APaintings of Lifetimes in the Desert

by: Nicolas Rothwell   published: 15th August 2012

THE two snakes have a life of their own. Their eyes gleam, their flanks shine, they seem to shift continually against the painted colours of the canvas, much as the curves and circles of Spinifex art seem also to be in constant, sinuous motion. But what is that movement: what is that inner life? What animates the snakes? What gives this art force?

There are many who wonder if there is anything true or genuine we can say about work that comes from somewhere so different from our world - and the difference, of course, is the point endlessly stressed. What, though, if Spinifex art were close to us, close to our hearts? What if the concerns of the Spinifex artists were, in truth, our deepest concerns? By now, indigenous art enthusiasts and connoisseurs are in possession of a good deal of basic knowledge about desert art, its themes, its sweeping narratives, its symbols and its external reference points. Stories aplenty have been gathered, doctorates have been completed, little realms of expertise have been carved out on the fringes of the painting movement.

Elegant, appreciative catalogue essays detailing and exploring the strange, unfamiliar features of desert belief systems are almost the norm now, for the outside experts tell us they have come painstakingly to know a good deal about these works, about the lives and convictions of the men and women who make them and, increasingly, about the sacred sites, the ranges and the waterholes that compose the landscape we see stretched out before our eyes in paint. It has been a rapid journey, from first rough images on board to large-scale cultural current; from simple outside view to inside knowledge. And how much we yearn to know those secrets, and penetrate the desert's veil. How keen we are to scan the studies and interpretations that come our way, and take the schemas and the explanations that they offer into our hearts!
Of all this, the Spinifex artists and their remote, rarely visited settlements serve as the limit case. Spinifex: the furthest tract of the inland desert: the purest, the most mysterious. The artists whose lives are lived out in places like Tjuntjuntjara and Ilkurka are routinely presented as the archetype of Aboriginal difference, their home landscape as a last redoubt.

But this much-pondered remoteness is a kind of luck - and, indeed, the men and women who paint these pictures have been blessed with repeated showers of good fortune. They live once more on their own lands, they have had committed art co-ordinators in Lou Allerton and Peter Twigg: they have the support of understanding gallerists: above all, it was their fate, two decades ago, to be thrown together with one of the greatest of Australia's anthropological investigators, Scott Cane.

He plunged in, and soon found himself wondering about his desert hosts. He wondered what it might be like to have "their excellence of spiritual control, and their depth of mystical vocabulary", to see profound nature and sublime humanity as part of the standard texture of daily life. Long years in the bush went by. Cane provided an overview of the Spinifex world in a study he prepared as part of their campaign to secure native title, and that study, lightly redacted, became Pila Nguru - a work at once of literature and art, since it contains images of the first series of large canvases made by the artists of the region. Consider the paintings on the walls in a new exhibition in Melbourne, against those first, late 1990s "native title" works, which were given in perpetuity to the West Australian state government both as revindicated claim documents and gifts of gratitude. There is little to choose between them: the gap is simply the variation between one set of masterpieces and another.
Painterly evolution, the refinement of sensibility - these are not the indices that help resolve this kind of art. Cane is a more useful guide, for he took the people he met and spent his desert years with on their own terms - something many incomers claim to do, but few actually can. He travelled through their landscape with them, gaining a sense of the sand-plain existence, its rhythms and its moods. "Theirs is a sheltered world known only to a few," he wrote then, "secluded and sequestered in the spinifex and sand, where drinkable water is hidden in the sand, food is camouflaged in arid gardens, raw materials are nowhere apparent, and the sacred realm is secret."

While Cane was in the field, the Spinifex arts project was established at Tjuntjuntjara, exactly 15 years ago, and one aspect of its story is worth highlighting. Its co-ordinator, Twigg, is clear about the course of those early days: the project was taken up initially as a "cultural documentation vehicle" - and two large collaborative works from its first season were even incorporated into the preamble of the Spinifex native title determination of 2001.
But the painters also realised that art could, if handled with care, help keep their world alive. In the longer term it could be made to serve them, and not just the market. It could bring fresh meaning to traditional ownership of land. Painting was done on trips out into the landscape in such a way that collaborative ties and links were brought into focus, and responsibilities for country rekindled.

