Dotted landscapes in Aboriginal art

One of the sections in the current incarnation of the Ngā Toi, Arts Te Papa exhibition showcases a selection from Te Papa’s collection of Australian Aboriginal art.

The show Gifted: Aboriginal Art 1971 – 2011 includes Papunya Tula paintings created in the 1970’s in a community near Alice Springs with a style of Aboriginal art that uses ‘dots’ to both build the painting and to represent elements within it.

Ngā Toi’s On The Wall description includes images of the artworks, and video of Aboriginal art scholar Brenda Croft discussing their significance.  Gifted: Aboriginal art 1971-2011 closes 29 September 2013.

Aboriginal art often demonstrates a connection to place, and strongly depicts the physical landscape as well as the cultural and spiritual landscape as related to Aboriginal cultural lore.

I like the boldness of Aboriginal art, and its representations of landscapes and animals. They are so different to the landscapes I am familiar with, living as I do on a watery, green island with few of its own land mammals and reptiles.

But why do dots feature so promptly in some Aboriginal art?

I began to appreciate the representation of the physical landscape in this style of Aboriginal art when I holidayed near Alice Springs in central Australia a few years ago. This is the area that many of the paintings in Gifted: Aboriginal Art 1971 – 2011 come from.

To my eye, the surrounding landscapes are filled with dots.

Balls of grey-green grasses dotting the red earth of the opposing hillside across the valley. The scale is misleading – note the gum tree at top-centre. © Leon Perrie.

Balls of grey-green grasses dotting the red earth across the valley. The scale is misleading – note the gum tree at top-centre. © Leon Perrie.

More dotted vegetation, this time with banded earth.

A walking track snakes through grass dots and hillside bands (ancient sedimentary layers?). © Leon Perrie.

A walking track snakes through grass dots and hillside bands (ancient sedimentary layers?). © Leon Perrie.

These grass balls can be quite big, in the order of a metre across. They are called “spinifex” (although they are not in the genus Spinifex, whereas the native grass that dominates many of New Zealand’s coastal dunes is a true Spinifex). These spinifex grasses are abundant through large areas of arid Australia.

Spinifex grass. They are rather spiky and harsh. © Leon Perrie.

Spinifex grass. They are rather spiky and harsh. © Leon Perrie.

The Alice Springs Desert Park page on spinifex grasses.

But even trees can get in on the act. The outback of Australia is usually too arid for a closed forest canopy to form. The trees that are adapted to the dry are only sparsely distributed, to the extent they literally dot the landscape.

Mulga trees in the genus Acacia. These small trees are common through vast areas of the Australian interior. The outskirts of Alice Springs are in the top left of this photo. © Leon Perrie.

Mulga trees in the genus Acacia. These small trees are common through vast areas of the Australian interior. The outskirts of Alice Springs are in the top left of this photo. © Leon Perrie.

My thanks to Megan Tamati-Quennell, Te Papa’s Curator Modern & Contemporary Maori & Indigenous art, for additional context.

One Response

  1. Claire

    Love it! Thanks Leon.

    Reply

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