Installation view of “D_O_T” at Galerie Pompom, Sydney, 2016. Photo by Doqment. Courtesy Galerie Pompom. 


Galerie Pompom

ISOBEL MAJOR, 2016, acrylic on cotton rag paper, 56 × 76 cm. Courtesy the artist. 

While painting by indigenous Australian artists from the Western Desert has received increasing international acclaim over the past few decades, the presentation of these works tends to emphasize cultural meaning as much as artistic resonance. Paintings presented in institutions are inevitably accompanied by texts explaining the Tjukurrpa, the Aboriginal word for “dreaming,” associated with the depicted designs. In contrast, the group show “D_O_T” was a bold exercise by curator Siân McIntyre that completely reframed the contemporary paintings of Western Desert artists Doris Bush, Martha MacDonald, Isobel Major, Candy Nelson, Maureen Poulson and Beyula Puntungka. All artists paint at Papunya Tjupi Arts center near Alice Springs—an Aboriginal-owned and operated organization that services 100 artists from its surrounding communities—which collaborated with Verge Gallery for the show. The title reflected McIntyre’s intention in looking beyond the ubiquitous dots of Western Desert painting—dots that have come to universally symbolize Aboriginal art, and have been endlessly appropriated on ties and tea towels—to the linework beneath.

Western Desert art is seen to embody the colors, textures and stories of western and northern south Australia and the southwest corner of the Northern Territory. However, McIntyre utilized the aesthetics of host venue Galerie Pompom in Chippendale to instead examine the work from an inner-city perspective. McIntyre has worked with Papunya Tjupi for nearly a decade and sought the permission of the center and the participating artists to expand each painting’s motif onto the wall behind it.

All the works in the exhibition were commissioned to be painted on identically-scaled cotton rag paper in a gray tone that matched the gallery’s floor. McIntyre provided the paper and sample color for the artists during the exhibition’s development; the finished works were presented in simple, brushed aluminum frames. The sense of these works coming from an “other” place and representing a story requiring decoding was disrupted in favor of a wall text describing how each artist’s style had evolved. These new paintings were dynamic and meditative, geometric and organic. One could find suggestions of Klee, Stella and Riley, perhaps Indonesian Batik designs, or maps reflecting the concrete and asphalt of Sydney’s streets.

MARTHA MCDONALD artwork set in line installation for the exhibition “D_O_T” at Galerie Pompom, Sydney, 2016. Photo by Doqment. Courtesy Galerie Pompom.

The installation itself was a surprising and almost shocking way to view Western Desert painting. These works were transformed via the wall paintings into an immersive site-specific installation using the visual language of the urban contemporary art world. The gallery’s cool whites and grays, polished concrete and fluorescent lighting seemed a world away from an indigenous art center, where women in colorful skirts work on canvases placed horizontally on tabletops or the ground, in a landscape of red earth and vast blue skies. In recontextualizing these works in this way, McIntyre questioned whether our preconceptions about Western Desert painting practices matter—and if so, to whom and why?

According to McIntyre, these artists are not particularly concerned with how their work is viewed in the context of contemporary urban gallery spaces—these notions of representation are inner-city concerns. Due to the fact that she has an ongoing relationship with Papunya Tjupi and its artists, McIntyre was able to work with the participating artists in the exhibition’s development, sharing designer Anne-Louise Dadak’s mock-up of the exhibition design and drawing on her experiences of other art projects and festivals in the Papunya community to effectively articulate to the artists how the wall paintings would be realized. A document hanging at the exhibition’s entrance formalized this agreement between all parties involved.

However, McIntyre still acknowledges the lingering sense of unease around this presentation and had organized a panel discussion to unpack these questions. Thus the exhibition can be seen as a way of initiating dialogue about contemporary Western Desert painting, rather than presenting a definitive curatorial model.

DORIS BUSH, 2016, acrylic on cotton rag paper, 56 × 76 cm. Courtesy the artist. 

BEYULA NAPANANGKA artwork set in line installation for the exhibition “D_O_T” at Galerie Pompom, Sydney, 2016. Photo by Doqment. Courtesy Galerie Pompom.

McIntyre wishes to see artists she respects develop their practices and profiles, and utilized her unique position and experience to showcase and open up discussion around their work. The resulting exhibition was surprising yet discomforting, and visually and conceptually effective—here’s hoping there are more like it to continue the conversation.

“D_O_T” is currently on view at Galerie Pompom, Sydney, through December 11, 2016.

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