fig. 1 <br/>
William Barak <br/>
Wurundjeri c.1824–1903 <br/>
<em>Figures in possum-skin cloaks</em> 1898 <br/>
pencil, wash, charcoal solution, gouache and earth pigments on paper<br/>
57.0 x 88.8 cm<br/>
National Gallery of Victoria<br/>
Purchased 1962 (1215A-5)<br/>

The raw and the cooked: the aesthetic principle in Aboriginal art


Until recently, the question of the aesthetic principle has figured rarely in discussions of Aboriginal art. It has been regarded rather as an aside, an indulgence, dwarfed into insignificance beside the towering importance of the subject matter, the necessity to interpret the iconography, to uncover what the work of art is telling us about another culture. 

To discover why this is so, it is necessary to think back over the past eighty years, since 1912, when Baldwin Spencer (1860–1929) commissioned the Kakadu people of Western Arnhem Land to paint images on bark similar to those found on rock and on bark shelters. For their work the Kakadu were to receive sticks of tobacco: a somewhat cancerous form of exchange. As Spencer later noted, the Kakadu were 

very fond of drawing both on rocks and the sheets of bark of which their Mia-mias are made … I found that there was a notable range of ability among the artists … They [the paintings] were so interesting that, after collecting some from their studios, which meant taking down the slabs [of bark] on which they were drawn … I commissioned two or three of the best artists to paint me a series of … ‘barks’, the price of which was governed by size, varying from one stick of tobacco (a penny halfpenny) for a two-feet by one-feet ‘bark’, to three sticks (fourpence halfpenny) for ‘barks’ measuring approximately three feet by six feet and upwards.1Β. Spencer, Wanderings in Wild Australia, London, 1928, p. 792. 

Since that historic first commission, art and its iconography have served as a bridge between a number of individual indigenous cultures and the colonising culture, termed balanda, gadiya, gubba and so on, and represented initially by anthropologists or missionaries. For them, the iconography of indigenous art provided direct empirical evidence about another culture and its system of beliefs, making manifest its eternal laws of existence in a form less ephemeral than song or dance. Iconography was seen as a ‘way in’ to an understanding of indigenous cultures. This preoccupation with imagery, at the expense of aesthetics, has persisted in the name of science. 

For most of this century we have been locked inside an anthropological, scientific quest to pith the frog, dissect its heart, uncover, expose and publish its secrets. Indigenous art has not yet fully escaped from the ethnographer’s classifying microscope and been allowed to speak to us on its own terms, to exert its power through metaphor as an undiluted expression of a particular culture. 

One of the barriers to a frank and open discussion of Aboriginal art has been the misapprehension, gleaned from anthropological texts, that art is a European construct. It is nothing of the kind. Like music and dance, painting, drawing, designing and carving are forms of expression that are found in all cultures. Visual art is a universal language that is open to all peoples to use and appreciate. The European construct is anthropology, a discipline and a methodology masquerading as a science, which evolved in tandem with social Darwinism as a means of studying and classifying colonised peoples and pigeonholing them into hierarchies. 

Another misapprehension has been that there is no indigenous word for art, as if to suggest that the sensibility required to create and appreciate art is somehow lacking among indigenous Australians. This negative perspective deliberately ignores the various Aboriginal words used to refer to different forms of painting or mark-making: kuruwarri (Warlpiri for sign or mark of an ancestor), walka (Pitjantjatjara for drawing, design, meaningful mark), jilamara (Tiwi for design, painting), miny’tji (Yolngu for painting, and for colour in painting, pattern or design) and bir’yun (Yolngu for the visual quality of brightness, shimmering), to name a few. Not to acknowledge these indigenous terms and concepts, and to discuss the image, icon, sign, abstract symbol, or colour in terms of other such so-called components of a work of art is, therefore, rendered Eurocentric and unacceptable. 

Another common misconception, based in part on notions of ‘political correctness’, has been that all members of a linguistic group or clan can paint equally well, and that because Aboriginal artists are entitled to reproduce or replicate their own specific designs little room is left for artistic imagination, discrimination, expression or vision. As Anderson and Dussart have expressed it: ‘The Western notion of the artist did not exist in tradition-oriented Aboriginal society, as each individual was expected to learn about specific sets of designs and to reproduce them’.2 C. Anderson & F. Dussart, ‘Dreamings in Acrylic: Western Desert Art’, in Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia, ed. P. Sutton, Melbourne, 1988, p. 101. Within this ideology of reproduction rather than creation, the body of work is regarded as ancestrally predetermined. However, while the authors concede that this concept may fit the ritual context, in that all members of the group are entitled to paint ochre onto objects and bodies for ceremony, ‘this is not to say that some people are not more skilled than others’.3ibid. In fact, as Morphy points out, ‘Some individuals are recognised as more skilful painters than others and it is these individuals who are chosen to paint on ceremonial occasions in preference to others’.4H. Morphy, ‘From Dull to Brilliant: The Aesthetics of Spiritual Power among the Yolngu’, Man, vol. 24, no. 1, 1989, p. 23. 

The production of work for sale has altered the equation even further, enabling the viewer to assess imagery that would previously have been erased after ritual and to attribute it to individuals rather than just the group. This has set in motion a process of recording, comparing and evaluating the work of individuals, impossible when only the scavenged relics of unknown makers were available for study as part of an ethnographic record. Ever since anthropologists started collecting work and recording the names of individual makers, however, certain Aboriginal artists – we see with hindsight – have stood out, being unstoppable in their desire to carve and paint, or notable for their steadiness of hand or wealth of invention. The first of these great figures, distinguished by the need to keep drawing, was the Wurundjeri leader William Barak, who produced a large body of work on the government reserve at Coranderrk, Victoria, where he lived from 1863 onwards. 

