ART INDIGENOUS - WATER RITES
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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'.
catalogue entries supply contrary explanations for seemingly similar
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
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’.
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’.
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’.