Tracks in the Desert: the tremulous landscapes of Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula and Fred Williams – Ryan Johnston

The earth alone subtends the edifice of human history and culture.
– Edward S. Casey (2002, 269)


Desert dialogues

If landscape is not the most persistent theme in the history of Australian art, then it is certainly its most enduring form. [1]   Australian landscape painting has long been considered to provide a rich barometer of shifting relationships with the land, and as alluding to the complex socio-political and cultural discourses such relationships may imply.  Hence landscape painting (in Australia and elsewhere) can be understood as part of a fluid historical discourse; a stage upon which national self-images, anxieties and senses of self have been enacted, propagated, exhausted and/or renewed. [2]   As Homi K. Bhabha once observed, landscape provides a recurrent metaphor for the inscape of national identity (Bhabha, 295).   The resonance of this metaphor (as it may pertain to the context of Australian art) was both strengthened and further complicated with the emergence of Western Desert painting in the 1970s.  Inspired by a complex spiritual system, at the heart of which lies the land, landscape is almost without exception Western Desert painting’s theme and/or form as well.  It has often been suggested that a factor in the success of Western Desert painting is precisely this emphasis on land, which parallels and occasionally intersects with the history of non-Aboriginal art in Australia, whilst simultaneously staging a pertinent series of historical and cultural interlocutions.  It is these parallels, intersections and interlocutions which this paper seeks to trace, as a means by which to explore the historically fraught relationship between the two more precisely.

As a case study, this paper will consider two of the most iconic images in the history of recent Australian painting, both of the desert.  Fred Williams’ Pilbara series (1979-81) is widely celebrated for capturing the essence of the Australian outback, as is the dotted style of Western Desert painting of which Luritja artist Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula was one of the originary practitioners. [3]   Both painters are regularly asserted to have changed the way Australians see their country.  This paper will initiate a comparison of these two artists prompted by the fact that, despite vastly different imperatives, the work of each converged on a similar formal vision of the land, typified by calligraphic annotations, small dots and intricate lines, near contemporaneously in the 1970s.  A fact which has prompted a more sustained history of art historical comparison of the two than exists between any other pair of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australian artists.  The aim of this case study is to explore the significance of this, probe further apparent affinities, and via a reconsideration of the concept of landscape begin to highlight the potential for a genuine dialogue between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal art.  The precarious nature of such a proposition however, requires some initial qualification of, and reflection upon, the circumstances from which it emerges.

The recognition, popularity and success of Aboriginal art in the latter part of the 20th century has posed a long series of critical dilemmas for art history.  As an art historical category “Aboriginal art” today performs a discreet function.  Amongst the vast diversity of cultural production which falls under its rubric, some can be considered contemporary art without further qualification, while other examples are mediated to various degrees by distinct local and cultural traditions.  Still other examples (e.g. Western Desert painting) are less easily locatable, and while bearing oscillating resemblance to both local traditions and contemporary international practises do not fully accord to either. [4]   Thus the term Aboriginal art appears to function largely as a lens through which art history may be focused and arranged according to cultural identity.  However even this formulation is susceptible to challenge, with cross-cultural artistic collaborations further complicating the matter and suggesting that ultimately the category is open to, and perhaps even encouraging of, negotiation. 

Comparisons between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal art are thus fraught with difficulty.  Major surveys of Australian art  often exclude Aboriginal art entirely, and segregation remains the curatorial status quo as well. [5]   In many instances where comparisons have occurred, however, the resulting dialogue is often lopsided.  Fred Myers has observed a tendency to engage Aboriginal painting from “the historically established problems and discourses” of art history, and that the insertion of the works into such existing “regimes of value” all too often resurfaces the tropes of “primitive” and “native” at the expense of establishing any genuine dialectical exchange (Myers, 293).  An oft cited example of this being the strangely enduring, yet highly misleading habit of comparing Western Desert painting to post-war American abstraction.

Fred Williams’ paintings were first discussed in relation to Aboriginal art in  1982 (see Zimmer), and this has continued intermittently ever since.  As mentioned earlier, there has also been an increasing tendency to narrow this comparison to Western Desert painting and, in particular, that of Johnny Warangkula.  While many such comparisons are of a predominantly formal nature (Nelson), or function as rhetorical straw-men (Brody), there have been several productive exceptions which allude to a greater significance.  Marcia Langton, one of the most incisive commentators on Aboriginal art and culture, has made the comparison as a means by which to explore divergent concepts of environmental management and the function of the wilderness trope in culture and politics (Langton 2000).  Former art advisor John Kean has considered the work of Warangkula and Williams from the perspective of painterly naturalism (Kean), and Paul Carter has also described a “convergent, or at least parallel” development in their respective visions, through which he highlights a disjuncture in their respective metaphysical approaches (Carter, 362).  It is from the suggestiveness of these last three accounts that I will proceed.

