Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya, the first U.S. exhibition devoted to early acrylic paintings by Indigenous Australian artists, opens at the Grey Art Gallery on September 1, 2009.

Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya includes the work of Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi, Uta Uta Tjangala, and Old Water Tjampitjinpa.
Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya includes the work of Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi, Uta Uta Tjangala, and Old Water Tjampitjinpa.

Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya, the first U.S. exhibition devoted to early acrylic paintings by Indigenous Australian artists, opens at the Grey Art Gallery on September 1, 2009. It has been organized by the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, at Cornell University, and features approximately 50 paintings, including many rare and spectacular examples, created during the 1970s in the remote Australian Indigenous settlement of Papunya. The exhibition remains on view through December 5, 2009.

In 1971, a Sydney-based schoolteacher working in Papunya, which is located in the Central Australian desert, provided a group of men with the tools and the encouragement to paint. The resulting works, known as “Papunya boards,” were the genesis of the Western Desert art movement, in which Australian Aboriginal artists conveyed ceremonial designs and stories in a new medium and on permanent surfaces. With fewer than 600 such paintings in existence, these boards enjoy a unique status within the history of Australian Aboriginal art.

Exhibition curator Roger Benjamin, Research Professor in Art History at the University of Sydney, states, “The art on view in Icons of the Desert represents not only a major contribution to contemporary visual art and creativity, but also the ongoing vitality of an ancient culture. Indeed, the Papunya paintings are descendants of mark-making that dates to well over 10,000 years ago. Such is the achievement of the painters of Papunya, who adapted the rich meaning of their image-making to a new context, reasserting with pride and intelligence the world’s oldest continuous culture.”

Grey Art Gallery Director Lynn Gumpert adds, “One of the achievements of Icons of the Desert is the way that it helps to erase the often arbitrary boundary between art and anthropology. The Grey Art Gallery is thrilled to present these superb works of art. They simultaneously sharpen our visual sense and open our eyes to the vital culture and belief systems of Indigenous Australians. We are honored to be working on the exhibition with art historian Roger Benjamin. In addition, it is particularly fitting that the exhibition ends its tour at NYU: Fred Myers, chair of the University’s world-renowned Anthropology Department and affiliated faculty member of Art History, has conducted research with Western Desert people for many years and lived at a Papunya outstation in the early 1970s, and is serving as a valued advisor to the presentation at the Grey.”

Icons of the Desert is the first exhibition to focus on the founding moment of the Western Desert movement, presenting some of the finest pieces from the period. Assembled from the Manhattan-based collection of John and Barbara Wilkerson, they have never before been exhibited as a group, and thus provide a unique opportunity for Americans to experience the breadth and variety of these early paintings. The exhibition will include important examples by such great names in the history of late twentieth-century Australian art as Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, and Mick Namararri Tjapaltjarri, among many others.

Australian Aboriginal art gives form to a worldview based on Tjukurrpa, or “the Dreaming,” a belief that creator ancestors shaped the land and formed the world, providing the essence of all living things, and laid out the moral code for human conduct. The compositions of the Papunya works, which derive from the traditional body painting, ceremonial objects, and temporary ground-paintings still being made today, were improvised and reworked to suit the new medium of acrylic on board. Unpredictable, quirky, innovative, and quite varied, early Papunya boards constitute a highly appealing body of work, reflecting their makers’ first attempts to inscribe the imaginings of ceremony, story, and song onto more permanent surfaces. Several works in the exhibition include imagery and depictions of ritual objects that would normally be viewed exclusively by initiated men within the community. However, key senior painters have granted special permission for American audiences to view these works.

“In these boards, it is possible to trace the invention of a visual language that later became more codified. They offer the fresh appeal of trial and error by artists seasoned in other media who were now applying their talents, for the first time, to new materials,” observes Myers. “Since its inception nearly 40 years ago, the Aboriginal Australian acrylic painting movement has grown and flourished. Early paintings of this quality have not been seen in New York City since a small group was included in Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia, shown at the Asia Society in 1988.”

For more information on the Papunya paintings and the exhibition: www.iconsofthedesert.com.


The exhibition and catalogue were organized by the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., with the generous support of the Actus Foundation, New York. The exhibition was curated by Roger Benjamin, Research Professor in Art History, Actus Foundation Lecturer in Aboriginal Art, Power Institute, University of Sydney. The Grey Art Gallery’s presentation is made possible, in part, by the Embassy of Australia; the Grey’s Director’s Circle, Inter/National Council, and Friends; New York University’s Humanities Initiative, Native Peoples Forum, and Coordinating Council for Visual Arts; and the Abby Weed Grey Trust.

Public Programs

Under the guidance of Fred Myers, author of the award-winning book Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art, the Grey Art Gallery is organizing a roster of public programs to accompany the exhibition. Developed in collaboration with some of the University’s most distinguished faculty who are experts in visual art and culture, these will reflect the University and Gallery’s shared goals of a global approach to education.

Related Exhibition

Also complementing the exhibition will be a presentation of contemporary art created by artists from Papunya Tula Artists cooperative. Nganana Tjungurringanyi Tjukurrpa Nintintjakitja: We Are Here Sharing Our Dreaming will be on view at NYU’s 80 Washington Square East Galleries Sept. 12 – 26, 2009. For further information, please call 212.998.5747.

Grey Art Gallery

The Grey Art Gallery is New York University’s fine-arts museum, located on historic Washington Square Park in New York City’s Greenwich Village. It offers the NYU community and the general public a dynamic roster of engaging and thought-provoking exhibitions, all of them enriched by public programs. With its emphasis on experimentation and interpretation, and its focus on exploring art in its historical, cultural, and social contexts, the Grey serves as a museum-laboratory for the exploration of art’s environment and its contributions to civilization.

Exhibitions organized by the Grey have encompassed all of the visual arts: painting, sculpture, drawing and printmaking, photography, architecture and decorative arts, video, film, and performance. In addition to producing its own exhibitions, which often travel to other venues in the United States and abroad, the Gallery hosts traveling shows that might not otherwise be seen in New York and produces scholarly publications, many of which are distributed worldwide.

General Information

Grey Art Gallery, New York University 100 Washington Square East, New York, NY 10003 Tel: 212.998.6780, fax: 212.995.4024; e-mail: greygallery@nyu.edu Web site: www.nyu.edu/greyart Hours: Tuesday, Thursday & Friday - 11 am–6 pm; Wednesday - 11 am–8 pm; Saturday – 11 am–5 pm; Closed Sunday, Monday and major holidays. Admission: Suggested donation $3; NYU students, faculty, and staff are free.

Press Contact

Richard Pierce
Richard Pierce
(212) 998-6796