Aboriginal Painting: On the drive to paint

Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya
Grey Gallery, New York City, fall 2009


Why make paintings? Ritual and ceremony. Transfer knowledge. Experience and the preservation of experience. Birth of new beauty. Evocation of memory.

Papunya paintings seem to be indices of power for initiates but the rest of us who lack this knowledge are barred from full comprehension. We can speak about their beauty, as a mystery or as a formal composition, but not as revelation.

But these paintings were sold, then auctioned, collected, exhibited. Original Papunya paintings were created on the body or on the ground–washed or blown away–or incised into rock and maintained by shamans to protect the community. They were made and remade. But what of these paintings sold off to the west and admired for their beauty and the unknowable mystery they embody? What do they mean for us?

The artist insists that these paintings come from something–they are not merely "made-up stories." They come from Tjukkurrtjanu–from the dreaming, the cosmic realm from which all shape and meaning emerge–and they are connected to the men's ngurra (ancestral country) ... They are not to be looked at as "pretty pictures." They are powerful and dangerous, gold, precious.

And then I wonder again, why are they sold? My cynical western mind understands the value of the unattainable that has its price. Art offers and conceals. The only way I know to understand these works is not by looking, but through doing. So I made my first "aboriginal" work in 1997, and my second in 2009. And I am still asking...

What is the drive to paint? Is it a desire to preserve something ineffable? Is it telling a story that we hope will pass on some of the wisdom of our ancestors and the experience of our lived life? Is it an expression of our search or of our knowledge? Is it to create an imprint of form on the world from that which is essentially formless? Is it to remind us of the mystery without making it less mysterious? These are all serious matters. My question is, when did painting become about pretty pictures and made-up stories? When did we, western world, loose our connection to what it means to paint?

Pacia Sallomi
May, 2010