Way Outback: Paint, Money and Land

Dot, dot, dot...dot, dot, dot...dot, dot, dot. Ernabella painters use thousands of individually placed dots to create shape and form. The style predates European pointillism by hundreds of years harkening back to rock paintings executed with crushed ochre pigments. Cave painting was used as a teaching tool for social customs and important knowledge. In the image below you can see three concentric white circles and a red squiggly line from a Yankunytjatjara cave I visited near Ernabella. Motifs like these are symbols representing significant features in the landscape. The paintings often served as maps that led people from water source to water source.

The move from rock to canvas is a relatively recent phenomenon with the introduction of western methods in the mid 1930's. This signaled the beginning of commercial art for a people that have no history of commodifying art. The first widely acclaimed aboriginal artist, Albert Namatjira, became famous not for a traditional aesthetic but for painting his homeland in a western style. He was a transitional figure that introduced aboriginal art to an Australian society that didn't consider aboriginal people to be citizens. In 1957 he became the first Aboriginal man to be granted citizenship largely due to his famous painting skill.

The sale of paintings has become a dependable source of income for individual artists as well as the art center in Ernabella. Their work is sold throughout Australia and abroad. An elder of the community Dickie Minyintiri won last year's prestigious $40,000 Telstra prize as Australia's top indigenous artist. Money however can have a polarizing effect in aboriginal communities. Every Friday money from art sales is dispersed in a tradition called "money story". This was always a day of great activity as people came to "hum bug". This is the practice of begging elders and other family members for money. It was sad to see elderly women hounded by nephews, nieces, and younger relatives only to see those same people turn down their own opportunity to make art and money.

Visually there is no patented style in Ernabella but similarities exist in materials and content. The main subject matter is the land itself. It serves both as image and place setting for aboriginal creation myths. There is a strong tie between the painter's specific homeland and the stories they tell. I often heard artists refer to the subjects of their paintings as being their "father's homeland". The desire to commemorate family land is something I could strongly relate too as my own studio practice revolves around this central drive.

You might notice from looking at the paintings that they are painted from an aerial view looking down at the landscape. This is unusual because most of the artists have never seen the land from the air. The aerial view became a core part of their aesthetic prior to plane travel. This understanding of space is based on extensive walking. Walking is a past time, a form of transportation and a way to understand the world. Even in early childhood the Anangu travel long distances by foot. Many modern societies are detached from the landscape because we travel in cars or other fast moving vehicles. We might live in the same area all of our lives and not come to understand the subtle differences in elevation or shape of the land around us. As a thought exercise try to visualize your current neighborhood. Can you name all of the streets? It is hard enough to remember a small western style neighborhood much less hundreds of kilometers of mountains, ridges and streams. The Anangu possess a GPS-like knowledge of the land around them. This connection leaves an indelible mark on their art, creating a unique aesthetic that is all their own.

This video shows the land surrounding Ernabella. The mountains and valleys are part of the eastern end of the Musgrave Ranges. My next post in this series also looks at the connection between the Anangu people and land. It will feature a video of Uluru, a sandstone monolith that rises out of the desert. Way Outback chronicles my time in the remote outback town of Ernabella, South Australia. I spent a month there collaborating with aboriginal artists. For more information on the project you can visit the Kickstarter page that helped fund this project by clicking here.

Click below to read the other posts from the series
Way Outback: The Road to Ernabella
Way Outback: Night Writing
Way Outback: Chasing the Light
Way Outback: A Story for the Eyes
Way Outback: Animal Kingdom
Way Outback: Paint, Money, and Land
Way Outback: The Red Walls of Uluru

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