truth or Dreaming (Jukurrpa) through structural rhythm. Each composition has a totality of gesture through the strong flow of ancestral (kuruwarri) design, and is in effect a metaphor for the power of the particular spirit being eternally manifest in land. Unimpeded by European intervention or advice, the artists have painted up boldly as if for ceremony using the introduced materials which now comprise their immediate town environment. The result is a series of adventurous icons which are the antithesis of ‘dot paintings’ in their uncontrived freedom of expression.

Judith Ryan, Curator of Aboriginal Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1989). 


* The acquisition would not have been possible without the efforts of Sharon Monty, director of Dreamtime Gallery, Perth, who worked tirelessly on the Gallery’s behalf, negotiating the purchase with Lajamanu communal elders to ensure that the historic collection stayed together. The funds for the acquisition were provided by CRA Limited through The Art Foundation of Victoria. 

1          Stories from Lajamanu, Northern Territory Department of Education, Darwin, 1985, p. 4. 

2          ibid.

3          ibid., p. 12. 

4          ibid., p. 29. 

5          ibid., p. 13. 

6          ibid., p. 2. 

7          John Quinn began as a teacher at the Lajamanu Bilingual Community School in November 1982, before his time as adult educator in 1986. For further details of the TAFE project, in which about eighty senior men and women were involved, see J. Ryan, Mythscapes: Aboriginal Art of the Desert, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1989, pp. 82–6. 

8          D’un Autre Continent: L’Australie le Rêve et le Réel, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris, 1983, p. 49. 

9          See Ryan, Mythscapes, p. 27. 

10        D’un Autre Continent, p. 49. 

11        ibid. 

12        G. Bardon, Aboriginal Art of the Western Desert, Rigby, Adelaide, 1979, p. 24. 

13        ibid. 

14         M.J. Meggitt, Desert People: A Study of the Walbiri Aborigines of Central Australia, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1962, p. 68. 

15        N. D. Munn, Walbiri Iconography: Graphic Representation and Cultural Representation and Cultural Symbolism in a Central Australian Society, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1973, p. 180. 

16         See Warlukurlangu Artists, Kuruwarri: Yuendumu Doors, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra, 1987, in which thirty of the doors are illustrated and fully documented in Warlpiri and English. 

17        Ironically, the thirty-six doors have since been defaced with graffiti by Warlpiri teenagers and young adults who resisted this statement of authority from the elders. 

18        D’un Autre Continent, pp. 23–4. 

19        Munn, Warlbiri Iconography, p. 200. 

fig. 7, Medicine story, now known in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria as Yam spirit Dreaming for children.

fig. 10, Rainbow Snake Dreaming at Lapi Lapi, now known in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria as Warnayarra Jukurrpa (Rainbow Serpent Dreaming).

fig. 19, Two Nangala seed Dreaming at Paralu, now known in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria as Ngurlu Jukurrpa at Parrulyu (Seed Dreaming at Parrulyu).