The Development of Dot Painting in Papunya
KAAPA TJAMPITJIMPA (1926-89)
'Wild Potato' 1974-75 (synthetic polymer paint on board)
© Estate of Kaapa Tjampitjinpa
When the Papunya Tula artists first started painting at the back of Geoffrey Bardon's classroom, their main source of inspiration was the dotted designs derived from their body art and sand drawings. Transferring this iconography into polymer paint on board and canvas was a natural artistic progression. Although their imagery appeared abstract to an uninformed Western eye, they were painting the same subjects that any artist from any continent from any era would paint: their Gods, their myths, their customs, their history, their relationship with the natural world and the land that supported them.
Synthetic polymer paint was the ideal medium for the Papunya artists. It came in a wide spectrum of colors that were easy to apply in both flat and dotted areas; it dried quickly to form a waterproof film which was important for working outdoors; and its flexible surface did not crack when a canvas was rolled up for transportation.
There was, however, one major issue that arose from the use of this new medium. When a sacred story was painted on a body or drawn in the sand of their tribal lands, it was only visible to the initiated and could be wiped off or swept away to protect its secrecy. The permanence of acrylic paints meant that sacred and secret knowledge could be retained for public display and would therefore be visible to the uninitiated. This was completely at odds with Aboriginal law.
One solution to the problem was to abandon the use of secret symbols and images altogether and work with a vocabulary of conventional symbols that were accessible to all and suitable for public display.
CLIFFORD POSSUM TJAPALTJARRI (1932-2002)
'Sun Tjukurrpa' 1972 (synthetic polymer paint on board)
© Estate of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri
Another more creative solution, and one that would change the future of Aboriginal art, was to mask any secret information with patterns of dots, an extension of the traditional technique used to outline the elements of a design. A fortuitous by-product of this was the powerful graphic effect generated by the field of pulsating dots. Artists then harnessed this effect to represent different types of terrain (the Land) or express the mystical energy of a spiritual force (the Dreaming), two of the key elements of Aboriginal art.
BILLY STOCKMAN TJAPALTJARRI (b. circa 1927)
'lpitirri' 1985 (synthetic polymer paint on canvas)
© Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri
The visual language of dots permeates most Papunya paintings and the variety of dotting techniques is considerable. Some artists are meticulous and organized in the way they apply dots; others are bold and expressive; some use dots spaced evenly apart; others merge their dots into fields of color; some use dots to outline a shape; others use them to form a shape; some use small dots; some use large dots; some use flat dots; some use raised dots; some use neat dots; some use smudged dots; and some use dots within dots.
CLIFFORD POSSUM TJAPALTJARRI (1932-2002) and TIM LEURA TJAPALTJARRI (1929-84)
'Spirit Dreaming through Napperby Country' 1980 (synthetic polymer paint on canvas)
© Estates of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri
Within a few decades, dot painting has come to characterise indigenous Australian art, changing the perception of a culture that had been overlooked by the art world. Starting with the simple introduction of synthetic polymer paints as a new medium for traditional art, the humble model that Geoffrey Bardon established at Papunya has grown through a range of styles, techniques and imagery to become the prototype for Aboriginal art movements across the country, and the first Australian Art movement to register on an international scale.