Art Through Time: A Global View
The Natural World Art: Possum Ancestors
Anatjari (Yanyatjarri) Tjakamarra, an Aboriginal artist born in the southern Pintupi region of Australia, was part of the original group of Papunya painters.
Part of the Australian government’s assimilation policy, Papunya was established in 1960 as a settlement for indigenous people, including the Pintupi, who had formerly led semi-nomadic lives. When art teacher Geoffrey Barton arrived to teach at the Papunya school in 1971, his encouragement spurred an important development in Australian art.
Previously, the sacred designs of the Aboriginal people were given form only temporarily, applied to the earth, to ceremonial objects, or bodies with natural pigments. When they were given more permanent form it was generally on rock walls that were difficult to access. With the Papyuna school, for the first time Aboriginal artists began transferring sacred and ceremonial arts to modern supports (e.g., masonite board) using synthetic materials (e.g., acrylic paint). The portable pieces they created were used to transport traditional signs and symbols beyond the local community.
The imagery in Possum Ancestors and other Aboriginal paintings is closely linked to the belief system known as Tjukurrpa, or “Dreaming,” according to which creator-ancestors were responsible for shaping the living world and the physical features of the landscape, as well as the moral and spiritual code for human behavior. Through Dreamings, individuals are believed to be connected to both ancestral beings and the land upon which those beings left their marks and traces of their supernatural substance.
The Dreamings that Anatjari (Yanyatjarri) Tjakamarra painted are primarily related to the Tingarri cycle, which includes stories about the wayurta (possum) and other figures from the Lake McDonald region to which the artist claimed ancestral ties. Possum Ancestors tells the story of two ancestral beings, half-human, half-possum, who eloped in violation of their peoples’ marriage rules. The couple fled south seeking protection, but their kin followed. When the family of the lovers crossed paths with their defenders, a fight ensued. Where spears were dropped, mulga trees cropped up, and where stone knives were left behind, stony rises appeared.
As with other Aboriginal paintings of the Dreaming, the story of the possum ancestors is given two-dimensional form through the use of traditional icons, based in geometry. In addition to the footprints of the possum ancestors, there are a variety of shapes and lines. In other works circles might stand for trees seen from above, for fires, or for mountains. Here they indicate watering holes, while diagonal lines represent the dry sand hills of the country.
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.”
Bardon, Geoffrey, and James Bardon. Papunya: A Place Made After the Story: The Beginnings of the Western Desert Painting Movement. Aldershot, Hants, UK: Lund Humphries, 2006.
Benjamin, Roger, et al. Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya (Distributed for the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University). Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009.
Morphy, Howard. Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
Morphy, Howard, Margo Smith Boles, and University of Virginia. Art from the Land: Dialogues With the Kluge-Ruhe Collection of Australian Aboriginal Art. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.
Myers, Fred R. Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art.Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.
Myers, Fred R. Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self: Sentiment, Place, and Politics among Western Desert Aborigines. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991.
Ryan, Judith. LandMarks: Indigenous Australian Art in the Nation. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria in association with Woodstocker Books, 2006.