Prefiguring the watercolours of Western Aranda artist Albert Namatjira (1902–1959) by over half a century, Barak was introduced to European materials at Coranderrk and welcomed the opportunity to work on paper and cardboard with the new media – gouache, watercolour, pencil – in combination with earth pigments and charcoal, materials of the Wurundjeri. He mixed and tailored these pigments to his own requirements, applying them in washes, or as thick impasto, to the pencil drawing used to block in the compositional elements. Unlike current Aboriginal artists from Arnhem Land or Central Australia, who tend to work with the bark or canvas on the ground, Barak probably painted on an upright surface, as if on a cave wall, as is shown by a photograph taken at Coranderrk in 1895, in which he is seen working on a sheet of paper pinned vertically to the wall at easel height. 

Barak’s drawing style, evident in his late drawing Figures in possum-skin cloaks, inscribed on the verso Xmas 1898, is vigorous, fluent and reliant upon strong, textural outline (fig. 1). This work, which retains much of the original pigment, has no background wash but includes a line of trees in lateral perspective, the foliage of which is painted with a dry-brush technique. These trees, forming the uppermost horizontal layer in the composition, are placed at very regular intervals between each pair of figures, whose cloaks are patterned alternately with verticals and parallel meanders. This rhythm of bold verticals and meanders, which gives the drawing a strong abstract cast, liturgical in flavour, is the essence of Barak’s art. 

Since 1788 indigenous Australians have been subjected to a civilise-Christianise-stamp-out-the-blacks-apologise pattern of oppression, which has served only to confirm that cruelty has a human heart, a white face, and that the meek do not inherit the earth. Is it any wonder then that Pemulwuy, the nineteenth-century resistance fighter from New South Wales, should have made the defiant pronouncement ‘tyerrabarrbowaryadu [I shall never become a white man]’?5Tyerrabarrbowaryadu (I Shall Never Become a White Man) (exh. cat.), Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 1992, n.p. 

fig. 2 <br/>
H. J. Wedge <br/>
Wiradjuri 1957-<br/>
<em>Blind faith</em> 1992<br/>
synthetic polymer paint on composition board<br/>
80.2 x 61.8 cm<br/>
National Gallery of Victoria<br/>
Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of Waltons Limited, Fellow, 1994 (O.85-1994)<br/>

The strong cultural pride and sense of identity that lies behind Pemulwuy’s expression of difference is what motivates many contemporary Koori artists to paint. The black history of Australia figures strongly in the confronting works of Wiradjuri artist H. J. Wedge. His statement accompanying and explaining the work Blind faith, 1992 (fig. 2), to the non-Wiradjuri audience exposes the suffering and betrayal that has occurred ‘ever since white settlement landed in this great land of ours’.6H. J. Wedge, documentation accompanying Blind faith, 1992, National Gallery of Victoria. As he continues: 

[T]he right hand side of the painting shows the soldiers escorting the tribesmen as they were chained up like dogs away from their homes to be locked up in prison and some of them died in these ratholes. The middle of the painting shows men, women and children being killed because they placed their trust in the strangers but the strangers like a snake blinded them with false promises and false hopes.7ibid. 

The demoniacal snake, like barbed wire threaded through the eyes of indigenous Australians, shocks the viewer to rage against this ‘image of modern evil’, laid bare in a vision of Blakean intensity. This is a song not of innocence but of an experience that forces us to contemplate questions of good and evil and the human spirit. Wedge often contrasts such nightmarish images with flowers of innocence, Wiradjuri spirit figures, symbolic of his own culture. 

This black history of dispossession, subjugation, slavery, massacre, racism and ignorance is now out in the open, no longer suppressed from the public consciousness. Its exposure through the media has led to its antidote: the great white apology, the appeasement of our retrospective guilt through the language of ‘political correctness’. This has served to stifle critical debate on aesthetics in indigenous art. The non-Aboriginal critic does not dare to evaluate or criticise Aboriginal art, to ask whether it is good, bad or indifferent, because if it is denounced as bad, the critic making this assessment may be accused of being racist. The safest, most ‘politically correct’, course of action for non-Aboriginal art critics has been to focus on a number of important questions: Who made the object and where does it come from? What is the artist’s linguistic group and clan affiliation? What does the work mean to the artist who made it and how should it be read? The work of anthropologists and linguists in the field has taught us that there is no one Aboriginal culture but hundreds of them, just as there are hundreds of distinct Aboriginal languages, all consistently autonomous. 

The Referendum of 1967, in which indigenous Australians were granted citizenship rights, was the first step in the reconciliation process, leading to the belated recognition that Aboriginal Australians are people who matter, have many voices and deserve to be heard. Once it became impossible to deny their humanness, their art acquired a different status, as art not artefact. 

One of the most important considerations in looking at an Aboriginal work of art is its otherness rather than its affinity with western art. The work asserts its strength through its grounding in country and law: that is, its politics, blood, life, identity. Its power is its knowledge expressed through an inherited visual language of signs and symbols learnt from within the culture. We hear artists saying: ‘This is my country’, ‘This is my Dreaming’, ‘From my father, from my grandfather, my mother bin tell him’. This direct, plain-speaking language, not dressed in intellectual conceit, artspeak or anthropological jargon, is not about metaphysics. It lays bare an essential difference, of cultural identity and perception, of ‘blakness’, which separates us from indigenous Australians and cuts very deep, as Muta, a Murrinpatha man, put it: 

White man got no dreaming 

Him go ’nother way 

White man, him go different 

Him got road belong himself.8Muta, quoted in W. E. H. Stanner, ‘The Dreaming’ (1953), in White Man Got No Dreaming: Essays 1938–1973, Canberra, 1979, p. 24. 

