Dot Circle and Frame: The Making of Papunya Tula Art
by John Kean
The efflorescence of art making at Papunya, from which so much else flowed, has been described and evaluated from many different points of view over the half-century since it began. What used to be the standard account placed the teacher Geoffrey Bardon front and centre as a kind of magus figure who called this art into being. This is no longer credible. Bardon ignored what seems most salient now about the movement: its hybrid status as cross-cultural communication. Even as late as 1972 he was urging the practitioners he supplied with materials to omit ‘whitefella stuff’ from their canvasses, on the assumption that what they were articulating was pristine, undiluted, ancient knowledge hithertofore concealed in the Dreaming.
Biographies of artists can come up against similar problems. There are several, of varying quality, of Albert Namatjira. Vivien Johnson’s 1994 monograph on Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri has been followed, in the twenty-first century, by lives of Wenten Rubuntja, Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, Kumantje Jagamara and others. Books about Aboriginal artists by non-Aboriginal writers suffer from a peculiar deficiency. The matrices of the artists’ lives – the familial, social, ceremonial, and ancestral nexus out of which they come and in which they exist – tend to be opaque to the author and some of this information will anyway be withheld. Even in the case of Jenny Green’s collaboration with Wenten Rubintja, which is an assisted autobiography, an oral history, readers may still find themselves outside looking in. To put it another way: for Aboriginal subjects, biography and ancestry are inseparable.
Despite these formidable challenges, John Kean’s excellent Dot, Circle & Frame largely succeeds in its attempt to trace the ways in which the most famous of all Aboriginal art movements came into being – and also to describe, at its height, what it was and what it achieved. Kean has been intimately associated with the artists of Papunya Tula and their families for nearly fifty years now and this knowledge – which is not so much explicit as implicit in his awareness of limits: what not to say and where not to go – informs his art history. The result is, paradoxically, both innovative and conservative, if the latter word is understood to indicate conservation rather than something consciously backward-looking. He has given us something we have not had before: a coherent history of the movement alongside a persuasive analysis of its techniques, innovations and continuities.
The book, based upon Kean’s PhD thesis in Art History at the University of Melbourne (2020), is in two parts. The first is a history of the origins of the Papunya Tula movement in the first seventy odd years of the twentieth century; the second, a study of four of the artists, with a particular focus upon their innovations which, it is proposed, became techniques used by other painters in the Papunya school and also by artists of other schools. Both sections are illuminating, albeit in different ways: the first for its account of events, both historic and art historical, which culminated in the Papunya school; the second for its analysis of thematic concerns alongside, or in concert with, technical innovations.
Before I consider these two parts, it’s important to note that early in the book Kean offers a corrective. The term ‘Art of the Western Desert’, introduced by Geoffrey Bardon and used widely ever since, is, he suggests, a misnomer. Albert Namatjira’s territory overlapped with that of many of the Papunya painters; he was an Arrernte man and his country is better described as Central Australia (once known as Centralia). Three of the four artists featured in this book were Anmatyerr men, whose country is to the north-west of the Arrernte and whose language is related; as indeed some of them were, individually, to Namatjira himself. Only one, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, a Pintupi man, was from what might be called the Western Desert; and he had spent many years living at Haasts Bluff. And anyway: west of where? And is it even desert? Central Australia is too various, and too well watered, to be called that. Kean dismisses the term as inaccurate; I agree, and will not be using it here.
Albert Namatjira, the most important precursor of the Papunya painters, did not come out of nowhere. He was, as Kean points out, a maker of craft objects before he was a watercolour artist; and among the precursors of the things he made are the works of Erlikilyika Jim Kite, a southern Arrernte man and ‘a professional artist from Charlotte Waters’. Like Namatjira, Kite was a traveller. He had gone with Baldwin Spencer and Francis Gillen on their ethnographic expeditions as far as Borroloola. He made and decorated boomerangs (as Namatjira was to do), carved meerschaum pipes and produced works on kaolin which are both graphic and sculptural. Kite exhibited in Adelaide in 1913 and, Kean believes, Namatjira met him during his travels as a cameleer in the early 1920s.