It should be acknowledged that many of these writers have apparently limited the scope of their comparisons in recognition of dangers such as those articulated by Myers above.  A caution voiced more explicitly in regards to landscape by anthropologist and curator Gary Lee, who argued that emphasis on the word ‘landscape’ in discussions of Aboriginal art constitutes a deliberate misconstrual by art critics hegemonically attempting to recontextualise, and thereby understand, Aboriginal culture through their own (101).  Lee’s point is well made, and sharpened by the fact that much Australian landscape art illustrates a horrific history of dispossession.   Yet perhaps the fact that Western Desert painting explicitly re-negotiates and denies the premise for this history, that is the concept of terra nullius, that the comparison may nonetheless be beneficial to pursue.  Furthermore, warnings such as Lee’s and Myers’ should not be mistaken for statements of absolute incommensurability, nor as advocacy of the need “to maintain a strategic silence” in debates over intercultural discourse, [6] for to do so would ultimately validate the very assertion of cultural hegemony such a position seeks to elide.

The idea that negotiation may actually be a driving imperative of much contemporary Aboriginal art, culture and politics has been circulating for some time, and its currency within art history continues to strengthen.  Unsurprisingly it is Marcia Langton who has expressed this most articulately and compellingly:


‘Aboriginality’ is a social thing.[it] arises from the subjective experience of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people who engage in any intercultural dialogue, whether in actual lived experience or through a mediated experience.Moreover, the creation of ‘Aboriginality’ is not a fixed thing.  It arises from our histories.  It arises from the intersubjectivity of black and white in dialogue. (Langton 1993, 31)

That art might constitute one such “mediated experience” seems plausible, and this possibility has been explored by Ian McLean who argues, in regards to Western Desert painting, that the “meaning is not in the painting, but in our intuitive play with it” (McLean, unpaginated).  Likewise Ian North, who observes that “assertions of incommensurability.falsely imply homogeneity” and ignore the possibility, however problematic, of translation (North, unpaginated).  All of which would suggest that artistic dialogue is a real potentiality, provided of course it is mediated with a good measure of self-reflexivity.

Crucial to establishing such a dialogue between the art of Warangkula and Williams is the location of a meeting point which, as far as possible, does not privilege any particular “regime of value”.  I would suggest that landscape can provide such a meeting point, albeit contingent upon clarifying exactly what it is we mean by this term.  The concept of landscape has been the subject of energetic critical enquiry over the past three decades, and not only in art history.  Landscape architecture and environmental design have become increasingly independent fields, and others such as spatial theory, social geography, history and phenomenology have either developed around the study of landscape, or turned increased attention to it. [7]   Whilst these fields are as complex as they are diverse, what most have in common is a shift towards a more expansive definition of landscape itself.  The word ‘landscape’ originally entered the English language as an artistic genre, and thus the term quite literally means ‘a picture of a view’ (Jackson, 3).  In migrating to vernacular usage the term gradually adopted a second meaning, this being ‘the view itself’ (Jackson, 3.).  More recently emphasis has shifted still further from sight to site, and the general consensus now is to think of landscape as an ‘environment’.  That is, landscape is regularly conceptualised as a framed or defined space which exists as the “background for collective existence” (Jackson, 3).  This latter shift highlights one other important point, the recognition that landscape is not natural, but instead contingent upon the particularities of this “collective existence”, regardless of how effective its naturalising powers may be.

In regards to art history, methodological changes in the approach to landscape have been broadly analogous to these shifts.  Shifts the artist and art historian Ian Burn (1995) succinctly highlighted when he argued that “landscape is not something you look at, but through”.  This issue has also been explored by W.T.J. Mitchell who has emphasised the crucial and tendentious relationship between landscape and power, be it cultural, historical or otherwise (Mitchell 2002). [8]   It is with this in mind that I turn now to the paintings of Johnny Warangkula and Fred Williams. 

F ig.2
Tracks in the desert

Cultural practices.can turn local encounters.into indelible, unretractable social marks – so that the sequence of sites we inhabit.does not become genericized into an undifferentiated serialization, one place after another.
– Miwon Kwon (166)

To quote phenomenologist Edward Casey, “places not are, they happen“, and thus lend themselves so well to narration (Langton 2000, 262).  And it is the narrative component of Warangkula’s and Williams’ work with which I wish to begin the comparison.  By arguing that the landscapes of both express distinct relationships between history, culture and geography, and by examining these relationships in some detail, I will attempt to demonstrate that a comparison of the two artists in this way serves not only to elucidate the work of each, but also reveals a hitherto under-examined proximity.

In light of this approach, it is thus significant that the concept of narrative recurs as an intensely problematic and unresolved issue in the historiography of both Warangkula and Williams.  Initial histories of Western Desert painting, including Warangkula’s, relied heavily upon recourse to Dreaming stories, just as the commercial market still does.  However recently art historians have begun to highlight the restrictive nature of such a method, as well as its propensity for interpretive overdetermination, and subsequently the discussion of specific narratives are now often avoided. [9]   Similarly, Williams’ paintings are often denied narrative capacity entirely.  His landscapes have been described variously as “evacuated of prior associations, histories [and] stories” (Carter, 363), and as “airless images” (McCaughey, 9).  It has even been suggested that Williams moved beyond “the landscape as the vehicle or backdrop of human feeling or action” (McCaughey, 343), and approached a sense of “pure” or hermetic aestheticism (Broadfoot & Butler, 9).  Here it will be argued that a strong narrative component is not only implicit to the work of each artist, but that recognition of this goes some way towards opening up for a dialogue between the two.

