That Aboriginal artworks are also title deeds is well established. The Olympic Arts survey of Papunya Tula paintings is an opportunity to direct attention from land to water. That refocusing will recognise their interconnectedness, and of both with fire and food, thereby refreshing the interpretation of Dreaming and design.

The wall captions displayed at the Art Gallery of New South Wales mention water in only twelve of the 156 titles. Nor is water made a theme in the display, or a title for a catalogue essay, although R. G. Kimber’s brief ‘Tjukurrpa Trails’ is that water essay under another name. Commentators accustomed to hot and potable running water can forget that, as Kimber put it, ‘while all sites tell of centuries of Aboriginal conceptualisation of country, the tjukurrpa trails were also lifelines of survival’. The point is driven home by Marcia Langton’s comment that ‘the crackle of mud in dry waterholes is sung to remind us of the pain and hardship when there is no rain’.

Other contributors detail how water has been the element linking the creations of the Papunya Tula movement throughout its thirty years. ‘The Water Dreaming was the first convincing theme and apparent obsession in the Papunya movement’, wrote Geoffrey Bardon, the art teacher present at its start. ‘Water Dreaming paintings are about the singing and dancing for water, and its celebration as life-giving’.

Water had a less attractive importance in 1957 when the government chose Papunya as the site for a concentration camp because it had a bore. The death rate in the 1960s resulted in part from unhygienic water. Some who joined that ‘secret slum’ had been driven in by drought. In 1971, the year that Papunya Tula began, it rained so much that the flooding spread 20 kms across. Three years later was the wettest on record. Johnny Warangkula Tjuurrula repeated this contest between aridity and deluge in the three stages of painting A Bush Tucker Story (1972): ‘The first stage was of all the dry rivers and creeks, painted in black, followed by the black concentric circles where all the soaks would be. The oblongs were the sites … where the men of the water totem would dance. The painting was then put to one side for two months. When the rains came Johnny dotted in the soaks and rivers. Then the rain came again and Johnny worked on it everyday for three weeks’.

Papunya was only one water source, and but one site of the eponymous art movement. The spring at Ilypili, depicted by Pansy Napangati in 1990, was a reserve for the Pintupi until 1978 when a new bore and windmill mechanised its supply. In Pintupi lore, the honey ants originate at a small nearby rockhole.

Climate change
The necessity of water in life is timeless but climate and human adaptation have varied. The marketing slogan of 40,000 years of continuous culture has no place here. In the Last Glacial Maximum, around 22,000 years ago, extreme cold shrunk sea levels and reduced rainfall over the continent. The retreat of the icecaps commenced about 11,000 years back. Between 5000 and 8000 years ago, average rainfalls were fifty percent heavier than they have been since. El Nino began only 4000-5000 years ago, bringing the swings between prolonged drys and tumultuous wets that T. G. H. Strehlow believed had enriched the songs of Central Australia. However, it was human inventiveness, not more rain, which made the central desert inhabitable, and that only during the last 3000 years. Aborigines dug wells, built dams and ground seeds. Above all, they had to remember where the water was - recollections sustained through Dreaming.

In their Prehistory of Australia, Mulvaney and  Kamminga observe that large areas of desert would be uninhabited until there was sufficient rainfall. They quote Tindale’s report that, after general rain in the Western Desert, ‘men ventured boldly into areas seen only at such infrequent intervals that they were often in doubt as to whether or not they were trespassing, and they would often flee at the first sign of unidentifiable “smokes” on the horizon, or strange tracks’. Story-telling, oral or visualised, jogged the memory about the typography of these alien domains.

The centrality of water to Papunya art is present from one end of the exhibition to the other. The first work in order of the artists’ names is Wangukaratjanya (1974) by Anatjari Tjakamarra, is a Tingari story associated with water. The last named artist is Yumpululu Tjungurrayi, whose ‘Untitled’ (1991) uses designs associated with seed collection by women at the rockhole of Wangunu. Three of the four canvases by groups of men and women relate to water. Although that trio are listed as ‘Untitled’, they could have names of watering places.

An identification with points on the map can never exhaust their significance. However, the link to water does provide a means to penetrate aspects of the pieces on show. As Marcia Langton explains: “Many waterholes are highly secret-sacred, and usually gender specific. Thus senior male or female traditional owners, as appropriate, lead the approach to them, protecting those accompanying them from spiritual danger and authorising the drinking or removal of water under the strictest of conditions’.

Not surprisingly, therefore, catalogue entries for recent items conclude with the caveat: ‘Since events associated with the Tingari cycle are of a secret nature no further detail was given’. Earlier works, however, had come with fuller explanations, which we can use to deepen our understanding of the late 1990s canvases, assuming the accuracy of the earlier information. For example, three 1998 untitled paintings by Pinta Pinta Tjapanangka use designs associated with the rockhole site of Malparingya, including carpet snake dreaming and a journey by Tingari men. Recent untitled works by women depict their seed collection around claypans and rock-holes.

Not all the stories have a utilitarian bent. In ‘Two Men Dreaming at Kuluntjarranya’ (1983), Tommy Lowry Tjapaltjarri tells of two men who ate some native tobacco, and whose urine formed salt lakes, represented by the shapes in the work.

