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10 / The Natural World

Possum Ancestors
Possum Ancestors
Artist / Origin Anatjari (Yanyatjarri) Tjakamarra (Australian, Pintupi language group, ca. 1938–1992)
Region: Oceania
Date 1975
Material Acrylic
Medium: Painting
Location Private Collection
Credit Photo courtesy of Fred Myers

expert perspective

Fred MyersProfessor of Anthropology, New York University

Possum Ancestors

» Anatjari (Yanyatjarri) Tjakamarra (Australian, Pintupi language group, ca. 1938–1992)

expert perspective

Fred Myers Fred Myers Professor of Anthropology, New York University

These paintings draw on a system of signs and iconography. Because the signs look, most of them are very geometrical in shape, in apparent form, there’s a tendency for Western viewers to see them as simply abstract forms. But in fact, they’re icons. They’re representational. That is they refer to and they can be used to refer to things in the world.

In the paintings of the Western Desert people of Australia, a circle can be a water hole. It can be a hill. It can be a circular path, just as ancestral people had in dancing. It can be a tree seen from above. A line could represent a path, a linear path that people take of movement from one place to another.

The main thing that the artists say about the paintings is that they don’t make them up—that they come from the Dreaming. That is, they are stories of the ancestral beings and their activities at certain places. And in those stories, the paintings describe how these places came into being, how the animals were there, the plants and why they’re there—the mythological past that still exists in the present in some other way—that these stories are communicated through these signs.

The ancestors often wore designs and decorations which had these similar shapes on them. And so not only do they, are they telling these stories through the paintings, but the paintings are themselves using, if you will, a visual vocabulary that’s left behind by the ancestral beings themselves.” 

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