The souvenir trade out of Hermannsburg Mission at Ntaria was initiated by Pastor Friedrich Albrecht, the Superintendent from 1926, in an attempt to make things that would bring in money to the mission and to the individuals living there. Namatjira embraced this opportunity and soon showed himself to be an expert carver. As well as items of traditional manufacture, like coolamon and boomerang, which he inscribed and painted upon, he made oval plaques, based upon a German folk art form, using cross-sections of mulga wood bearing homilies or else traditional designs. Kean’s discussion of these plaques, and their relationship to the oval and circular motifs characteristic of Arrernte art, is fascinating; as is his account of Namatjira’s attempt to reconcile circles and ovals with the rectangularity implied by the Christian cross and characteristic of the supports of almost all Western painting – including the majority of Namatjira’s own watercolours.
Kean also points out that Namatjira, on several occasions, drew or painted his own Dreamings in a style that harks back to the traditional repositories for such information, the tjuringa, and forward to the works of the Papunya artists. Kean has located, among the trove of materials collected by Ted Strehlow, a work in watercolour and pencil from 1948 which delineates Namatjira’s Yalka Dreaming and clearly anticipates what would happen at Papunya two decades later. There are other examples. Ancillary to this discovery, but not unrelated to it, is Namatjira’s use of photography under the tutelage of Rex Battarbee in the latter part of the 1930s. Photography is also a framing device and it uses, almost exclusively, the square or the rectangle to accomplish such framing. It is now essential as a tool for the reproduction and dissemination of art works.
The history of art is one thing; the history of peoples another. Two events dominate Kean’s re-telling of the period up until World War Two. Both occurred in 1928, in the fourth year of a severe, seven-year drought in Central Australia. One was the so-called Coniston massacre, actually a series of massacres, which took place in stages from August to October in that year; the other the desacralisation of Manangananga, a cave near Ntaria / Hermannsburg where the inscribed stones and painted boards called tjuringa were kept. This occurred in May, some months before the events at Coniston to the north. Pastor Albrecht, aided and abetted by his loyal lieutenants, the so-called native evangelists, made a deliberate decision to destroy the power of the old ways as a means of opening up the people to the new creed of Christianity.
At Coniston, the killing of a dingo hunter named Fred Brooks by a Warlpiri man, Kamalyarrpa Japanangka, called Bullfrog, whose wife Brooks had stolen or tried to steal, unleashed a series of violent, punitive expeditions under the command of a Constable William Murray and others that resulted in the deaths of a hundred or more people – men, women, and children of the Warlpiri, Anmatyerr and Kaytetye people, who still refer to the period as ‘The Killing Times’. None of these people were implicated in Brooks’ death, which was used, opportunistically, to dispossess the Aboriginal inhabitants of the land. Whole families were wiped out. Among the survivors were Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri, one of the Papunya Tula painters, whose mother hid him under a coolamon before she was shot and killed; and Kwatye Tjungurrayi, later known as One Pound Jimmy, whose photograph appeared for many years on the Australian 2/6 postage stamp. Like Kite, he was ‘a show him about country man’, in his case guiding Ted Strehlow and Charles Mountford. He was also the foster father of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, who was himself the younger brother of Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri (their mothers were sisters), two of the four individual artists Kean focusses upon in his book.
Both the Coniston massacres and the desacralisation of Manangananga were direct assaults upon the Aboriginal cultures of Central Australia: one a strategy to destroy the fabric of the spiritual beliefs of the people; the other an attempt to extinguish the very people who held those beliefs. Both left a vacuum behind; both, paradoxically, and for that reason, became opportunities. Kean doesn’t labour these connections but leaves them open; as he does the fugitive documentary evidence we have, in the form of photographs, of Clifford Possum and Johnny Warangkula as boys: the first when he was taken in, aged about fourteen and suffering from malnutrition, by the Lutherans at Jay Creek; the second, among a group of young boys photographed during a scientific expedition into Pintupi country in 1932, during which anthropologist Norman Tindale initiated a series of drawings which are also precursory to what happened later at Papunya.
Most of the Papunya painters were young men in the 1950s and all of them knew, or knew of, Albert Namatjira and his school of watercolour painters, which included his five sons, his cousins the Pareroultja brothers and many other relatives, friends, and descendants. One of Namatjira’s preferred painting spots was Haasts Bluff, a place where many people with different tribal affiliations had, since the drought in the 1920s, gathered. When it became apparent that the water supply at Haasts Bluff was failing, these people went en masse to the newly established government-sponsored community at Papunya, where a bore had been drilled in 1954. The town began to be built in 1957 and some of the men who later became painters worked on its construction. When Namatjira was convicted of alcohol offences in 1959, he served out his sentence at Papunya, where his example, both as an artist and as a man who made a good living from his art, was well known.
