Art of Central Australia
The paintings in this gallery were originally commissioned for display at the 1988 World Expo in Brisbane. They represent a style of Aboriginal painting that emerged from one of the most remarkable developments in 20th century art. In the early 1970s, 250 kilometres west of Alice Springs at the Aboriginal settlement of Papunya, artists began to paint their traditional designs using modern art materials.
Over 20 artists were in this first group of Papunya painters, nearly half of whom are represented in the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre Indigenous Art Collection. The collection includes paintings by Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and Johnny Warangula Tjupurrula, who are now seen as key figures in the history of Australian art. The art of the Australian desert is now recognised and collected all over the world.
The subjects of the paintings are closely associated with the identity of the painter. Artists often say they are painting ‘my story’, meaning that they are depicting events, places, animals or plants with which they believe their identity to be strongly connected. In the English language the word ‘dreaming’ is often used to refer to these stories. The term reflects Aboriginal belief that the past is eternally present.
Many of the symbols used in desert art are described as secret-sacred because they have a religious significance that restricts their display. To prevent them from being seen by people who have not been initiated into ceremonial practice, some details are excluded from paintings or are camouflaged by a background pattern of dots. As a result, non-Aboriginal observers often refer to this style of desert art as ‘dot-painting’.
The art movement spread rapidly through desert settlements. Art production generates a substantial income for these communities. Within ten years, people who had been removed from their lands to form the settlement at Papunya had earned enough money to found their own community in their own part of the country.
The most prominent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists are now among the leading figures in Australian art. This has occurred not only in remote communities where people have retained many aspects of their ancient traditional way of life, but also in cities where urban indigenous artists are active participants in contemporary global culture. All these developments can be traced back to the appearance of the style of painting represented in this gallery.
– Timothy Morrell
Timothy Morrell is an independent curator and writer who was formerly Curator of Contemporary Australian Art at the Queensland Art Gallery.
History of the collection
John Truscott, the Creative Director of the 1988 World Expo in Brisbane, originally proposed the idea of commissioning paintings by Aboriginal artists from the central desert for an Expo display at South Bank. The 27 paintings were assembled in 1987. They were installed as part of the Expo Authority’s own pavilion and were displayed outdoors, under protective sails, in a spiral arrangement devised by Truscott. The collection was called The Art of Central Australia.
The Brisbane art dealer Philip Bacon wrote that this group of paintings was ‘…one of the most acclaimed exhibits at Expo, and received a vast amount of publicity… particularly overseas…The artists represented are considered by the experts to be the greatest of this famous school…The value of this collection lies in its very composition, and in its completeness.’
The paintings became the property of the South Bank Corporation (the reconstituted Expo Authority) after the conclusion of Expo. The possibility of selling the paintings was already being explored soon after they were commissioned. In a letter to New York art dealer John Weber dated 28 March 1988, John Truscott wrote ‘We are not interested in selling the works as individual pieces, but only as a collection in its entirety.’
Philip Bacon Galleries stored the paintings, rolled up, from 1988-1993.
It was finally decided to use the collection in the then new Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre.’ In March-April 1995, in preparation for display, the paintings were cleaned, conserved and re-stretched ready for hanging.