Fred Williams once remarked that he was attempting to picture the landscape “with the skin off” (Williams, 13).  This comment is often understood to convey a tendency to expressively condense natural patterns in his work; Williams’ ability to “communicate. through the terms of paint. in terms of paint” (ibid.).  Thus this quote regularly provides an anchor for abstractionist accounts of his paintings (see Mollison 1989, 230), however considered in light of the Pilbara series it is in fact evocative of a quite different concern altogether.  While initially the sheer contrast between the landscapes in this series point to an artist exercising substantial, even metaphorical license with his subject, a comparison with the terrain of the region itself suggests differently.  If one compares one of the red hued paintings in the series, such as Tom Price Landscape (fig.1), with aerial photography of the Tom Price area (and remembering that Williams’ was working in part from aerial photography), a clear affinity in colouring becomes apparent.  That is, the tones used in the painting match closely those of the soil being mined, a vivid red derived from its rich iron content.  Similarly, the tonal range evident in those landscapes in the mother of pearl palette, for example Mt Nameless (morning) (fig.2), is keyed along the virtually the same yellow-blue register as the colours of the vegetated hills surrounding the mines. [10]   Furthermore, several of the black markings on the red landscapes appear very similar to mining ridges; most strikingly in the case of Pilbara Landscape.  Thus, what emerges in the passage between the various landscapes in the series is not simply a formal tension, metaphoric license or naturalistic concern, but physiographic enquiry and narration.  It is known Williams’ had previously used physiographic and geological texts in his study of landscape, [11] and it thus seems highly plausible that it was this, in fact, he was suggesting when speaking of removing the skin from the landscape, and not simply a reductive or essentialist quest.

If one monitors the shifts in Warangkula’s painting over the course of the 1970s a far from unrelated thematic concern emerges.  While early works relied upon an ordering linearity closely related to traditional sand or body designs, his compositions soon began to change dramatically.  Works such as A Bush Tucker Story (fig.3) and Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa (both 1972) are indicative of this change, both having compositions that operate on multiple formal levels.  From a distance the contracted spatialisation of the dotting gives the impression of a bird’s eye landscape view, and the linear structure combines with the variety of hatching and colour to give the effect of a varied topography, geology and vegetation.  Hence the cartographic sensibility often attributed to Western Desert painting is evident here too.  However on approach this map-like linearity dissolves almost entirely.  What was seen from a distance was not so much line as passages of dotting which had mobilised to trace lines or briefly map out gestural curves and circles (presumably allusions to the more important sites).  On closer inspection these quickly and enigmatically disperse into veil-like swarms inseparable from the rest of the painting.  Furthermore, in some areas still more dots circumnavigate these lines and curves to create a flowering effect, while in others they flow in ripples between discrete sections creating spatial connections unseen from afar and independent of the general compositional structure: as if to stress the multiple and localised cause and effect from which the landscape takes its broader form.  Apparently emphasising this, the swarms of dots have no consistently discernible hierarchy of layers, and never betray the ground completely.  Hence what is evident is a landscape which is map-like in scope, yet firmly predicated upon the interdependence and extensity of vast topographic, ecological and other more oblique (perhaps spiritual or metaphysical) systems.  Here too then a certain interest in physiographic narration becomes evident.

While these observations are admittedly quite broad, they do, however, provide a frame in which more specific narratives are enacted.  In the Pilbara series this emerges from several further, but rarely remarked upon, social markings.  Both of the Mt Nameless paintings depict a telecommunications tower atop the mountain, and Salt Pile (Dampier) features a helicopter entering from the left of the lower register. [12]   While in a compositional sense these features are largely incidental, they nonetheless elaborate upon the broader enquiry, suggesting further, more explicit histories and relationships.  In doing so Williams appears to concur with the adage that, in the very long term, geography and history really are inseparable. [13]   However in this case, given that large scale mining had commenced in the Pilbara less than twenty years prior to Williams’ visit, the coalescence of history and geography depicted here occurred, for the most part, in the very short term.  A fact which points to a certain historical truncation that draws the Pilbara series into a closer relationship with much earlier Australian landscape art than is often acknowledged.  The spatio-temporal model employed here bears much in common with that tradition of “New World” landscape art that is largely concerned with conveying exactly that, a new world (landscape) emerging from prehistory.  The Pilbara here is an-other place, a desolate and disorienting void which is diffused and drawn into history via representation.[14]   It is also a “deceitful landscape”, [15] in that it is both welcoming (in its promise of mining riches) but forbidding (the dramatic heat and disorienting barrenness).  Such a salutatory account of the yoking of grotesque conditions to industrial progress thus evokes culture pitted against nature, as well as the stoicism so embedded in settler mythology.  Hence Williams’ paintings here reveal not only a particular and tendentious relationship to landscape, but landscape itself as a product of these relationships.