Wenten Rubuntja, who went on to paint in both the landscape and the abstract traditions, remembered as a boy picking up Namatjira’s used and discarded tubes of watercolour paint at Morris Soak outside of Alice Springs. Clifford Possum, also in the 1950s, at Yapalpe (Glen Helen), was offered tuition in watercolour painting by Namatjira himself; in an act which still resonates, he declined this passing on of the torch in favour of following his own path. Namatjira gave him some paint brushes anyway. Like others of the Papunya Tula painters, Possum was a wood carver first and it was the path of carving he decided to follow – not, perhaps, as an end in itself, but to see where it would lead. Keith Namatjira, Albert’s fourth son, was close to the Papunya painters and on one occasion exhibited with them in Sydney.
Kean draws these threads out delicately, without insistence, but the end result is to make clear that the Hermannsburg School is ancestral to Papunya Tula and that the two movements share many concerns – artistic, political, philosophic, religious. Both are strategies to negotiate across the frontier in a way that is materially advantageous to Aboriginal people, while at the same time preserving and advancing the Dreaming. They are thus an investment in the past, the present, and the future. Their concern was never with the individual genius of the artist, however evident that might have been, but with the integrity of the movement as a whole and with its ultimate potential.
Three of the four painters Kean concentrates upon in the second part of the book – Johnny Warangkula, Tim Leura, and Clifford Possum – have already been mentioned. The fourth, and in some ways the most central, is Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa. He was a remarkable man, an instigator – perhaps the instigator – as well as a transgressor, a trickster figure. Geoffrey Bardon described him thus:
Kaapa was very quick to see what others might not see at all. (I often thought he saw far too much, and perhaps this was why he drank more than he should.) He always moved in a fast, deft spring-walk, intense and convoluted as he whispered in his strange, pressed-together, mixed-up English. Kaapa was very bright, but very down to earth as well, an extraordinary survivor in a despairing environment. I remember him particularly for his intense way of seeming to be everywhere at all times, doing things mysteriously and well.
Clifford Possum also put him there at the beginning: ‘We three started painting: Tim Leura, Kaapa Tjampitjinba, Clifford. Before everybody. This is in Papunya – and outside from Papunya. First on art board and on carving.’ Kean suggests a series of conversations between these three, and associated experiments, took place in camps outside of the main settlement at Papunya in the late 1960s, before the advent of Bardon; their intent was to find a way to reproduce the sand paintings, and other visual accompaniments to ceremony, in a permanent and saleable form. There were two challenges: to find the technical means to do this; and to observe, and yet somehow circumvent, the protocols around revealing protected knowledge to the uninitiated.
Kaapa chose as his first studio an abandoned building that had once been the administrative headquarters, and where Paul Hasluck, the architect of assimilation, had declared Papunya open as a settlement. There, in the Old Settlement Office, using salvaged materials and brushes obtained from the nearby school, he began ‘to conceptualise the ceremonial ground in all its complexity’. District Welfare Officer Jack Cooke saw some of these early paintings, encouraged Kaapa to do more, and entered three works in the 1971 Caltex Art Award. One of them, Men’s Ceremony for the Kangaroo Ground, Gulgardi was awarded joint first prize. On the back of that, Kaapa sold half a dozen more boards privately. The effect at Papunya was electrifying: here was something everybody could do which could make a real difference to peoples’ lives.
Other men, including Tim Leura and Johnny Warrangula, joined Kaapa painting in the Old Settlement Office; also present was Pintupi lawman and power broker, Nosepeg Tjuppurula, and it was he who delivered that first consignment of paintings to Jack Cooke in Alice Springs. This significant detail, uncovered by Luke Scholes, suggests that the transgressive nature of the subject matter of these early works was not considered a strong enough reason to prevent them being exhibited. Kaapa, the most ambitious of the early painters, was also the most willing to push the boundaries of what could be painted and shown. Some of his first half dozen or so surviving paintings, which wrestle, as it were, the three or more dimensions of ceremony onto the two-dimensional surface of boards, can now no longer be shown; but they were then. The five illustrated in Kean’s book have undiminished power and splendour. Kaapa had blasted open a door that could not be closed again.
The question of what is secret and what is not remains. The vocabulary of signs used in Papunya painting is undoubtedly drawn from traditional sources, including sand painting, body painting, motifs used on shields and other artefacts; also from designs inscribed on tjuringa. Whether this alone makes them sacred is a moot point. One useful observation Kean makes is that Dreamings are shared and that parts thereof remain the property of different individuals: it is clearly transgressive to reproduce something that does not belong to you, and this is one of the reasons why knowledge is so jealously guarded and closely monitored. It isn’t clear that the use of discrete signs, in themselves, is inherently transgressive. If, however, someone were to reproduce in its entirety the design on a tjuringa, perhaps that would be. But who would do that?