There are, then, ‘two ways’ of thinking, living and seeing the world of which art is the visual metaphor: black and white. The concept of the ‘Dreaming’, which has been so effectively exploited in the marketing of Aboriginal art and culture, does not really bring us closer to an understanding of otherness or cultural difference, because the term itself is difficult for outsiders to comprehend. It often stands as a substitute for more precise information, being used by non-Aboriginal people as both noun and adjective, in imprecise and ungrammatical ways, to refer to the creation period, an individual’s conception site or totem, an ancestral being, the basis of existence, and the notions of supernatural, eternal and uncreated by humans. It is attached to the titles of paintings or floats as an adjective through descriptions where one or more of the above connotations are intended. The constant appearance of the word Dreaming has led to the conviction that Aboriginal art partakes of a metaphysical significance, an aura of spirituality, which is proof of its authenticity and mysterious power. 

We know from Wandjuk Marika (c. 1927–1987) that art is very serious business for the Yolngu of North-East Arnhem Land, as for other indigenous groups: ‘[P]ainting is very important, it is the design or symbol, power of the land, the land is not empty, the land is full of knowledge, full of story, full of energy, full of power’.9W. Marika, ‘Painting Is Important’, in Long Water: Aboriginal Art and Literature, ed. U. Beier, Sydney, 1986. If we ignore the iconography in which the subject is encoded and pay no attention to the serious layers of meaning, we bypass our cultural difference and trivialise the object. In the truth of its message, its beauty resides, recalling the wise counsel of Keats in his Ode on a Grecian Urn:

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ – that is all 

Ye know on earth and all ye need to know. 

This leads us to consider the words of the Warlpiri educator Tess Napaljarri, who wrote of the Jukurrpa (Dreamings) depicted in the art of the Warlpiri people of Yuendumu: ‘These have belonged to our ancestors and they hold no lies … [These] Dreamings … are true’.10T. Napaljarri Ross, ‘The People and Their Home’, in Warlukurlangu Artists – Kuruwarri: Yuendumu Doors, Canberra, 1987, p. 11. 

Napaljarri’s affirmation of the cultural significance of Warlpiri art pinpoints one of the difficulties faced by non-Aboriginal critics who in attempting to make aesthetic judgements about indigenous art have been silenced by its quality of truth. The anthropologists’ earnest quest to understand the meaning of indigenous art from the inside has also diverted attention away from matters of aesthetics. Nevertheless, as I will argue in this article, quality distinctions are appropriate to discussions of Aboriginal art, and to make such distinctions the critic needs to be objective, rather than locked inside the cultural perspective of the artist concerned. 

Unfortunately, most of the terms coined in an attempt to come to terms with Aboriginal art do not address its quality and have outlived their shelf-life. In their tired monotony, the empty categories squeeze the life out of the individual works that confront the viewer. Our constant obsession with the traditional, the ancient, the sacred, the ancestral and the totemic has blinded us to the dynamic innovation characteristic of current Aboriginal art. The terminology is like clay covering the viewers’ eyes, preventing the work from being seen and assessed in visual terms. We read about a continuing tradition, a living tradition, a traditional community, a traditional art form, a ritual tradition, so we are constantly asking: Is the work traditional, is it authentic? Is it traditional or contemporary? Are these terms mutually exclusive or can a work be both? 

Maddened by the chain of questioning, Ellen José, a contemporary urban Torres Strait artist, said bluntly: ‘I do not paint dots on bark’. She further stated about indigenous art: ‘Even though the images may be traditional, in that they have been handed down, the works are contemporary because they are done now and some or all of the materials are introduced’.11Ellen José, discussions with the author, 1995. The terms do not get us very far, because elements of the traditional and the contemporary exist in all Aboriginal works – even the ochres on wood or bark are now bound with Aquadhere (wood glue). 

Another reductive label is ‘dot painting’, used to categorise paintings from desert regions of Central and Western Australia. Instead of focusing on the Warlpiri word kuruwarri, which refers to the linear marks that signify ancestral beings, the part of the composition laid down first to give it its structure and particular rhythm, the gadiya (non-Aboriginal) critic focuses on the dotting used to cover the background Having observed the presence of dotting, in many canvases, we then ask some further questions: Where do those dots come from? Are they authentic? Why aren’t they on bark? Why aren’t they done in ochre? Some of us have even failed to observe that Pintupi artists switched a long time ago to linear designs composed of linked dots, lines and stripes, an approach emulated by Anmatyerre artists Gloria Temarre Petyarre, Ada Bird Petyarre and Emily Kame Kngwarreye. Theirs is a new stripe art, bold and gestural in shiny acrylic. 

The use of the words ‘traditional’, ‘totemic’, ‘ancestral’ and ‘Dreamtime’ adds a potent, ritual dimension even to a work of art that is contemporary and has been made for sale to outsiders, not for rituals confined to the initiated. Here we are faced with a major concern: for the non-Aboriginal purist, art and money-making do not mix. If art is produced for our consumption, the worry is that Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri was right when he told Geoff Bardon that his paintings were ‘mere toys for childish white people’, in the market of Dreamings.12G. Bardon, ‘The Great Painting, Napperby Death Spirit Dreaming, and Tim Leurah Tjapaltjarri’, in J. Ryan, Mythscapes: Aboriginal Art of the Desert (exh. cat.), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, [1989], p. 46. This leads us to consider whether we are collecting works of art or Dreamings and whether we can be entranced by a bark painting if we do not know about its origins in the painted bark shelter. 

