Aboriginal artists thrive in the outback

Visiting an arts community in central Australia

Paddy Japaljarri Sims is sitting cross-legged, leaning over a canvas, his eyes focused intently on the tip of his dotting stick.

"You going to finish this one today?" I ask, nodding toward the growing swirls of colored dots I've been watching evolve over the past two days.

Mr. Sims leans back and examines the canvas laid out on the ground before him. He calculates something and then shrugs. "Maybe today. Maybe tomorrow," he answers. "Maybe next day."

There is something astonishing about the landscape of the Australian outback and the colors that come with it. That peculiar red earth, the faint yellow tinge to the pale green of the spinifex grass that sprouts from it, the vivid blue sky that hangs invariably cloudless over it all.

But what has always seemed more fascinating to me is that amid the outback's inhospitable wasteland, a living, breathing culture has somehow endured.

That is why I've hitched a ride to Yuendumu, a dusty Aboriginal community some 180 miles northwest of the central Australian city of Alice Springs.

The community is the home of Sims and other members of the Warlukurlangu Artists cooperative, one of the best Aboriginal artists' centers in central Australia. Some 160 people are producing paintings here.

Most Aboriginal arts communities are closed to the outside world. Warlukurlangu is rare because it welcomes visitors as long as arrangements are made ahead of time.

Over the past three decades, the Aboriginal art world has evolved into a US$122 million industry and grown increasingly commercial and cutthroat. It's now an industry that is based on a strange relationship between ancient tradition and the modern market.

Places like Sydney and Alice Springs crawl with Aboriginal art galleries, not all of them reputable.

But remote outposts like Warlukurlangu remain the best source for Aboriginal art, thanks in part to their isolation.

"What we want people to know is that they can come and buy the art from us rather than in a gallery somewhere," says Tara Leckey, Warlukurlangu's manager.

There is an important reason for doing that. Places such as Yuendumu offer not just great art, but an invaluable cultural crash course in what the art means.

At its simplest, Aboriginal culture is a 40,000-year-old tangled web of legends that serve as a spiritual map to the landscape, the interlaced "songlines" traversing the Australian continent.

To travel the land as an Aborigine does is literally to "sing" it, to make it appear before you as you tell the story of the path along which you are traveling, and Aboriginal paintings serve as maps to those stories.

On a walk my first morning in Yuendumu, I discover there's nothing scenic about the landscape within the community. The tin-roofed cinder-block houses are disheveled, and near the bunkerlike community store, a pack of dogs snarls at me, ready to give chase until I back away nervously and trot back to where I'm staying.

Then the paint-splattered arts center opens for business and Aboriginals start shuffling in and sitting down on a bench along one wall.

There's Jack Ross, a boomerangmaker, and D'Arby Ross, the 90-plus-year-old elder statesman of the cooperative, who wanders in leaning on his walking stick, curious about the visitors; his young wife, Ivy, follows closely behind.

D'Arby Ross seems to take an immediate shine to me and I end up sitting down next to him, listening to him explain the initiation ceremonies going on for the young men in the community.

In the meantime, Sims walks in and gently collects his canvas and the paints he needs to get back to work on it.

He wanders out to the back porch, and I follow him a few minutes later, sitting quietly for a time, watching the elderly man paint. Finally I ask him to explain the painting.

It is complicated. A snake dreaming that I have a tough time deciphering. But somehow that doesn't matter. Throughout my two days in Yuendumu, I go back regularly to see how the painting is progressing.

An hour before the plane that will fly me out arrives, I again ask Sims when he thinks the painting will be done, and back comes his indefinite answer.

It still isn't finished when it's time for me to leave, and his answer hasn't changed.

But my understanding has. Once I saw only a collection of dots. Now there is a story there and a rich culture that will someday, I hope, bring me back to Yuendumu.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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