LDFA_Website Maps_8 copy - 4 Desert Region

Introduction to the Eastern, Central and Western Desert Area

The centre of Australia is mostly desert landscape dominated in popular culture by Uluru (Ayers Rock). The desert region, which extends into Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory, is varied, and punctuated by waterholes, lakes, areas of grasslands and mountainous regions, with Alice Springs as the geographical centre. By nature, much art of the desert was transient and ephemeral, created through iconographic markings in the sand and painted markings on the body for ceremonial purposes; the meanings of the often secret and sacred imagery is generally known only to those initiated.

1. Uluru (Ayers Rock)

Image: Uluru (Ayers Rock), Central Australia


In the 1930s, a western-style of art developed at the Hermannsburg Mission, establishing The Hermannsburg School, an art movement characterised by watercolours painted in traditional European techniques, depicting the striking colours and landscape of the Australian outback. The leading artist was Albert Namatjira, the first Aboriginal artist to be recognised and celebrated at an international level. The Hermannsburg School brought to collectors a new dimension, enabling collectors a view into the heart of the Australian landscape and a greater understanding at that time, of Aboriginal Australia.

Image: Hermannsburg Lutheran church, Northern Territory2. HERMANSBERG Lutheran Church

However, it was not until the 1970s that modern paints and boards allowed for a permanent and portable representation of Aboriginal cultural expressions. Depicting creation stories, Tjukurrpa law, and detailed descriptions of the land and its flora and fauna, these paintings unlocked a visual insight into Aboriginal culture that captivated both an Australian nation and curious International collectors.

Aboriginal people from different desert communities – including the Pintupi from the Western Desert, Anmatyerr from the east, Arrernte and Luritja from the south and the local Warlpiri – were relocated by the Australian Government to settlements, principally, Papunya in Central Australia, and as such, leaving their traditional country and sacred sites behind. By 1970, there were around 1,500 residents at Papunya. At this time, Geoffrey Bardon came to teach at the local school. Through Bardon a school mural project was initiated, which was painted and directed by some of the senior men and to be seen as a cultural bridge. This led to the men seeking to paint and a variety of small boards became available on which they depicted the stories of their land, the journeys taken by Creation Ancestors performing rituals and creating sites, flora and fauna, and the laying down social customs and law. In November 1972, Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd was established and became known both nationally and internationally as a vital and successful outlet for Aboriginal art. The paintings created in the early 1970s mark the foundation of the Western Desert Art movement, one that is recognised and celebrated around the world today.

The focus of the Eastern Desert region is Utopia, where the Anmatyerr and Alawarr people remained close to their homelands and maintained traditional and cultural expressions. The art movement took its genesis from the introduction of batik art making for commercial purposes and was cemented in the 1980s with a move from batik to painting on canvas.

With a later change in government attitude away from assimilation and the strength of the Aboriginal Land Rights movement, Aboriginal people were able to return to live on their traditional lands. In the Western Desert, some of these outstations are serviced by the original Papunya settlement, with art advisors now travelling to remote areas to supply paint and canvas and collect completed works. New art centres have been established within the Central Desert and have been responsible for a variety of new art styles.

Art and the Art Centres

Most key art centres of the desert area are run under the central umbrella of Desart (the Association of Central Australian Aboriginal Art and Craft Centres), which as of 2012 includes 45 members. Ernabella Arts, Ikuntji Artists, Kayili Artists, Artists of Ampilatwatja, Papulankutja Artists, Waralungku Arts, Warlayirti Artists and Warlukurlangu Artists, are just a few of these centres.

All of the art centres affiliated with Desart are Aboriginal-owned and controlled and are professionally managed to ensure ethical support for the production and distribution of Aboriginal art, which includes paintings, works on paper, textiles, weaving, wood-carving, ceramics, and artefacts.

Further References

Albert Namatjira and the Hermannsburg Painters; The Beginnings and Development of Pitjantjara Art and Ernabella; Utopia

Benjamin, R., Myers, F., Johnson, V., Kimber, R. G., Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, 2009

Cane, Scott, Pila Nguru: The Spinifex People, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2002

Caruana, Wally, Aboriginal Art, Thames & Hudson, London, 2003, see chapter 3

Contemporary Aboriginal Art from The Robert Holmes a Court Collection, Heytesbury Holdings Ltd, Perth, 1990

Diggins, L. (ed), A Myriad of Dreaming: Twentieth Century Aboriginal Art, Malakoff Fine Art Press, 1989

Isaacs, Jennifer, Spirit Country: Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art, Hardie Grant Books, 1999, see pp.17 – 33

Isaacs, Jennifer … [et al.], Emily Kngwarreye Paintings, Craftsman House, 1998

Johnson, Vivien, Aboriginal Artists of the Western Desert, Craftsman House, 1994

Johnson, Vivien, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Art Gallery of South Australia, 2004

Johnson, Vivien, Dreaming of the Desert: Aboriginal Dot Paintings of the Western Desert, Art Gallery of South Australia, 1996

Kleinert, Sylvia & Neale, Margo (general eds.), The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, Oxford University Press, 2000, pp.197-225

Morphy, H., and Smith Boles, M. (ed), Art from the Land: Dialogues with the Kluge-Ruhe Collection of Australian Aboriginal Art, University of Virginia, 1999

Neale, Margo (ed), Emily: Utopia; the genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, National Museum of Australia Press, 2008

Nugent, M. (ed), Putting in the Colour: Contemporary Aboriginal Textiles, Desart, Jukurrpa Books, 2001

Perkins, H., West, M., Willsteed, T. (eds.), One Sun One Moon: Aboriginal Art in Australia, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2007

Ryan, Judith, Across the Desert: Aboriginal Batik from Central Australia, National Gallery of Victoria, 2009

Ryan, Judith (ed), Colour Power: Aboriginal art post 1984, National Gallery of Victoria, 2004

Ryan, Judith, ‘Identity in the Land: Trajectories of Central Desert Art 1971 – 2006’, in Ryan, Judith (ed), Land Marks, National Gallery of Victoria, 2006

Ryan, Judith (ed), Mythscapes: Aboriginal Art of the Desert, National Gallery of Victoria, 1989

Ryan, Judith, Paint Up Big: Warlpiri Women’s Art of Lajamanu, National Gallery of Victoria, 1990

Tjukurrpa, desert dreaming: Aboriginal art from Central Australia, 1971-1993, Art Gallery of Western Australia, 1993