Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri
Anmatyerre/Arrernte peoples
'Bush-fire II' 1972
Purchased 1994
© the estate of the artist licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency

When the artists at Papunya began to paint for the public domain in 1971 they were faced with a number of challenges and dilemmas. Chief amongst these was the notion of depicting sacred objects and designs that are, according to traditional law, not to be viewed by non-initiated people or outsiders. The dilemma they faced was that of producing paintings that would retain their cultural integrity and remain meaningful and significant to the artist and his people, yet would also be appropriate for public viewing. One strategy they developed was to reveal only the general interpretations of a painting—the 'outside' story—rather than the innermost secret meanings of the imagery. This strategy has now been adopted by Indigenous artists across Australia. Another device developed by the senior artists at Papunya was to emphasise particular elements of the visual lexicon.

Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarriwas one of the most innovative artists, developing images such as Bushfire II 1972. The work is about one of the artist's favourite themes: the ancestral narrative of Lungkata the Blue-Tongued Lizard, who punished his two sons for not sharing their catch with him. Lungkata created the first bushfire that swept across the land and engulfed the boys at Warlugulong. The painting depicts the site where the bush- fire started—it features a series of roundels representing camps, and the tracks of an ancestral Possum. Tjapaltjarri has painted over parts of these designs with patches of dotting, representing clouds of smoke and ash, to suggest that the sacred/secret aspects of the painting are hidden from sight.

Wally Caruana

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (eds) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010

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Indigenous Art

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The art of contemporary Indigenous Australians takes many forms. Despite significant change and diversity, the art retains an underlying unity of inspiration—the land and the peoples' relationships with it. It is simultaneously connected to the past and


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The art of contemporary Indigenous Australians takes many forms. Despite significant change and diversity, the art retains an underlying unity of inspiration—the land and the peoples' relationships with it. It is simultaneously connected to the past and engaged with the present, engaging with the world through actions which are lively, positive, political, social and creative.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art collection at the National Gallery of Australia comprises over 7500 works and is the largest in the world. These new gallery spaces allow much more of the collection to be seen with each one specifically designed for a different geographic region or aspect of Indigenous art and, where possible, paintings and sculptures are illuminated overhead by natural daylight, akin to the light in which the works were created.

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