Kean suggests this is precisely what was done with the famous honey ant mural (now destroyed) painted on the outside of a school wall at Papunya in August 1971. He also details the process whereby an acceptable version (the third) of the mural was negotiated, with Kaapa as an intermediary between the guardians and custodians (the old men) on the one hand, and the white supervisors on the other. In another indication of the continuities between Hermannsburg and Papunya, Keith Namatjira had a hand in the drafting of the murals at Papunya. Furthermore, murals were being painted at Yuendumu at the same time, and Kaapa was probably involved there too. Thus, in August 1971, sacred iconography was unveiled to the public more or less simultaneously at three places – Yuendumu, Papunya, and Alice Springs.
Kean believes that an accommodation was reached relatively quickly, during the first year of painting at Papunya, over what, in terms of iconography, could and could not be shown. He also disputes the widely held belief that the use of mass dotting was a strategy to cover over, or otherwise disguise, motifs which were there but not allowed to be seen. This is a crucial point, and it comes out of his detailed and closely argued analysis of the innovations his four painters made on the way to achieving their mature style. In the process, he suggests, ‘classic visual language of men’s ritual was distilled and reconfigured to become the defining constituent of a new form of transportable art’.
It was Kaapa who prepared the ceremonial ground. His early works mix a typical European perspective with areas that are meant to be seen as flat – a stage in the process by which symmetry replaced perspective as an organising device. The result is what Kean calls ‘planer perspective’. These works refer back to ceremonial performance, and rather than attempting to preserve something static, they try to capture events in time. For example, Gulgardi features at least three incarnations of the eponymous kangaroo: animal tracks; signs denoting a kangaroo ancestor; and a dancing human figure who is performing the role. Gulgardi and accompanying works were painted on a ground of uniform colour: yellow to begin with, later dark grey or a dark, reddish black.
The second innovation is what Kean calls ‘sacred geometry’. Tim Leura wasn’t part of the first painting group in 1971. Early in 1972, however, after people had returned from summer holidays in the city or from ceremonial business on Country, he introduced himself to Geoffrey Bardon, who expressed surprise that they hadn’t met before. ‘I’ve been watching you,’ Leura said. He became Bardon’s manager, facilitator, and go-between – his right-hand man. He also embarked on a series of experiments with Kaapa, as they worked together developing a process of ‘mirroring and repetition – the iterative composition which sets out the geometric conventions of desert painting’.
Kean analyses, diagrammatically, two series the men painted side by side: Kaapa’s twelve paintings of Budgerigar Dreaming and Leura’s six of Honey Ant Dreaming, which elaborate a method for describing the play of physical objects in metaphysical space. The actual ceremonial ground has multiple perspectives; there are murals on the earth, vertical poles standing over them, the centrifugal motion of bull roarers, the complex movements of performers singing and dancing. The geometry so discovered, through trial and error, often turned out to be cruciform. After all, Leura was a Lutheran who thought Christian and Dreaming ontologies were complementary.
Kean credits Johnny Warangkula with introducing the technique of dotting and the idea of painting Country as opposed to ceremony. ‘The realisation that the dot could be amplified and multiplied to enhance expressive potential,’ he writes, ‘freed painters to explore symbolic space beyond the restraints of received designs’. Dots were used already, for instance in the painting of kukitji, soft wood shields; there is dotting on Namatjira’s aforementioned Yalka Dreaming. Dots are also analogous to the tufts of feather down or chopped vegetable matter which was applied to ritual objects, human bodies, and ground murals during ceremony. When the wind blows, when bodies dance and objects are animated, these physical dots are dislodged and float, becoming guruwari – particles that are fragments of the divine, as scattered by ancestors in their progress through Country in the Dreaming.
Johnny Warangkula was the first to use dotted fields to depict vegetation in an arid landscape. He was, like Kaapa, a rain-maker and it was considered significant that his great boards of early 1972 coincided with an epochal downpour at Papunya. His Rain, Lightning and Stars is the first work to take Country, not ceremony, as its principal subject matter. The work operates on several levels, with imagery and topography flowing into and out of each other so that we experience all at once narrative, geography, and the emotions both may provoke. Dotting could also act as an indicator of the atmospherics that precede, accompany, or follow storms. Water, too, becomes iridescent as light flashes from its surfaces and scintillates with its flows. Others among the painters, notably Tim Leura and Clifford Possum, who often painted bushfire Dreamings, used dotting to suggest not just mist and rain, but smoke and ash, clumps of vegetation and even creatures, like honey ants, under the earth.
