Warlpiri Drawings: Remembering the Future

    I just returned to Pittsburgh after a month-long trip to Australia. I've spent the past week sorting notes and images and making sense of my whirlwind tour of the Aboriginal art world. I didn’t think it was possible, but one show topped the rest: “Warlpiri Drawings: Remembering the Future,” curated by Dr. Melinda Hinkson (Australian National University) and hosted by the Charles Darwin University Art Gallery in Darwin, NT.

    I’m partial to University Art Galleries because they provide a space for focused, research-driven shows. This medium-sized gallery space comprised of approximately 100 stunning crayon drawings made by the Warlpiri people from Yuendumu and Lajamanu in central Australia during the 1950s-2010s. “Remembering the Future” was an exposition of Hinkson's masterful research project carried out over four years.

    What interested me most was how Hinkson and her collaborators confronted multi-layered questions of agency - the agency of the drawings and of their makers, as well as the project's relevance to Warlpiri people today. The majority were made in the 1950s at the behest of anthropologist Mervyn Meggitt and stored in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. To interpret these drawings, Hinkson consulted with Warlpiri people about their potential meaning and significance (and the appropriateness of their public display). Personal memories flooded out and the relationship sparked a new group of drawings, some of which were included in the show.

    Exposed to the materials for the first time in the 1950s, the Warlpiri artists, primarily Larry Jungarrayin and Paddy Japaljarri, captured the shimmering radiance of the ancestral Australian landscape using a primary color palette and thick textured crayon lines. The curators openly complicate the issues such visually compelling Aboriginal material presents to anthropologists and art historians. On the representational level, one question concerns the ability of images to document and represent a culturally-specific way of seeing the world. In Meggitt’s documentation of the drawings (often included in wall texts), his descriptive language concerns the artist’s aesthetic development. He notes how the artists experimented with color and composition to approximate seen reality. The drawings indeed have an expressionist appeal.

    While still concerned with what the Warlpiri saw in the landscape and how they represented it, Hinkson views drawing as “a prism through which to explore Warlpiri experience.” She emphasizes the Warlpiri people’s changing and diverse experience ushered in by their removal to Hooker Creek and the increased role the Australian government played in Warlpiri life. The drawings mediated and shaped social relationships, and continue to do so. She put this central claim into practice by interjecting into the history of the drawings and bringing them back to the community. In the accompanying catalog Hinkson relays her interaction with Neville Japangardi Poulson, who, after viewing the drawings said, “They’re only for making white people happy.” He clarified his comment a few days later, yet it had already exposed the myth of many anthropological social experiments regarding Indigenous peoples that sought to capture the purity of Indigenous cultural expressions in visual form. 

    The exhibition’s curious title, “Remembering the Future” captures the essence of the entanglement of the Warlpiri past, present, and future (perhaps counterintuitive to art historical narrative) and the role drawing plays in mediating these relationships. The pithy wall texts and stunning organization could provoke and delight the casual and more engaged viewers alike. This is truly an art.

    There’s an online exhibit with fantastic images of the  crayon drawings exhibited in the show that I encourage you all to visit:  Here is a link to the exhibit’s opening ceremony: Hi... catalog, Remembering the Future: Warlpiri Life Through the Prism of Drawing (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2014) is a fantastic read for those interested in issues of agency and Indigenous art. 

    Image credit: Larry Jungarrayi, Hooker Creek, The malaka’s (superintendent’s) house, crayon drawing. Meggitt Collection, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. A special thanks to the Center for the Advanced Study in the Visual Arts and the History of Art and Architecture Department at the University of Pittsburgh for supporting this trip.

    • Agency
    • Graduate Work