If the water at Papunya itself was an administrative convenience, the mythic dimensions of water dreaming are resplendent at Kalipinya, a storm site, 500 km north west of Alice Springs, (itself settled by the invaders because of its water). ‘The Rain Dreaming’, writes Kimber, ‘sweeps in from the west to its great centre, the native well at Kalipinypa, where lighting strikes proliferate and drive the storm clouds’. Kalipinypa, ‘a claypan …  covered a gritty and gravelly stony deposit that evidently helped to trap water after heavy rains’, appears to be the westernmost of a chain of such Water Dreaming sites which run from west to east. Anmatyerre, Luritja and Pintupi share in this story line because the rains link their country. The Luritja rain ceremony involves copious spilling of blood, sometimes from the urethra, T. G. H. Strehlow noting that the term for lightning flash is ‘rain penis’. The Arabana, on the western shores of Lake Eyre, possess a comparable storm-rain dreaming.

Johnny Tjupurrula's ‘Big Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa’ (1971) depicts a time of heavy rain, vividly evoking the subsequent propagation of wildflowers and other plant life’. Kimber explained that in ‘Water dreaming at Kalipinypa’ (1972), Warangkula included ‘the tjurungas, camouflaged and merging with the rest of the painting, of the “water men” ancestors and the wild raisin totem, and another showing the location of soaks, together with running water and caves’.

Walter Tjampitjinpa was another early painter of the Kalipinypa stories. His ‘Water Dreaming’ (1971) shows ‘streams of water running red as if mixed with the desert earth’, a reading that recalls the song recorded sixty years earlier by Carl Strehlow: ‘Among the rippling waters a reddish glow overspreads him’. The horseshoe symbol for a seated figure here represents the dreamtime ‘water-boss’.

The brothers Clifford Possum and Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri expressed the Kalipinypa rain dreaming in their ‘Warlungulong’ (1976) in which the ‘trail that begins at the uppermost edge of their painting shows how the Rain Dreaming came from that site. ‘Mythological storms are usually associated with water-birds at the claypan “lakes” and rock holes, regrowth of plants and therefore of vegetable foods, and activity by mythological people and animals. Women dance to celebrate the prolific fruit and vegetable foods’. Moreover, as T. G. H. Strehlow observed: ‘the individual plant and animal increase rites were not deemed to be magically effective until copious rains had fallen'.

Because two-thirds of the works on display come from only six of Papunya Tula’s twenty-nine years, with half of the selection clustered in the two opening and two closing years, the retrospective does not contain enough works from across the three decades to allow more than a stab at deciphering how particular marks, patterns or designs, have been changed. Kimber observes that that task is complicated further because, ‘when the people gather for ceremonies, they embellish physical and mythic features of the watering spots’. 

The catalogue entries supply contrary explanations for seemingly similar patterns.  When Bardon got ‘Warangkula to ‘talk-out” his stories, he provided ‘the hieroglyphics basic to the Water Dreaming in their many variants’. In Anatjari Tjakamarra’s  ‘Wangukaratjanya’ (1974),‘the rectangles represent water, with the outer ones being temporary water sites and the inner one a big rockhole’. Elsewhere, concentric circles represent water sources, their number or thickness indicative of their degree of permanency. Although certain roundels represent trees growing in a lake, connected roundels and adjoining straight lines indicate ‘both soakages and camp sites’.

The iconography becomes more even fluid when objects stand for each other: sand hills for clouds, or trees for storm birds, while rocks are associated with lightning or hailstones. ‘Virtually all depictions show some interrelatedness in clouds, lightning, running water and rockholes’. Such multiple meanings extend beyond symbols. Kimber proposes that ‘closely parallel mythological trails, each running in opposite directions and with different lines of rockhole, claypan and soakage waters, suggest reciprocal exchanges of ceremonies – for example, snake for rain’.

Markings that seem similar carry disparate significances. The cat’s cradle around the edge of Timmy Payungka Tjapangati’s ‘Kangaroo and Shield People Dreaming at Lake Mackay’ (1980) represents rain travelling from hill to hill. In Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula’s ‘Rain Dreaming at Kalipinya’ (1973), ‘small lines denote growth under the soil’. In Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri’s ‘ Narripi Worm Dreaming’ (1986) ‘wriggly lines represent the little yellow worms that burrow under the ground and leave a ridge in the earth after rain’.

The prominence given to water in this commentary is only a pointer to how the art of the arid zones can be understood. The investigation needs to move beyond indigenous culture because contact and control have up-ended its meanings. Poisoned waterholes became part of the folklore of racial conflict. In nineteenth-century Australia, Europeans searched for the great inland sea, fed by a mythical river - the Kindur. Instead, the occupiers plundered the Great Artesian Basin. James Fraser’s hierarchical triad of magic-religion-science for comprehending the natural order also applied to how water has been regarded in European societies. The twentieth century added a fourth category: the industrial-commercial. Ours has been the Age of Dams, with its corporatisation of supply to industry and agriculture. A mining company has laid claim to a Centralian aquifer for use in its own operations, or to sell to Perth. Earthworks have already partly destroyed the Kalipinypa site. In place of drinking water, corporations market flavoured beverages, the beer and lolly water that contribute to high death rates among Aborigines from alcoholism and diabetes.

Arnhem Land peoples are re-claiming their rights over the sea, a movement portrayed in the Saltwater Dreaming exhibition. Attention has yet to turn inland to the management of underground supplies. Artesian water rights not included in the 1976 Northern Territory Land Rights legislation, which acknowledged some native title to minerals. The struggle will highlight how land rights have always involved water rights, leading settler understanding of Papunya imagery towards the statement by Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri: ‘A dreamtime character would walk through and make a soak, then move on and perhaps create a rockhole. This is how things were created’.