None of us has been prepared to face the truth as contemporary New Zealand artist Colin McCahon (1919–1987) put it: ‘Once the painter was making signs and symbols for people to live by: now he makes things to hang on walls at exhibitions’.13C. McCahon, in Colin McCahon: A Survey Exhibition (exh. cat.), Auckland City Art Gallery, 1972, p. 26. 

When today’s indigenous artists draw or paint – making marks on paper, board or bark – they are engaged in current activities that belong squarely to the twentieth century. The final painting, sculpture, photograph or textile may be linked to ritual, ‘40 000 years of Dreaming’, body-painting, rock art, the black history of colonisation – or none of those things. It may result from what the artist has seen, songs her mother taught her, a liking for blue paint or a compulsion to draw. None of these associations should preclude it from being considered as art that is worthy of our serious attention. It is not a case of no story, no art, in spite of what some of us have been led to believe. 

In considering the quality of a work, there is far more to discover than the meaning of the iconography, which is but one part of the whole. We also need to consider the painting as painting, in terms of its visual elements. Paint is applied to surfaces, colour is mixed, ideas are made manifest through a visual language of mark-making. Art is perceived through the eyes, beats with a human heart, has a potent voice and acts as a metaphor on our consciousness, emotions, visual imagination and dreams. It needs no explanatory text: the object is reward in itself. Yet most of the writings on Aboriginal art focus on narrative content, telling us what it is about rather than why it compels the viewer as great art compels the viewer.

fig. 3 <br/>
Kitty Kantilla <br/>
Tiwi born c.1928 <br/>
<em>Jilamara</em> 1992<br/>
earth pigments on bark<br/>
70.5 x 46.3 cm (irreg.)<br/>
National Gallery of Victoria<br/>
Purchased from Admission Funds 1992 (O.52-1992)<br/>

The ‘dot paintings’ of senior Tiwi artist Kitty Kantilla resist any explicit interpretation of the meaning of their symbolism in terms of a story or narrative. As James Bennett noted, when he asked the artist whether there was a story for Jilamara, 1992 (fig. 3), Kantilla replied: ‘… This is white, this is yellow, this is red …,’14Kitty Kantilla, quoted in J. Bennett, ‘Narrative and Decoration in Tiwi Painting: Tiwi Representations of the Purukuparli Story’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, no. 33, 1993, p. 42. When questioned further about the story, she said that the picture was like a bark basket made by her deceased husband for keeping his sugarbag. It could be said that the painting on the bark in Jilamara resembles that found on wangatunga (bark baskets) and its overall shape is like one side of such a basket. Perhaps a meaning lies behind the dots and the white, yellow and red ochres on black, but this meaning remains unsaid, connected to Jilamara, the idiosyncratic and energetic body-painting designs with which performers conceal their identities for Pukamwani ceremonies. The spirit of the work does not lie in any verbalised meaning, intellectual concept or formal narrative but in the Tiwi notion of creativity, expressed through colour, patterns of lines and dots and the randomness of the decoration. For the Tiwi, ‘to sing is to dance is to paint’:15James Bennett, discussions with the author, Milikapiti, July 1994. a painted design has deep associations with singing and dancing and elements of Tiwi culture that are non-verbal and not articulable. Kitty Kantilla’s dots are her way of painting, ornamenting the surfaces of objects, bodies, bark or paper. Her dots, like those of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, do not have a specific symbolic meaning or tell a story – they are the stuff of her painting, termed ‘dot dots’ by other Tiwi.16Felicity Green, discussion with the author, Melbourne, May 1995. 

The language of art, therefore, can liberate us from the dead-end terminology that locks the image in an anthropological discourse and denies its aesthetic qualities. If an indigenous work can be considered good, it can also be considered bad, without this being deemed a racist pronouncement. We need to trust the work as an undiluted expression of its maker; it sings like a piece of music, beats with a rhythm, flows like a river, is alive like an organism or is lifeless, contrived, dead. Or, to use a metaphor coined by Levi-Strauss, it is either raw or cooked:17Le Cru et le cuit (The Raw and the Cooked) is the title of the first volume of Claude Levi-Strauss’s Mythologiques (C. Levi-Strauss, Mythologiques, vol. 1, The Raw and the Cooked, trans. J. Weightman & D. Weightman, Chicago, 1969). consider an egg, which changes from a liquid, flowing state to a hard-boiled, rigid and tight consistency. 

Before we endeavour to fathom and articulate what separates a great Aboriginal work from a run-of-the-mill example, however, we must leave behind our fear of sounding politically incorrect. We all compare and evaluate poems, plays, films, concerts, pieces of music, books, operas – why not works of art? Aboriginal as well as non-Aboriginal. 

In searching to gain an insight into the aesthetic element that is present in the best Aboriginal works of art but that cannot be articulated, it is useful to consider what artists have written about their painting, for example Colin McCahon’s statements: 

Painting to me is like lambs born in the spring, rain, wind, sun. Like chopping down trees in the wilderness and living with the slaughtered stumps, of not seeing the beauty I look for, and also seeing the beauty of another world – of words.18Colin McCahon, in Colin McCahon: A Survey Exhibition, p. 17. 

I hoped to throw people into an involvement with the raw land, and also with raw painting. No mounts, no frames, a bit curly at the edges.19ibid., p. 30. 

Art equates with life: it is its raw material, its source. As Picasso noted: ‘The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web’,20Pablo Picasso, quoted in C. Zervos, Picasso: Cahiers d’art, Paris, 1932–78 (my translation). or, in the case of Pintupi artist Lynda Syddick Napaltjarri, from watching the film E.T., at which time she conceived of her spirit figures. 