Dotting, in Kean’s terms, is additive, not negative or reductive, and it is used to heighten, not disguise, sacredness. Once self-censorship had been accomplished at the level of iconography, the dots could be used to reveal the numinous. Kean points to the so-called white paintings all four artists did in mid-1972 as evidence for this breakthrough. Feather down in the wind could look ‘semi-transparent, fractal and shifting’, with the red earth appearing intermittently beneath; in the same way a veil of dots can represent the ever-changing presence of the totemic ancestors, as they do in the mesmeric over-dotting of the white paintings.
The final stage in Kean’s analysis of the innovations of his four painters during the 1970s is the development by the brothers Tim Leura and Clifford Possum of what Kean calls ‘cosmological mapping’. Without suggesting any direct influence, he draws an analogy with the 1970s art movement Abstract Illusionism, in which three-dimensional space was conjured from a two-dimensional surface. For Namatjira’s horizontal perspective – fore / middle / back / ground – Leura and Possum substitute a three-part vision: atmosphere / earth’s surface / underground, seen simultaneously and from above. They upscale the mind maps which underpin desert navigation; the large canvasses were usually painted spread out upon the ground and oriented towards the Country they were depicting.
The tension between shallow pictorial space and meaningful depth of illusion can be re-stated as a conflict between cryptography and exposition, and suggests their experiments allow us ‘to see spatiotemporal realms in a revolutionary new way’ – just as, say, the Cubists did in Paris before the Great War. This is not an idle comparison. Kean quotes Georges Braque: ‘Picasso and I said things to one another that will never be said again . . . that no-one will ever be able to understand . . . things that would be incomprehensible but that gave us great joy . . . all that will end with us.’ There is no doubt that Leura and Possum were similarly involved in a shared enterprise that redefined what painting could do: the canvasses themselves, some of which were collaboratively made, are evidence of that. They are a re-working of the iconic signs of totemic ancestors and their deeds in the context of the biological, ecological, and phenomenological meaning of Country.
Tim Leura made nine topographic works (his term) between October 1973 and April 1974; his Anmatyerr Dreaming coincided with Possum’s Paths of the Ancestors (both 1973). Then, in 1976, the two men collaborated on Warlugulong, with its quotation of Roy Lichtenstein’s Kapow! in the centre of the vast canvas. Possum continued the series, culminating in 1979’s Yuutjutiyungu: ‘five monumental, innovative canvases that mapped out the artist’s major patrilineal Dreamings in such a way as to integrate the sacred diagrams of ceremonial ground paintings and the topographical conventions of European maps’. These majestic works, which can include a dozen or more intersecting Dreaming tracks, may be understood as maps of Country that also act as claims to title. They are, after Kaapa’s signature works of the early 1970s, the outstanding achievement of the Papunya Tula school.
Knowledge of Country is intrinsic to Papunya Tula painting, augmented by the esoteric knowledge gained during initiation and added to over a lifetime of ceremonial activity, culminating in the desire and need to pass this knowledge on. Here too we may see a form of innovation, in the use of paintings both as a means of recording knowledge and of passing it on. This was a major motivation behind the painting at Papunya, emphasised by a remark made by Clifford Possum: ‘You know what? I like so people can understand. Might be all the young ones, so they can understand. Because they gotta carry on.’ Tim Leura made an opposite yet complementary statement when he said: ‘The money belongs to the ancestors.’
John Kean saw a painting by Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, The Winparrku Serpents, in the Peter Stuyvesant Collection of Aboriginal Art when the exhibition came to the school where he was an art student in Gippsland in 1976. He said he looked at the serpents, hanging on the wall of a non-descript corridor, every day for the duration of the exhibition. The following year, having graduated, he found his way to Papunya where, just minutes after his arrival, Kaapa knocked on the door of the flat where he was staying. By May 1977, he had a job in Alice Springs sketching the designs of paintings on certificates of authentication that were to accompany the works on their way to market. ‘On reflection,’ he writes, ‘I realise that my particular way of assessing desert art began in that room, drafting concentric circles under a single light bulb.’