Warangkula’s works also allude, in turn, to a more specific account of the landscape, and one also mediated by a distinct conceptualisation of the relationship between people, place and history.  In order to facilitate a discussion of this, it is useful to first make reference to the Luritja/Pintupi concept of ngurra, via which these relationships can be better understood.  Ngurra is a concept with dual, interlocking meanings, the first of which literally translates as ‘country’ (Myers, 54-7).  In its reference to broader geographical tracts this is perhaps the closest approximation of the English ‘land’ or ‘landscape’. [16]   The activities of the Ancestors during the Dreaming period are posited as generative in nature, and it is thus the origins of country (the landscape) which are narrated in paintings such as Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa. [17]   All topographic and biophysical elements in these works are thereby presented as the primary artefact of that ancestral journey, be they rocks, rivers or mountains, and thus as sharing an indexical relationship with the Ancestor.  That is, the landscape takes a permanent identity from the relevant mythological personage, and exists as both artefact and evidence of Dreaming events (Faulstich, 150).  The second, interrelated meaning of ngurra translates literally as ‘camp’, however both Langton and Myers suggest that the emotive resonance of the word equates it most closely with the English ‘home’ (Langton 2000, 261 & Myers, 55).  This conflation suggests an ineluctable human shadowing of the Ancestors and thus, in a sense, posits Ancestral activity as the causal source for the world’s phenomena, and as providing the conditions which govern spatial arrangement henceforth.

The determinant historical apparatus apparently implied by such spiritual physiography is, however, revealed to be substantially more complicated and multifarious in Warangkula’s painting Artist’s Country (1979) , a work useful here for its relative iconographic clarity.  It features fifteen large concentric circles set against a background of shimmering luminosity, suggesting a site of ancestral presence, [18] and depicts vast numbers of tracks and prints.  The large number of semi-circular arcs attendant to each circle would imply these are populous camps, and the wide variety of tracks evident suggest not only the movement of humans, but also of animals including kangaroos, othe
r marsupials, and, importantly, snakes.  Furthermore, the variety of ritual paraphernalia present hints at a ceremonial theme.  Such a ceremonial reading is corroborated by the luminous Ancestral presence, populous human presence and the multitude of snake tracks (over thirty), which are commonly associated with water ceremonies. [19]   Thus Warangkula appears to be depicting in some detail an anecdote which can be read quite literally as narrating a habitual relationship to place and history, which in its generative nature (invoking rain) conflates the two as well.

Interpreting the work of both artists in this way, with attention to the specifics of “social marks” on the landscape, thus leads to a number of commonalities emerging.  Both are not only concerned with physiographic accounts of landscape, but in narrating this both also posit a landscape ultimately inseparable from its history, as necessarily humanised. [20]   However further scrutiny of the spatio-temporal arrangements implicit to each of these narratives reveals further complications in their construction of landscape, complications which are suggestive of still greater proximity.

Paths cross

If I don’t paint this story some white fella might come and steal my land.
– Charlie Tjaruru Tjungurrayi

The right to land depends upon the ability to defend it.
– Sir Rodney Carnegie, Chairman of CRA Ltd., Rio Tinto Annual Shareholders Meeting, London, 1984.

Whilst Williams’ landscapes can be seen as expressing a distinct relationship between history and geography closely associated with one history in particular, that of the New World as articulated in the rhetoric of settler mythology, analysis of one further work, the gouache Aboriginal Cave (Rocklea), disrupts this reading significantly.  Unlike those discussed so far, this work reverts to a more normative topoi of European landscape, with the spatialisation of history here following the model typified by Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego.  That is, where historical traces, in this case an Aboriginal cave, are inserted into the landscape and thereby function as resurfaced memories which both disrupt and renegotiate existing narratives. [21]   As Jonathon Bordo has argued, spatio-temporal models such as this ultimately refuse to surrender “the inescapable, unerasable traces of human continuance” (Bordo 2002, 302).  Thus, just as death re-emerged to disrupt the pastoral idyll of Arcadia, so too does Aboriginality emerge in the pastoralist (and mining) arcadia of the Pilbara to disrupt its relatively idyllic fabrication of ‘wilderness’.  This substitution of an Aboriginal trace for Poussin’s death thus poetically imbues the landscape with the ghosts (in both a literal and metaphoric sense) of those whose removal and eradication largely facilitated the mining narrative discussed above. [22]   Hence the narrative of the Pilbara series is more equivocal and expansive than at first it appears. 

A similar spatial enlargement of time, and acknowledgement of its contingency, is evident also in Warangkula’s Artist’s Country.  The spatio-temporal complexity of this work emerges when considered in light of anthropologist Norman Tindale’s finding that the conceptual conflation of ‘country’ and ‘home’ evident in the term ngurra has an analogue within Luritja iconography.  That is, Tindale found that the same drawn circle may refer to an Ancestral site, human campsite, the plain on which a kangaroo hops, the tree in which a possum sleeps, and/or any other number of habitats simultaneously (26).  Similarly, in regards to temporality, Tindale notes that different circles may represent the same place at different times, i.e. at the beginning and end of a round trip journey (26.).  That is, in the case of each presence inferred by the tracks (Ancestral, human, animal) each would only need to be in their respective place to feature in this common place, and only to have been in their respective place at some point in time – past, present or future.  Thus the narrative previously discussed may in fact be dispersed across both the landscape and history, with the painting functioning as a contracted expression of multiple emplaced-ness in time, and multiple temporalities emplaced.  Hence Artist’s Country can be read both literally, as documenting the specifics of ceremony, but also as presenting the landscape as palimpsest, via which human, animal and Ancestor can commune, and in doing so constantly remake the landscape in the image of this communion. 