Art also derives from art, from what has gone before, but each finished work upon what was once a bare surface is a new beginning for the artist and the viewer. It is unpredictable and involves risk, as Picasso stated: ‘Art is never chaste … we forbid it to the ignorant innocents, never allow a contact with it to those not sufficiently prepared. Yes, art is dangerous and if it’s chaste, it isn’t art’.21Pablo Picasso, quoted in A. Vallentin, Pablo Picasso, Paris, 1957, p. 268 (my translation). The brazenness of the imagery in Mandarrk’s Mimih spirits and human reproduction III, 1985, with its daring depiction of the sex act and its aftermath (fig. 4), reinforces the very point Picasso was making. Mandarrk, a man of high degree, a rock painter and a ritual leader, had his own rules for painting that defied the dictates of convention Unlike some of his contemporaries he did not add wood glue to the earth pigments to ensure that they stayed on the bark. The surface of the work is therefore matt, chalky like bone, rather than smooth or shiny. Instead of covering up or eliminating the genitalia on the grounds of ‘decency’, Mandarrk exaggerated the genitals, celebrating the sexual potency characteristic of mimih spirits. 

fig. 4 <br/>
Mandarrk <br/>
Dangbon/Dalabon c.1915&ndash;1987 <br/>
<em>Mimih spirits and human reproduction III</em> 1985<br/>
earth pigments on bark<br/>
100.0 x 43.0 cm (irreg.) <br/>
National Gallery of Victoria<br/>
Purchased with the assistance of Geoff Todd 1990 (O.136-1990)<br/>

In addition to this issue of artistic risk-taking, two criteria coined by the British art critic Roger Fry for evaluating works of art – ‘sensibility’ and ‘vitality’ – are especially useful in helping non-Aboriginal people confront issues of quality in indigenous art.22R. Fry, ‘Sensibility’, ‘Vitality’, in R. Fry, Last Lectures, Boston, 1962, chs II, III. Sensibility results from irregularities and variations in design and surface texture. It is discernible, for example, in the difference between a straight line made with a ruler and one drawn by hand. The quality of vitality in artistic images – an inner life – is seen in the freedom of the rhythm of the drawing, the nervous intensity of the line. Both of these qualities, observable in the surface texture, design, image and line, run counter to neatness, artifice, tidy constraint, the margin-ruling mentality encouraged in our education system. Sensibility and vitality are aesthetic principles inherent and observable in indigenous Australian art, in its raw rather than its cooked state. Sometimes the line is smudged or crooked, perhaps the dotting is blotchy or messy, the dimensions irregular – there is magic in an artist’s hand that transcends mechanical facility. 

The writings of Howard Morphy on the Yolngu of North-East Arnhem Land23Morphy, pp. 21–40. and of Eric Michaels on the Warlpiri of Central Australia24E. Michaels, Bad Aboriginal Art: Tradition, Media and Technological Horizons, St Leonards, NSW, 1994. take us right into the jaws of this debate on aesthetics. Morphy isolates the quality or qualisign of bir’yun (brilliance, shining, shimmering), a visual effect that for the Yolngu signifies a manifestation of wangarr marr (ancestral power). He also quotes Willem de Kooning, who states that ‘content is a glimpse of something, an encounter like a flash’.25Willem de Kooning, quoted in Morphy, p. 21. It is the cross-hatched sections of a bark painting that produce the shining effects that connote ancestral or spiritual power. Morphy focuses on the polarity between the dull and the brilliant, and shows that the shimmering rarrk (cross-hatching) of the painted surface of a work such as Djambawa Marawili’s Madarrpa fire, 1994, produces a visual effect, a flash of spiritual power. 

Bir’yun, an intellectual concept, derives, then, from the meticulous ordering of the ground into repeated patterns of cross-hatched diamonds that form horizontal layers of intense whiteness signifying fire in salt water, and vertical accents indicating freshwater fire. The rippling horizontal diamonds, like currents in water, contrast with the more static vertical diamonds: the end result is an elaborate abstraction, which expresses ideas by means of symbolic figures and tones and through its visual radiance. 

Michaels, dealing with a ‘fauve’ art of bright colour, a different type of shininess, compares the acrylic paintings produced by Warlpiri artists from Yuendumu with those made by artists working for Papunya Tula, the model upon which Yuendumu art was based. He likens the Warlpiri examples to abstract expressionism and sees the Papunya Tula works as contrived to suit the market for minimalism. His writings touch on the problems of gadiya interference and advice and its impact on the finished product made for other gadiya in the cities. The raw material is in constant danger of being cooked up for our consumption. 

Tragically, Michaels did not live long enough to see the continuation of Warlpiri art in the marketplace. We as readers are denied the next instalment of his critique – the comparison of current canvases with the Yuendumu Doors. The very neatness and tasteful contrivance that Michaels criticises in Papunya Tula art of the 1980s, with its tidy rows of dots, is characteristic of many recent canvases from Yuendumu, although the bright primary colours remain. 

The Yuendumu Doors, 1983–84, are a set of kuruwarri (ancestral designs), painted onto the school doors in order to teach the young Warlpiri their true Jukurrpa (Dreamings).26See Kuruwarri: Yuendumu Doors. Senior male artists worked with the dynamic, messy abandon of graffitists to plant a message of Warlpiri law and Warlpiriness in a public place by using the school doors: the modern equivalent of a cave wall. The designs formed an indelible symbol of the older men’s authority that ran counter to the messages young Warlpiri were receiving in the classroom or on the television screen. 