Subsequently, from 1977 to 1979, he was Art Advisor at Papunya, an equivocal role which has always had a certain amount of controversy attached to it. Kean quotes Eric Michaels, the American anthropologist who worked among the Warlpiri in the 1980s. ‘Arts advisors can deny influencing indigenous art until they are mauve in the face, but even if they never commented on a painting in progress or completed, by word or look or gesture or price, in Central Australia at least one irreducible source of influence persists: materials.’ Kean suggests art advisors come in three forms. There is the servant, who provides materials, transport, a palette, and other aids but nothing more; the collaborator, who attempts to arrive at a shared vision with the artist, in the way that Imants Tillers did with Kumantje Jagamara or Peter Adsett with Rusty Peters; and there is the artistic director, who makes no bones about his direct involvement in the process of making the art. Tony Oliver, who facilitated the painting of Paddy Bedford in the East Kimberley in the early years of this century, is said to have had ‘Art Advisor’ inscribed on his calling card.
Kean also points out that these roles overlap and that any arts advisor can expect to play all three at different times on any particular day. The overriding question is, he says, responsibility to the artist or to the art? I mention this because Kean is himself implicated in the production of some of the paintings he writes about, particularly the later topographical works by Clifford Possum. Does this make him a partial observer? What would impartiality look like anyway? The question has some bearing upon the meaning of the art. American abstract artist Sol LeWitt’s fascination with the work of Emily Kame Kngwarreye is well documented yet the things he made do not resemble her works in any obvious way. Some scholars suspect that among the ‘advice’ that Tony Oliver gave to Paddy Bedford were reproductions of works by Philip Guston. What did Bedford see in Guston (if indeed he did see him)? What did LeWitt see in Kngwarreye? What can we see in the Papunya Tula works?
Michaels, again speaking of the Warlpiri but with a wider application, said:
These are not self-contained texts. In a way reminiscent of Neo-Expressionism, the observer is encouraged to perceive meaningfulness but not the meaning itself . . . Do these paintings convey some authentic vision beyond the cultural and linguistic specificity of the iconic and semiotic codes employed in their construction? The senior men of Yuendumu believe in the truth of these paintings and intend to convey that to Europeans, to whom they believe they have a responsibility to communicate these things of which they know more than anybody. That intention I take to be an artistic one. The reader is invited to determine if the authenticity of their knowledge is demonstrated here.
Kean isn’t a fan of the Romantic notion of the artist, which cannot be sustained when we are looking at the art of Papunya or anywhere else in Aboriginal Australia. He writes:
The artists of Papunya and its outstations, whom I met as a twenty-three-year-old, taught me about being in their world and how to read its signs. As exceptional painters, they also taught me that art does not have to dwell on existential angst to be significant, and that given personal experience and deep-seated authority, painting can be approached straight forwardly – as work.
Dot, Circle & Frame is an eloquent testament to that belief; following Michaels, it is up to the reader to determine its value, and that of the works it describes, analyses, and reproduces.
It is well worth the effort of doing so. The book is boldly and beautifully designed by Peter Long, and the quality of the illustrations is superb throughout. I have just one criticism – or maybe it is simply an observation. The superscript numbers given in the text in order to direct the reader to the plate or figure under discussion do not always match up with the work in question. This is a production or an editorial matter; certainly not the fault of the author. The publisher rather; someone didn’t do a final check. It involves the reader in some detective work if they are to locate the work referred to; but I think that, in each case, I was ultimately successful.
Oddly enough, the effect of this error, and the extra scrutiny it means the reader must give both text and illustrations, has a resonance with the book as a whole. It reminds you of the illustrations which are in fact missing – those works, especially the early paintings of ceremony by Kaapa, which were exhibited in the 1970s but, because of their transgressive nature, cannot now be shown. Nevertheless, they exist and we are assured that the author, at least, has seen them; as he has seen film of ceremony from the 1950s, which he also may not describe except in the most general terms: the one in which he saw wind-blown feather down turn into fragments of the divine. These omissions haunt this book and, paradoxically, increase the sense of strangeness, majesty, and incommensurability of the paintings within it.
- ACCA Book Club: Quentin Sprague in conversation with John Kean.
- ‘Before the Law – Reading the Yuendumu Doors with Eric Michaels’ – Rex Butler; in Religion and Media, eds. Hent de Vries and Samuel Weber, Stanford University Press, 2001.
- Dear Robert – Rex Butler, Monash University, 1999.
- Possum Dreaming at Napperby – Sotheby’s, 2009.
- The Art of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri – Vivien Johnson, Craftsman House, 1994.
- The Stranger Life – art at the edge of Kimberley painting – John Kean, Artlink, 2020.