That the landscapes of both artists are thus framed by expansive spatio-temporal models is significant here for, when placed in their respective historical contexts, and especially that of their production, the outer reaches of each reveal themselves to be increasingly proximate.

It is well known that Williams painted the Pilbara series under an informal commission arrangement with CRA Ltd., the company operating the Pilbara mines at the time. [23]   However it has been long overlooked that it was also at this time that CRA (and its sister company Comalco) were embroiled in a widely publicised public relations scandal over the treatment of the Indigenous inhabitants of its mining holdings, [24] a scandal played out against the looming backdrop of the burgeoning native title movement. [25]   In fact, just 18 months prior to Williams’ commencing the series CRA became the first mining company to be boycotted by the major Aboriginal land councils.  This was prompted in part by the leaking of an internal document revealing that CRA had carried out “confidential” mineral surveys of Aboriginal reserves nationwide, allegedly viewing them to be “soft targets” for acquisition, [26] and claims that CRA was operating an intelligence unit to monitor Aboriginal activism. [27] By the time Williams had finished the series in 1981, the Aboriginal Mining Information Centre had just launched the very public “Don’t CRAp on our land!” campaign. [28]  

Regardless of his personal awareness of, or acquiescence to this situation (which is largely inconsequential), within this context Fred Williams’ Pilbara series can be read as fulfilling W.T.J. Mitchell’s subversive aphorism that landscape may, in fact, be a verb not a noun, and thereby conducting some landscaping of its own. [29]   That is, it is highly suggestive that at the same time CRA was under increasing public pressure over Indigenous issues it arranged for Australia’s most internationally renowned painter to create a large series featuring its holdings.  A suggestiveness heightened by the fact that CRA’s sister company Comalco, then under similar scrutiny for its treatment of the Indigenous population of Weipa in North Queensland, came to a very similar arrangement with Williams at almost exactly the same time (resulting the Weipa series). [30]   The apparently naturalising effects of Williams depicting the Pilbara as inseparable from, and in
deed realised through, its mining history thus begin to assume a very real agency with a potential significance which extends far beyond the artworld.  A significance heightened by the wide circulation of the Pilbara series within the discourse of national politics and identity via an active foreign exhibition schedule.  A schedule which included not only an expansive European tour (originally planned as part of the 1988 bicentennial celebrations), but also a 1985 show in China which, at the time, was negotiating a large joint mining venture with CRA and the Australian government in the Pilbara. [31]

Warangkula was similarly involved in the wide-ranging debate over landrights at this time, albeit on a more personal level.  He was one of several senior men to establish an outstation at Illpili, his ancestral land, in 1979 so he and other Luritja people could return home from camps such as the infamous Papunya.  That this was the same year he painted Artist’s Country, a work celebrating not only the renewal and replenishment of his ancestral land, but depicting it as explicitly the product of an ongoing, close and very human historical relationship thus seems highly significant in its timeliness.  Even more so when one considers that the Lake McKay reserve, which encompassed Illpili, had featured high on the list of potential acquisitions in the leaked CRA document.  Thus, just as Williams landscapes can be read as exerting a naturalising power which, within their socio-political context, repositions them not simply as discursive symbols but also as discursive tools, so too can Warangkula’s.  Which in turn reveals the common assertion (mentioned earlier) that both artist’s changed the way Australians see their country all the more loaded and apt.  Indeed, this may in fact have been what Warangkula meant when, on being informed of the Sotheby’s sales record set by one of his paintings, he famously remarked “I am number one.  I am the winner.  I am the boss of my country and I do the best paintings” (in Ceresa, 1997).

Yet despite the clearly contradictory historical role the paintings of each artist assumes in this context, it is interesting to note that there is one further, deeper, and more poignant affinity.  That is, as discussed, Williams’ Aboriginal Cave (Rocklea) challenges the historical apparatus of the series as a whole, subsequently expanding its temporal scope and subtly acknowledging that the Pilbara did have a historical presence prior to its being mined.  He enlarges this history to acknowledge, however slightly, an Aboriginal presence which is then integrated within his landscape and, by implication, its history.  A parallel tendency appears, albeit less obviously and conclusively, in Warangkula’s work as well.  Warangkula’s traditional social role was as rainmaker (hence his many Water Dreaming paintings), a role which was re-imagined when, in order to provide drinking water to the above mentioned outstation he helped establish at Illpili, he supervised the sinking of a water bore. [32]   It thus seems significant that Artist’s Country, painted around the same time the bore was sunk, appears to depict the replenishment and renewal (both physical and spiritual – for the two are intertwined) of this same area via traditional water ceremony.  That is, Warangkula may be well be incorporating non-traditional events and stories (the water bore) within the larger framework of his Dreaming. [33]   Thus, with elements of Aboriginal history subsumed in Williams landscape, and potentially non-traditional elements in Warangkula’s, the landscapes of both can be seen to both propagate and preserve the sets of historico-cultural relations from which they take their respective forms.  More interestingly perhaps, is that this preservation is enacted via a landscape which is subject to and contingent upon, however slightly, mediation and negotiation. 

