Last time I was stuck in the middle of nowhere, it was because of my scout leader. He had the notion that standing in a poxy field, singing “Dib, dib, dib, dob, dob, dob” at twilight, and smelling like a smoked haddock on account of the fire, was interesting. All I can say is that if I had had my way, he would have made a bloody good Guy Fawkes!
On this occasion, however, surrounded by a raft of yellow-red desert that looks like it should be on the surface of Mars rather than enlivening Alice Springs, I am here to do something a lot more exciting – and rather cultural. Indeed,as soon as I step into the Alice Walker Arts Centre to have a dot-painting lesson, I am blown away by the plethora of imaginative canvases adorning the walls.
I have a dream
My teacher is Marilyn Armstrong, a distinguished Aboriginal elder. Before she puts a paintbrush in my hand, I am given a quick rundown on why this form of art is important in her people’s history. It’s a revelation! Hitherto,I had thought that compositions like Edvard Munch’s The Scream (anxiety) or Picasso’s Guernica (the tragedy of war) embodied mankind’s highest and most meaningful pictorial expression. Yet the metaphysical significance of native Australians’ colourful configurations dwarf this. And all because of Dreamtime, or what we might more readily comprehend as Creation, when sacred beings came either from the Earth’s atmosphere or from underground, in human or animal form, to shape the land, its flora and fauna.
For over 60,000 years Aborigines used this epoch-making occurrence to determine their moral and social laws, customs and conventions. The older folks passed it on in fables (or Dreamings) to the younger members of their communities to start their learning and point to how they should behave. Initially, these cultural nuggets of enlightenment were relayed using several types of natural and man-made instruments. These included weapons, rocks, stones, aerial desert landscapes and even bodies – hinging on the tribe and the area of Australia where they came from. By the early 1970s, Johnny Warangkula and other members of the Papunya Tula School (north-west of Alice Springs) set down a representation of their Dreamings on canvas, as dots. This blew the art world away: not only because these new forms of expression were very beautiful, but also due to the fact that they continued the indigenous peoples’ old-age tradition of embodying the very essence and spirit of their way of life in an illustrative manner. What began as a small craze is now a multi-billion dollar industry.
So, with all this in mind I had a lot to live up to. And the pressure was telling, especially as the last time I tried to be artistic it involved sticking confetti on my man-boobs with Blu-Tack. Marilyn plonked a 60x60cm canvas in front of me, followed by some tiny pots of acrylic paint that seemed to contain more colours than The Wizard of Oz. There was blood red, sienna brown, azure blue, a fleshy pink and a vibrant yellow that could have graced a cornfield in summer. Surely fun time was about to begin…
Of course, as a Westerner, I picked up my brush and began to daub away with the bristles. But in this style of painting, you use the other end of the stick – at least to form the small dots. Eventually a few shapes were emerging even though, with utensil in hand, my strokes seemed to have all the poise and dexterity of a starving caveman clubbing a marsupial.
Luckily, Marilyn was über-patient. And she explained that the three earthy brown stripes I’d drawn as circles,enclosed by rows of lily-white marks, were a meeting place: in this case, a campsite. Now I was getting into the swing of things – an orangutan in the treetops had nothing on me. Soon all manner of specks and lines that I had depicted were converging into something meaningful: a blue line of dots (a creek); a pink starfish shape (gum flowers); a trio of thick white arrows (emu tracks); and a couple of egg-shaped light green blobs, that could have been scaled-down versions of my mama’s earrings, were actually bananas.
I’d have to be as drunk as a wasp in a beer keg not to realise that the next slew of images on my masterpiece were in fact oranges; the sun; a river; trees etc. But hold your horses! Like Luke Skywalker under the guidance of Obi-Wan Kenobi in The Empire Strikes Back, this pupil was getting carried away. Fortunately, before I got completely above myself, Marilyn took control of the canvas and, rather than my amateurish squiggles, she came up with something quite surreal. Two, almost moon-shaped, configurations faced each other on either side of the campsite. And do you know what they were? They were Marilyn and me. There’s an argument that, unless it is a self-portrait, an artist should separate himself from his work. Imagine Andy Warhol with his own head stuffed in a Campbell’s tomato soup tin, or Damien Hirst submerged alongside half a sheep in formaldehyde – I wish! But this depiction certainly added something to the composition.
Alas, my instruction was nearly at an end. I hoped I’d create something that would touch the hearts of Aboriginals across Australia. But it was not to be. My teacher told me that the types of pigment and meanings of the symbols used in these panoramas vary according to where a tribe or clan is from. Added to this, separate groups of Aborigines could layer the iconography in their pieces with several connotations. Thus it is deeply personal andlargely incomprehensible to the uninitiated. And so I felt extremely lucky to have been let into this other world – one where centuries of culture, society and politics combine in the most illuminating of artistic expressions.