Here is Twigg describing a field trip he took part in, four years ago: the paintings made on that journey could be seen "as a glimpse of the deep connections between desert artists, particular sites within traditional lands, mythological forces and the lore which ties all these elements together. Viewed in this way the paintings are in fact a statement not just of the artists' knowledge and love of country, but of a determination to paint and articulate in a contemporary form the traditional ways, laws and paths which the next generation will follow and in turn come to hold." To "live and work collaboratively", to hold that as the key to life and its onward flow - what, you might conclude, could be more different from the atomised life-way of our world?

Surely, then, there is a logic to the remoteness of the Spinifex realm: a logic to the difficulty that art collectors and well-meaning curators experience when they try to fly in to the little Spinifex lands airstrips, and find the clouds too thick and low and menacing for their aircraft to touch down. Surely, there is a logic to the sandy corrugations that so often block the road south from Warburton to Neales Junction, and make the track impossible to read for kilometres on end.

But is the emotional world of the Spinifex artists really that opaque? There is a startling quality about its colours, its line-systems and its repeating rhythmic intensities, of course, and those are the features that make it seem desirable - they speak of an ordered cosmos that we do not exactly know: one just out of our reach. That cosmos, though, is not just the marks and shadings that we see, and that the artists compose with such care for us to appreciate. Nor is it purely the story-cycles and the musics that underlie each painting, so that the works might more properly be understood almost as stage-sets for a kind of constantly unspooling desert opera. The figures of the two travelling men who make the landscape or the eaglehawk ancestor, the rat kangaroo and the various other totemic creatures - they will be subjects of puzzling inquiry for outsiders, but for the artists they are something more than loved, vivid presences in the country and on the canvases: they carry a world view. Perhaps there is even a way for us to follow, with our eyes, beyond the surface of these works, and grasp something of the ties binding them to their makers - and both to us. All we can do is clear our minds, and look closely, attentively. With grand, deeply felt works of desert art, there is no bar, the secrecy is not a weapon so much as a structuring element. The visual cues in Spinifex work usher the viewer in, more than they exclude. The vast, shining, elaborated roundels in the newest works by Lennard Walker, for instance, the keys and zig-zags in large canvases from the hand of Roy Underwood, the tendril patterns laid down by Tjaduwa Woods - they have their effects. They are immediate. They speak.

It is worth turning, at this juncture, to one of the only essays of significance yet penned about desert painting, a piece by the scholar Roger Benjamin, who was able to hear and sense the rhythm lurking in early Papunya art: he felt he could detect a "solemn, booming quality" in a work of the late Tommy Lowry. Its "great glowing circles" of paint sounded in his mind, much as if they were naval cannon shots or heavy tolling bells. The work lies open to the tuned senses - and thus the Western art lover can bring her own resources to the task of seeing: the look of things can be a point of entry, "the aesthetic can be a rich realm, a way of life unto itself". It can also lead us to worlds that seem far away.

Of course, there are simple, formal properties of Spinifex work we can study. We can go round exhibitions of this art, and divine how the marks set on the canvases function: how the roundels shimmer, how the key meanders interlock, how they suggest not just topography but motion, light's flow, the drift of sand, the way time leaps and runs inside our blood. Art has its effects, and there are whole lifetimes of knowledge of the world and how it feels, embodied in such paintings, and interpreted: they have a particular and fitting beauty for those who know in detail the landscapes that they represent. But they speak further. It is not coded insights into the Tjukurrpa, the body of sacred narratives, that they hold out to us so much as a philosophy of life.

Here, the indispensable Cane can step forward again to provide his gloss on this art. The desert can do things for us: it can instruct us in life, and show us things that are hidden in our minds. As Cane realised, it is a world of ordered opposites, a world made for "the most patient patience", a realm where things unfold slowly. We hurry; we seek to reach the goal. But, in desert culture, the further one goes, the further things are left behind, until the realisation dawns that "there is, in essence, nothing worth having that you don't already have". A completeness rests in the life these works record, and there is a completeness in the art as well: it is a reflective art, an art that accepts the balance between self and world. As your eyes move across the surface of these paintings, something of that sense of balance and stillness speaks. It leads to the desert, and it leads to the inmost chambers of the self.

Tupun Nguranguru: People of the Sandhill Country - Spinifex Arts Project 15th Anniversary Exhibition, is at Fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne. Presented by Vivien Anderson Gallery. This is an edited version of an essay written for the show's catalogue by Nicolas Rothwell.