Tremulous landscape

I will now step back from this analysis of narrative to consider one final but  equally crucial affinity in the work of these two artists.  This being the simple fact that not all pictorial elements within their paintings can be identified so intuitively nor plainly as those upon which I have focussed thus far.  Indeed, to fail to acknowledge this at this point would be highly misleading because, in fact, there are numerous incidents in and aspects of the work of both which give the impression of both iconographic reluctance and expressive ambivalence.  However this is not posited to contradict the preceding argument, but instead to suggest that the acknowledgement of both figural and fugitive meaning does not necessitate a contradiction at all, and in doing so facilitate a certain forward movement in the art history surrounding both artists.

For example, perspectival logic breaks down in some areas of Williams’ compositions, or entirely in the case of others, resulting in a literal ‘unreadibility’ or disorientation.  Similarly, certain elements of Artist’s Country still remain elusive, casting a shadow over aspects of the narrative, and yet other works resist relatively straightforward iconographic readings almost completely (e.g. A Bush Tucker Story).  That is, in both Williams’ spatial conflations and contradictions (double horizons, incongruous scales etc…), and Warangkula’s elusive iconography, there is evident a shared ambivalence to plainly reducible and figurative expressive modes.  Neither refuses such allusion, and to varying extents in different works each seems to encourage it, but instead they both reserve the right to figurative (i.e. narrative, iconographic) and fugitive expression.  Both create a pictorial space which can be read as elements of landscape, yet the work of neither subscribes to this absolutely.  Where this becomes particularly significant is that even when meaning is apparently withheld, an impression of meaningfulness persists nonetheless. 

In regards to Warangkula, a comparison of the various accounts of how or why he may have initially employed the dotting technique is useful in explicating this matter. [34]   Geoffrey Bardon has argued dotting was largely a means by which Warangkula could “overcome his difficulty with brushes” (Bardon, 53), whereas Nancy Munn has suggested it might relate visually to the spinifex fluff which falls from dancers’ bodies during ceremony (Munn in Johnson, 139).   Vivien Johnson has observed that the advent of dotting coincided with the introduction of television (in which the images are composed of dots) at Papunya (ibid.); whereas Paul Carter has drawn parallels with Bardon’s work on an experimental film in which he was attempting to develop a recognisably Australian graphic language, a project which collapsed when he became involved in assisting the painters to develop their own pictorial language (Carter, 256-7).  Perhaps most subversively, Eric Michaels insisted that the dots are largely inconsequential, “mere fill”, and with no significance other than that attached personally by the individual painter (Michaels, 155).  The glibness of this denial, however, is complicated later in Michaels’ argument when it becomes clear that what he means is not that the dots have no meaning, but rather no universal meaning that could “affect the correctness of the painting”. [35]   This point is perhaps not so far removed from further observations by both Bardon and Carter that Warangkula’s dots are haptic expressions, comparable to the Venetian concept of macchie, a poetic mode which articulates directly and haptically the artist’s state of mind and body (Carter, 351).  Thus while there remains little critical consensus on the meaning of the dots, there is nonetheless an implicit agreement that, in some way, they are meaningful.

It is thus interesting that similar contradictions and discrepancies emerge from accounts of Williams’ own markings, which have variously been described as reductive abstraction (McCaughey, Broadfoot & Butler), naturalist abstraction (Smith, 390), and as a quest for the essential and/or metaphorical sense of landscape (Fuller 1988, 49).  Williams himself described the dots as both an atmospheric and temporal contraction – “I’m trying to incorporate everything there”, as well as an expression of absolute space – “they could be anywhere” (Broadfoot & Butler, 9).  Thus here also one can discern a meaningfulness that is not easily reducible to clear representational illusion or consistent affect.  Perhaps the most suggestive reading of Williams in this context, however, is provided by Keith Broadfoot and Rex Butler who argue that the dots refigure the painting as no longer of something, but as something (9). 

Arising from this, then, is the presence of a declarative or enunciatory element in and of itself in Williams’ landscapes, [36] a dynamic seemingly aligned very closely with what Michaels once referred to as the “calligrammatic” qualities of Western Desert painting (Michaels, 145).  Michaels used this term to describe the seemingly textual quality of certain images, or the visual quality of certain texts; a condition of near subversive expressive ambivalence that, it appears, is equally applicable to both artists.  Once again this suggests that abstraction was not the point here, or at least not in any normative sense.  Instead, it appears this sense of fugitive yet declarative meaning was a way of signalling an absent or inexpressible element of nonetheless significant importance.  The discrepancies above suggest numerous possibilities as to what this (or these) elements could be, to which we could probably add a concern with the sublime and/or the secret/sacred.  Yet the imperatives for this are not of the utmost pertinence here.  What is important is that in their efforts to convey the complexities of the desert landscape, and the multiple, negotiable (at least in part) histories from which it has taken its shape, both artists were united in finding expressive significance, grandeur and tension in the simultaneity of figural and fugitive meaning.