The contrast between these bold gestural paintings – rude, loud and loose – and recent canvases can be expressed through the polarities of the raw and the cooked, the rough and the smooth, the unruly and the tidy, and the painterly and the linear, to borrow from the German art historian Heinrich Wolfflin. The gestural spontaneity characteristic of the doors, painted up big for the purpose of passing on the law to the young, is being stifled in recent canvases by the dominance of subsidiary ornament. The transition from the uncircumscribed, organic and uneven surfaces of rock, ground and body to rectangular pieces of flat canvas that cost money has changed the communicative and creative processes. Designs formerly painted for communal use are now destined for a museum or boardroom wall, a bank vault or museum racks, occasioning the production of formulaic works for money from Europeans, whom the Warlpiri have observed campaigning for tidy towns and esteeming cleanliness, godliness, neat margins and straight edges. 

Akin to the Yuendumu Doors are the first works by Warlpiri artists from Lajamanu. Rough, vigorous and unpractised, they are painted in enamel on uneven, recycled boards with crooked edges, boards stripped from derelict housing. As in Freddy Patrick Jangala’s Ngapa manu wirnpa Jukurrpa (Water and lightning Dreaming), 1986 (fig. 5), the ground in these works is usually composed of large white dots. This serves to heighten the glyphs, to isolate them in space so that they are free from camouflage and can be read without confusion – like symbols written on a clean sheet of paper or drawn with fingers in the sand. The design is bold and concentrated, standing up as an exemplar, crystallising the core of the artist’s Jukurrpa. The style is uncompromising in its raw economy. The symbols used to invoke wirnpa, the penis of the Rain Ancestor, are emboldened and enlarged to fill the composition. Loud and bright, red and yellow, the long bars invade the viewer’s space. The paint is thickly and messily applied; lines are unruly, crooked; the surface is chipped, gashed and warped, lending a textural quality at one with the ground on which the artist sits while painting. 

fig. 5 <br/>
Freddy Patrick Jangala <br/>
Warlpiri born c.1930<br/>
<em>Ngapa manu wirnpa Jukurrpa (Water and lightning Dreaming)</em> 1986<br/>
enamel paint on composition board<br/>
121.3 x 119.8 cm<br/>
National Gallery of Victoria<br/>
Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of CRA Limited, Fellow, 1989 (O.38-1989)<br/>

fig. 6 <br/>
Lily Nangala Scobie (Miyangula) <br/>
Warlpiri born c.1932<br/>
<em>Ngapa Jukurrpa (Water Dreaming)</em> 1986<br/>
gouache on paper<br/>
59.2 x 41.6 cm<br/>
National Gallery of Victoria<br/>
Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of CRA Limited, Fellow, 1989 (O.124-1989)<br/>

Similarly intense and uncontrived is Lily Nangala Scobie’s Ngapa Jukurrpa (Water Dreaming), 1986, which shows, as red and yellow curved lines, floodwater lying in creekbeds on either side of a hill at Kamira (fig. 6). The variegated dots in this gouache are water drops, children of the Rain Ancestor. The work is unnerving in the innocent directness of its message. 

The strength of the best Aboriginal art lies in its ‘crookedness’, its rawness, its irregularities of surface and design, its textural roughness, its vital, bold drawing, its living lines, its potent way of talking, its special rhythm or music of composition, the melting of tone on tone. These qualities flow from the brash confidence of artists working directly on the surface, like calligraphers, with no need to practise. Like jazz musicians who improvise, rather than constantly consult the score, the artists have no need for preparatory sketches, rulers or tracing-paper. There is no pressure to contrive the subject, the conceptual meaning, which is the artist’s birthright, identity, purpose and blood. 

The words of Colin McCahon, quoted earlier – ‘I hoped to throw people into an involvement with the raw land, and also with raw painting. No mounts, no frames, a bit curly at the edges’27McCahon, p. 30. – lead us straight into an analysis of the bark medium. The bark painting – not stuck in a glass case, nailed to a strip of hessian, confined behind perspex, but crooked, curving back to its tree shape, splitting, bending, concave, convex, knotty – has a singular aesthetic, which is a product of the medium. It is not contrived for the loungeroom of the Home Beautiful, sitting in a tidy town, but is a metaphor for the way Aboriginal people see the world and live out their days. 

Analysis of the bark medium is crucial to this discussion of aesthetics. Apart from the concept of bir’yun, which is concerned with the metaphysics of spiritual power and its emanation, the actual materials – earth pigments on Eucalyptus tetradonta (stringybark) – have a special visual impact, which is confined to this medium The physical properties of bark paintings also have a metaphorical dimension, as suggested by the words of Dhalwangu artist Gawirrin’ Gumana, who recently stated: ‘I am the people of water, earth and mud’. He further explained that his place was mud, rock, sand, earth, clay, and that painting, like earth and rocks, is not for fun but from the heart of the people. It tells us something, for the old people in the past and for people to understand today.’28Gawirrin’ Gumana, speech delivered at the opening of the exhibition Miny’tji Buku Larrnggay: Bark Paintings from the East, National Gallery of Victoria, 12 March 1995. Gumana also explained that the miny’tji (paintings) displayed at the National Gallery of Victoria in the Miny’tji Buku Larrnggay exhibition in March 1995 made the room in which they were hanging ngarra (a sacred place) and that the ochres are also deeply sacred, a source of sickness, a danger if touched.29Gawirrin’ Gumana, discussion with the author, Melbourne, 16 March 1995. 

