One striking change is that many Aboriginal painters today are women, who have their own stories and traditions to recount. “The women painting in Papunya Tula now tend to use stronger colors and—especially the older ladies—are less meticulous,” Benjamin says.
Though seemingly abstract, the multilayered paintings reflect the Aboriginal experience of reading the veiled secrets of the hostile desert—divining underground water and predicting where plants will reappear in the spring. According to Aboriginal mythology, the desert has been marked by the movements of legendary ancestors—the wanderings known as Dreamings—and an initiate can recall the ancestral stories by studying and decoding the terrain. “In the bush, when you see somebody making a painting, they often break into song,” Benjamin says. They’re singing the Dreaming stories in their paintings.
The Wilkersons’ original plan to exhibit paintings in Australian museums fell through after curators feared that Aboriginal women or boys might be exposed to sacred imagery. Aboriginal community members also decreed that nine reproductions could not be included in the exhibition catalog. (The American edition contains a supplement with the banned images. Smithsonian was not granted the right to publish any of them.)
While Western art collectors may value the works according to how well they were executed, Aboriginal people tend to rank them by the importance of the Dreaming in them. “White people can’t understand our painting, they just see a ‘pretty picture,’ “ the Papunya artist Michael Tjakamarra Nelson once remarked.
Some of the imagery in the exhibition is comprehensible to informed outsiders, while some is ambiguous or completely opaque. For many Western spectators, the secret religious content of the paintings—including, in the early boards, images said to be fatal to uninitiated Aboriginal people—only adds to their appeal. Like much geometrically ordered art, Aboriginal painting is beautiful. Tantalizingly, it also exudes mystery and danger.
New York City-based freelance journalist Arthur Lubow last wrote for Smithsonian about China’s terra cotta soldiers.