In conclusion, the dialogue begun here between the landscapes of Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula and Fred Williams suggests that to insist upon their incommensurability or incomparability would be to at least partly deny the complexity and significance of their art.  This in turn alludes to the wider conclusion that it is possible to bring Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal art into a meaningful dialogue while at the same time acknowledging difference.  From this I would argue that while thematic, formal, or conceptual incongruence may occur just as frequently as moments of affinity, such a process is nonetheless one whereby their respective positionality can be negotiated in regards to the other, and in ways which illuminate both.  Thus, bringing Warangkula and Williams together in this way highlights that a more nuanced and fluid account of the proximity of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal art may indeed be possible, as may a more judicious and inclusive history of art in Australia.

The author would like to thank Susan Lowish.  This paper has benefited enormously from her supervision of the thesis upon which it is based. I would also like to acknowledge the two anonymous referees, and the examiners, Dr. Charles Green and Dr. Anthony White, for their incisive suggestions and criticism.


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[1] Ian McLean (The Australian Academy of the Humanities, 1999) has argued that the defining feature of Australian art is, in fact, the gradual erasure of the Indigenous population.

[2] See, for example, Burn (Oxford University Press, 1980); Willis (Hale & Iremonger, 1993); and McLean (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[3] Warangkula’s name is also commonly spelt Warangula.  In regards to orthography, the spelling adopted throughout will accord simply with that which is already in most frequent usage.

[4] The hybrid, plural or syncretic status of Aboriginal art has been the subject of much critical activity.  For a succinct account of this debate see: Thomas (1996).

[5] See Allen (Thames and Hudson. 1997). An interesting exception to this is the recent practise at the National Gallery of Victoria in which ‘intervention’ works by Aboriginal artists are inserted into well-established narratives in the non-Aboriginal galleries.

[6] Fry & Willis “Aboriginal Art: Symptom or Success”, Art in America, July, 1989,  have unconvincingly extolled the case for “strategic silence” on several occasions.

[7] For an indication of these developments see the work of: Michel de Certeau & Henri Lefebvre in regards spatial theory; Jackson (Yale University Press,1984) in regards to social geography; Edward Soja for a cultural studies focus; Casey (University of Minnesota Press. 2002) on phenomenology; and, regarding
history, Carter (Faber and Faber. 1996).

[8] Mitchell (University of Chicago Press. 2002), especially: vii-xv & 1-4. In theorising his position Mitchell follows most closely Henri Lefebvre and Edward Soja’s triadic formulations of space. 

[9] For example: Biddle (Allen and Unwin, 1991 & “Country, Skin, Canvas: The Intercorporeal Art of Kathleen Petyarre”, The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, 4:1, 2003, 61-76 and McLean “The modernity of tradition: interpreting acrylic Western Desert paintings”, Paper given at the AAANZ conference, 6th December 2002 & _data/ page/2340/ian_mclean.pdf.  This is not, however, intended as a criticism of these writers.  Indeed, their efforts to pursue less programmatic accounts of Western Desert painting have achieved much in the development of an art history that can at last begin to acknowledge the richness and complexity of this art.

[10] McCaughey (Bay Books, 1987), 335, used the phrase “mother of pearl” to identify this landscape type within the series.

[11] Williams (National Library of Australia, Canberra. 1981), 3, recounts using such texts when completing his Waterfall series of Victorian landscapes just months prior to visiting the Pilbara.

[12] Holloway “The Iron Landscape, a Vision Splendid by Fred Williams”, The Age, 26th November, 15, 1983, is perhaps the only person to have previously drawn attention to the towers in these paintings, although she mistakenly asserts that they are the only “direct reference to the shaping hand of civilization” in the series.

[13] Casey (University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 264-8, follows Kant in arguing that it is ill-advised “to distinguish in any exclusive way” between place and event, geography and history, because “in the very long term” every event is place-bound, and bound to take place in place.

[14] This is comparable with, for example, Sidney Nolan’s Central Australian Landscapes of the 1950s.  Of his trips to the Central and Western Australian deserts Nolan wrote in his diary: “I wanted to know the true nature of the ‘otherness’ I had been born into.I wanted a visual form of the ‘otherness'” (in Lynn & Nolan (1979), 13).

[15] This phrase was coined by Bernard Smith, as cited in McLean “What Do We Mean by Wilderness?  Wilderness and Terra Nullius in Australian Art”, The Sydney Papers, 8:1, 1995. 10-31.102.   

[16] As Langton (AGNSW, 2000), 260, notes, the English term land is not really translatable with any exactitude as it is always a relational expression in Luritja and Pintupi.  Thus the equation is being made here with full acknowledgement of its imprecision, but in the hope that an inexact formulation may nonetheless facilitate a productive yet otherwise more difficult analysis of these paintings.

[17] I would like to emphasise that the analysis that follows is not to be understood as a claim to my own comprehension of the Dreaming or other Indigenous philosophical concepts.  Rather, it should be understood as a claim to my understanding a portion of the anthropological material circulating on this subject, and a belief that this cultural aspect is crucial to dealing with Johnny Warangkula’s painting in such a way as to acknowledge their great complexity.

[18] Kean “Johnny Warangula Tjupurrula: Painting in a Changing Landscape”, Art Bulletin of Victoria, 41, 2001. 47-54, argues that the visual brilliance equates directly with the power of the Ancestral site, a point corroborated by Morphy, “From Dull to Brilliant: The Aesthetics of Spiritual Power Among the Yolngu”, Man, 24, 21-39, 1989, who argues that such luminous aesthetic properties in Yolngu art are a direct expression of spiritual power, and function to generate a feeling of Ancestral presence.  Morphy’s argument is partly predicated upon an explication of the totemic and ritual use of luminous pearl shells, the very same shells Tindale (University of California Press, 1971), 85, found in the possession of the Luritja and other Central Australian groups.  Thus it is plausible that this concept has been translated into Western Desert painting.