Much of the aesthetic power of bark paintings results from the ochres, which are from rock, earth, clay, sand, mud – the artist’s homeland. This source also makes the works ngarra (sacred) through their use in and association with ceremony, and makes them dangerous to be touched. The ochre on bark is a metaphor for the artist’s country – where the most precious things are mud, earth, sand, rock, clay and water. For Gawirrin’ Gumana, the ochres used in his Barrama, 1994 (fig. 7), spell Gängän, his homeland, and the presence of Barrama, the ancestral creator of the Dhalwangu clan. 

fig. 7 <br/>
Gawirrin&rsquo; Gumana <br/>
Dhalwangu born c.1935<br/>
<em>Barrama</em> 1994<br/>
earth pigments on bark<br/>
203.5 x 71.0 cm (irreg.)<br/>
National Gallery of Victoria<br/>
Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of Alcoa of Australia Limited, Governor, 1994 (O.73-1994)<br/>

The ochre medium with its gritty particles has a matt as opposed to a shiny or smooth texture, giving the work an irregularity of surface that contributes to the quality of sensibility posited by Fry. The ochre on the Eucalyptus tetradonta also constitutes raw painting, rough, matt earth on fibrous stringybark, which is shaped like an organism, a living thing, rather than a rectangle. The ochres evade permanence, the bark splits and bends, the edges do not confine or circumscribe the image on the organic support, which like life itself is ephemeral. This surface is other than bir’yun (brightness, shininess): it is the colour of mud. Reticent tone meets subdued tone – these are the tones and colours of earth. A bark painting’s sound is quiet – from rock, mud, earth – and serious, serious of heart; it tells us something: it is ngarra. The aesthetic is a product of the materials and of what they mean to the Yolngu. As Raymattja, a Yolngu teacher, comments: 

The symbolism behind the designs can be seen by someone who knows, to be in all the little details and shapes and colours of the work of art. The deepest knowledge is abstract … it cannot be put into words.30Raymattja, ‘Talk to Language Learners at the Museum, 26. 3. 90’, in Yirrkala Museum Catalogue, Buku Larrnggay Arts, Yirrkala, 1990, n.p. 

The image on the rough and irregular, crooked piece of bark in its vertical, treelike shape may vary from the minimal to the densely marked, the iconic to the abstract, the plain to the flash, but the organic properties of the bark medium create the dominant aesthetic, which ultimately overrides any categorisation of style and imagery according to such polarities. The bark medium, with its special aesthetic properties, resists juxtaposition in exhibition contexts with primary-coloured ‘fauve’ canvases, which have a brash and cheeky impact and all the tones and colours of the orchestra, the rainbow. 

Paintings such as Uni Nampijinpa Martin and Dolly Nampijinpa Daniels’s Warlukurlangu Jukurrpa (Fire country Dreaming), 1988, suggest the Warlpiri words kuruwarri kuruwarri, which translate as ‘variegated’ (fig. 8). The kuruwarri (signs of ancestral beings) overlap to create a variegated, polychrome design field almost devoid of open sections. The dense and meticulous composition, equally characteristic of Gawirrin’ Gumana’s Barrama, is differentiated from it by the use of undiluted primary colours and meticulous dotting in the background, and by the straight-edged rectangular surface produced by the stretched canvas. The tidy symmetry of its edges, however, runs counter to the looping, meandering rhythm of the branching lines and flames of colour in the image. Texture is absent because the medium of acrylic on canvas produces a flat, smooth finish. 

fig. 8 <br/>
Uni Nampijinpa Martin <br/>
Warlpiri born c.1942 <br/>
and Dolly Nampijinpa Daniels <br/>
Warlpiri born c.1935 <br/>
<em>Warlukurlangu Jukurrpa (Fire country Dreaming)</em> 1988<br/>
synthetic polymer paint on canvas<br/>
183.0 x 122.0 cm<br/>
National Gallery of Victoria<br/>
Purchased from Admission Funds 1988 (O.46-1988)<br/>

fig. 9 <br/>
Dick Japaljarri Raymond <br/>
Warlpiri born c.1945<br/>
<em>Ngatijirri Jukurrpa (Budgerigar Dreaming)</em> 1986<br/>
synthetic polymer paint and enamel paint on composition board<br/>
118.2 x 61.3 cm (irreg.) <br/>
National Gallery of Victoria<br/>
Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of CRA Limited, Fellow, 1989 (O.16-1989)<br/>


Sometimes the design element in a work by a Warlpiri artist is allowed to stand alone, stark, accentuated only by its edge of dots, as in Dick Japaljarri Raymond’s Ngatijirri Jukurrpa (Budgerigar Dreaming), 1986 (fig. 9). The design element, the kuruwarri, has been applied first to the ground and provides the structural rhythm of the composition, its backbone. 

The bark painter also builds up a painting in layers, following the procedure established in painting the body for circumcision. First a red ochre, yellow ochre or black ground is applied in an action equivalent to that of priming a canvas. Upon that ground, with a free hand, the indigenous artist paints in the outline or underdrawing, vigorously, setting down the main compositional elements, dividing the work into blocks (see fig. 10). This gives the bark its strength and its visual cohesion. To the wife, daughter or other assistants the rarrk sections are assigned. A painting that is not filled in with rarrk is not considered finished, because it lacks the full design with all its tones and colours. Yet without the underdrawing, which supplies the bones of the composition, it would lack structural unity. The underdrawing indicates the artist’s hand or drawing style, which also informs the subsidiary details. 

fig. 10 <br/>
Djutjadjutja Mununggurr working on the underdrawing of a large bark painting, Mana, Yirrkala, 1994. <br/>
Photograph: Andrew Blake<br/>

The indigenous artist, like a Chinese calligrapher, does not sketch or practise, but creates the design using one line, confident because the design is in heart and mind and comes from the whole person not just the wrist. The fascination with rarrk, bark rarrk – the cross-hatched details, which catch the light in splinters – and with the magic of the marwat (human hair) brush has sometimes led the viewer away from the drawn elements, which determine the music and rhythm of the design. 

