09 Feb Geoffrey Bardon: The Genesis of Western Desert Painting
In 1971, Geoffrey Bardon travelled to the remote Indigenous settlement of Papunya, 250km west of Alice Springs, to teach at the community’s primary school. During his 18 months at Papunya, Bardon witnessed the ancient cultural painting practices that would soon become, at the hands of his intervention, the Western Desert painting movement. He saw the passing of an exacting tradition connected to land, ceremony, survival, learning, and most importantly, the Dreaming, from generation to generation. Yet in what had been a recent relocation of displaced Aboriginal people to this area, Bardon also encountered the horrific reality of Western paternalism – a practice he would soon enter into, blissfully ignorant of the potential effects on an already deeply affected community.
Traditionally, Indigenous painting was once a transient practice inscribed in sand and on skin. This is what Bardon began to document in his initial months at Papunya. Keen to transfer this ephemeral practice into a permanent Western form, Bardon asked young members of the community to transcribe their ancient mythologies onto canvases using acrylic paint. In this way, Bardon fashioned himself in anthropological terms as both a champion and documentarian of a culture that wrote the majority of their belief and reference systems on temporary surfaces. By the end of his 18-month stay he had amassed a large collection of work from what are now considered some of the most significant artists not only in this early period, but also in the short history of Western Desert painting.
The most obvious issue with what Bardon was doing is that he quite literally capitalised on a group of people who were profoundly naive to the concepts of both economic and ideas-based transactions. It is important to therefore note that these same people would not have been motivated to conceive of the complex implications of transferring their cultural practices, values and symbols to the permanent surfaces of a canvas. Indeed, perhaps no party was. This radical shift fosters several key questions. For example, what could this Western application of cultural forms possibly mean to a person who had never encountered it previously? And how could one reconcile the imperatives of one’s culture, which guards the right to know and produce these compositions, with the cataclysmic impact of widespread, violent relocation and enforced assimilation? These issues are not straightforward nor is the narrative as linear as I am perhaps suggesting. Indeed, I stand now at the foot of a political tidal wave, unsure that I want to engage in this notion further and skeptical that this is even the most interesting or productive angle to take when considering this history and, surprisingly, Bardon himself.
What is confronting about both Bardon’s part in this history and what we can see in the paintings is the collision of a specific ancient culture and the ontologically more complicated, yet nonetheless ancient practice of art. This recalls some of the key questions in Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), which by virtue of its subject – the 35,000 year-old Upper Paleolithic paintings of the Chauvet Cave – considers the moment of spiritual contact between two disparate civilisations through the contemporary filter of art criticism and philosophy. Herzog is primarily interested in the question of what we see when we look back into such an abyss of time. In this example the analogy is far more literal because the cave can be understood as an anomalous time capsule that was sealed and undisturbed for thousands of years before it was re-discovered in 1994.
The Chauvet cave’s pristine condition allows brief glimpses not only into the techniques used to create the paintings, but also offers evidence that confounds the immense passage of time separating the cave’s modern visitors and their Paleolithic predecessors. For example, charcoal ashes were found scattered at various points throughout the cave, and while they appear to have been made only recently, some date to more than 10,000 years ago. Here, history is given a tangible, physical reality, and it is conceivable that these same impressions and questions confronted Geoffrey Bardon when he arrived at Papunya. Despite the grave conditions in which he came upon the people of this community, Bardon found his Chauvet Cave in the sand and body painting that was practiced daily and dissolved with the weather and water and time. In transferring this ephemeral practice to a new permanent medium, Bardon also irrecoverably changed what these representations meant and how they were valued.