[19] Tindale (University of California Press, 1971, 63) found that within Western Desert communities it is generally believed that snakes are the source of the groundwater which fills underground waterholes, and it is thus common practise in times of drought to make ritualised requests to the snakes to come and fill the waterholes.  Referred to as “increase ceremonies”, such ritual events provide a key contact between contemporary life and the Dreaming.  For a detailed account of this practise see Dussart (Smithsonian Press. 2000, 75-6).

[20] Marcia Langton (AGNSW 2000) uses, and perhaps coined, the phrase “humanisation of landscape”.

[21] For a comparison between European and New World (mostly Canadian) landscape topoi see: Bordo (2002). 

[22] This gouache thus falls into the category of what Ian McLean identifies as the “haunted landscape” theme in Australian art and literature.  See: McLean in Copeland (1998).

[23] Williams refused formal commissions throughout most of his career, preferring instead to operate on a non-contractual basis whereby if he were satisfied with the finished work he would offer it first, and without obligation, to the encouraging patron.  In this case the patron was his friend, Sir Rodney Carnegie, then chairman of CRA.

[24] For a wide ranging account of CRA’s alleged mistreatment of the Indigenous population of the Pilbara see Moody (1991). 

[25] For example, in the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission Second Report of 1974 Justice Woodward (in Wilson University of Western Australia Press,1982. 320) found that “to deny Aborigines the right to prevent mining on their land is to deny the reality of land rights”.

[26] This document was reported in, amongst other newspapers, The Age.  See Borschmann (1977, 3).

[27] See, for example, Gary Foley’s allegations in the The Age, 1977, 16.

[28] See Moody (PARTiZANS/CAFCA.1991), 20.

[29] See Mitchell’s seminal compendium Landscape and Po
(Chicago Press, 2002).  Most of the essays in this important text are concerned, in various ways, with exploring the manner in which landscape art functions as a cultural practice.

[30] Comalco had been the major sponsor of Williams’ 1977 retrospective at the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane.  Shortly after the exhibition Williams came to a similar agreement with Comalco to paint a series of the company’s bauxite mines in Queensland.  For an account of the controversy surrounding Comalco in this region see Bradbury (Ronin Films, 1989) and Broadbent “Wasteland of Weipa makes Aurukuns afraid”, The Age, 5th October, 19, 1976.

[31] As part of the Australian bicentennial celebration program the Pilbara series toured Europe extensively.  The exhibition of the series in China was arranged ostensibly as an exercise in diplomatic relations see Skivington, “Australia-China cultural relations: Fred Williams’ Pilbara Series exhibition”, Australian Foreign Affairs Record, August, 722, 1985.  For an account of the proposed Australia-China-CRA steel venture in the Pilbara and its political expediency see Hywood “How BHP and CRA Can Save the PM’s Face”, Financial Review, 27th April, 3, 1984.   

[32] While much of Warangkula’s biography remains unclear, two of the best sources are Johnson (Craftsman House, 1994), 204, and Isaacs”Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula”, Art & Australia, 39:1, 2001. 70-1. 71.  It is in the latter that this event is recounted.

[33] See Morphy (Phaidon, 1993) for a further discussion of the potential malleability of Dreamings in the face of dramatic social or historical change.  A discussion which may not be unrelated to what Marcia Langton (Melbourne University Press, 2003) has observed in regards to artistic production as the tendency for Aboriginal culture to integrate elements of global culture as a means by which Aboriginal identities could be renegotiated in such a way as to resist precisely the opposite – global assimilation. 

[34] At the risk of imposing models of artistic ‘originality’ which translate only misleadingly to the subject of Western Desert painting, Warangkula is generally acknowledged as having been the first to employ the now famous dotting style.  It is important to stress however, and especially in light of the discussion which follows, that dotting is nonetheless a traditional style derived from sand and body painting, amongst other cultural practises.  What is being explored here is not the origin of the dots per say, but the nature of their translation to Western Desert painting.    

[35] Michaels (University of Minnesota Press. 1994), note 6.  In his use of “correctness”, Michaels appears to make self-reflexive reference to the integrity of the larger Dreaming story narrated by many of these works.  It is worth remembering that Michaels was particularly critical of the way in which much Western Desert painting, and particularly that at Papunya, was, or so he contended, unduly influenced by art advisors with the result that it became (in his view) “semantically empty”.  See Johnson (2001) for a response to Michaels’ claims.

[36] Broadfoot & Butler “The Fearful Sphere of Australia”, Paraculture, (exhib. cat.), Artspace, Ed. Sally Couacaud, Sydney, 6-15. 1990. 11, use this point as a means by which to return, via writer Meaghan Morris, to the concern of establishing a specifically Australian mode of painting.  More significantly, however, is the fact that their essay is one of inexplicably few accounts of Williams’ work which seeks to historicise him within the context of Australian art.