This focus on compositional structure or the elemental ribs of the design is highlighted in the work of Rover Thomas, who condenses complex mythological and topographical information to its bare bones, which are left to stand stark on the surface as bold abstract elements. His Dreamtime story of the willy willy, 1989, shows the ancestral path of miowin, the willy willy (fig. 11). The spiralling red-dust storm is shown as a red ochre glyph unleashed on the matt, white surface of the land and rising into the sky, spreading out audaciously with a serpentine whoosh from right to left. The finely textured ground of creamy white kaolin, uncluttered by subsidiary patterning, symbolises the country associated with the storm. This is how the artist conceives of it in terms of paint and design, spare of detail. The design is bald and uncompromising and can be read as a totality, like a single physical sign or gesture or a piece of calligraphy. The force of the storm is invoked through the dynamic sweep of the circling lines of red ochre, which suggest an organism expanding roughly on the canvas. This brings us back to the qualities of sensibility and vitality posited by Fry, with which we began this discussion. 

fig. 11 <br/>
Rover Thomas (Joolama) <br/>
Kukatja/Wangkajunga born c.1926 <br/>
<em>Dreamtime story of the willy willy</em> 1989 <br/>
earth pigments and natural binder on canvas<br/>
160.0 x 200 0 cm<br/>
National Gallery of Victoria<br/>
Felton Bequest 1990 (O.1-1990)<br/>

Like the greatest Aboriginal works of art, Dreamtime story of the willy willy reveals a sensibility of design and surface texture, an inner life, a vital rhythm in the drawing that eludes mathematical precision. Its power is not the result of technical facility or neatness, but of the reverse. It is raw, uncontrived, sprawling with life, rather than calculated, cooked or overworked. Unlike western art, it is concerned not with mimetic ‘truth’ and the mirroring of nature, or with using the brush as a camera, but with elements of life revealed through raw earth pigments and living lines directly brushed. The land is painted from the inside, with the mind’s eye, and revealed in organic symbols as if through its bones. 


Judith Ryan, Senior Research Curator, Australian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1996). 


1          Β. Spencer, Wanderings in Wild Australia, London, 1928, p. 792. 

2          C. Anderson & F. Dussart, ‘Dreamings in Acrylic: Western Desert Art’, in Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia, ed. P. Sutton, Melbourne, 1988, p. 101. 

3          ibid. 

4          H. Morphy, ‘From Dull to Brilliant: The Aesthetics of Spiritual Power among the Yolngu’, Man, vol. 24, no. 1, 1989, p. 23. 

5          Tyerrabarrbowaryadu (I Shall Never Become a White Man) (exh. cat.), Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 1992, n.p. 

6          H. J. Wedge, documentation accompanying Blind faith, 1992, National Gallery of Victoria. 

7          ibid. 

8          Muta, quoted in W. E. H. Stanner, ‘The Dreaming’ (1953), in White Man Got No Dreaming: Essays 1938–1973, Canberra, 1979, p. 24. 

9          W. Marika, ‘Painting Is Important’, in Long Water: Aboriginal Art and Literature, ed. U. Beier, Sydney, 1986. 

10        T. Napaljarri Ross, ‘The People and Their Home’, in Warlukurlangu Artists – Kuruwarri: Yuendumu Doors, Canberra, 1987, p. 11. 

11        Ellen José, discussions with the author, 1995. 

12        G. Bardon, ‘The Great Painting, Napperby Death Spirit Dreaming, and Tim Leurah Tjapaltjarri’, in J. Ryan, Mythscapes: Aboriginal Art of the Desert (exh. cat.), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, [1989], p. 46. 

13        C. McCahon, in Colin McCahon: A Survey Exhibition (exh. cat.), Auckland City Art Gallery, 1972, p. 26. 

14        Kitty Kantilla, quoted in J. Bennett, ‘Narrative and Decoration in Tiwi Painting: Tiwi Representations of the Purukuparli Story’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, no. 33, 1993, p. 42. 

15        James Bennett, discussions with the author, Milikapiti, July 1994. 

16        Felicity Green, discussion with the author, Melbourne, May 1995. 

17        Le Cru et le cuit (The Raw and the Cooked) is the title of the first volume of Claude Levi-Strauss’s Mythologiques (C. Levi-Strauss, Mythologiques, vol. 1, The Raw and the Cooked, trans. J. Weightman & D. Weightman, Chicago, 1969). 

18        Colin McCahon, in Colin McCahon: A Survey Exhibition, p. 17. 

19        ibid., p. 30. 

20        Pablo Picasso, quoted in C. Zervos, Picasso: Cahiers d’art, Paris, 1932–78 (my translation). 

21        Pablo Picasso, quoted in A. Vallentin, Pablo Picasso, Paris, 1957, p. 268 (my translation). 

22        R. Fry, ‘Sensibility’, ‘Vitality’, in R. Fry, Last Lectures, Boston, 1962, chs II, III. 

23        Morphy, pp. 21–40. 

24        E. Michaels, Bad Aboriginal Art: Tradition, Media and Technological Horizons, St Leonards, NSW, 1994. 

25        Willem de Kooning, quoted in Morphy, p. 21. 

26        See Kuruwarri: Yuendumu Doors

27        McCahon, p. 30. 

28        Gawirrin’ Gumana, speech delivered at the opening of the exhibition Miny’tji Buku Larrnggay: Bark Paintings from the East, National Gallery of Victoria, 12 March 1995. 

29        Gawirrin’ Gumana, discussion with the author, Melbourne, 16 March 1995. 

30        Raymattja, ‘Talk to Language Learners at the Museum, 26. 3. 90’, in Yirrkala Museum Catalogue, Buku Larrnggay Arts, Yirrkala, 1990, n.p.