At the centre of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri’s ‘Warlugulong’ (1977) is a star-like bushfire created by Lungkata, the Blue-tongue Lizard Man. The canvas is dominated by the ashen trail that the bushfire has left behind. On the extreme right are the skeletal remains of two men. They were Lungkata’s sons and it was to punish them that the Blue-tongue Lizard Man started the bushfire and burnt everything that came in contact with it. Lungkata’s story is one of nine different Dreamings that are depicted in ‘Warlugulong’.

The Dreaming, according to Aboriginal Australians, is when the ancestral spirits moved through this realm and created everything — the land and the rivers, people and animals, and the laws that govern life. They then morphed into the landscape, and the sites where they did so are marked as sacred. The Dreaming is the beginning but is not related to the concept of time. It is a constant reality. There are hundreds of Aboriginal clans across the continent of Australia, with over 250 languages spoken. Each clan is the keeper and protector of different episodes of the Dreaming, which means that knowledge of the content of the episodes and the right to reproduce it through song or art are restricted to specific clans.

‘Warlugulong’ depicts the Dreamings that Possum has the right to know and/or reproduce. While the Lungkata episode is more apparent, the other eight Dreamings are merely hinted at through different sets of footprints. There are human footprints, tracks of emus, wallabies, dingoes, and so on. Only other members of the artist’s clan would be able to accurately “read” the painting. In two smaller canvases next to ‘Warlugulong’, Possum has gone to the extent of obscuring some of the more sacred details of the Dreaming using white spots.

Aboriginal art, essentially, is about the landscape of Australia. Designs are made on ceremonial grounds and on the bodies of people, who themselves act as carriers of the landscape. What we see in most of the paintings is a bird’s-eye view of this landscape and its associated Dreamings. It is a visual language that has been codified over thousands of years. But more importantly, art, for indigenous Australians, is related to sacred ceremonies and rituals. It is used to pass on knowledge to the younger generation and is a manifestation of ancestral agency. To maintain its sanctity, this codified language is made available only to those who understand its importance.

It would have been easy to shelve away Aboriginal art as being exclusionary if it weren’t for the fact that it is through their art that indigenous Australians chose to communicate to outsiders. In the early part of the 20th century, when anthropologists flocked to Australia to study them, indigenous Australians used paintings to explain who they were and what their relationship with the land meant to them. In the 1970s, there was a reversal of roles. When the people of Papunya in the north of Australia were distraught after being driven away from their homeland, Geoffrey Bardon, an outsider and an art teacher at a local school, encouraged men of the community to paint to remind themselves of who they were and their connection to their ancestral land. Possum is from Papunya, and by the time ‘Warlugulong’ was made, the artists of the region had started painting for the art market. This is one of the reasons why ‘Warlugulong’ follows some conventions of Western map-making.

For the younger generation of indigenous artists, art is still tied to spirituality but is also about politics. Many of the newer works depict the impact of colonisation and racism. Lin Onus’s sculpture ‘Dingoes’ (1989), for instance, depicts Aboriginal people being treated like animals, while Nici Cumpston’s ‘Campsite V, Nookamba Lake’ (2008) is a photograph of the impact excessive agriculture and mismanaged irrigation has had on once fertile land. Even though these works use media — sculptures, videos, photographs — and conventions that are now global, and are far removed from the iconography of their predecessors, the art is still largely about the Australian landscape and Aboriginal identity. But instead of being a manifestation of ancestral agency — of how Lungkata punished his sons with the bushfire — it is a documentation of the loss of agency. The landscape is ashen, the Aboriginals evicted from their homes.

‘Warlugulong’, along with ‘Dingoes’ and ‘Campsite V’, is currently on display at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi as part of the exhibition ‘Indigenous Australia: Masterworks from the National Gallery of Australia’. Even though we don’t have access to much of the narrative within many of the paintings, each work is an assertion of Aboriginal identity. It very gracefully sweeps away the myths of one nation, one people, one flag or one religion that many use to deny rights to minorities.


Blessy Augustine



Blessy Augustine is an art critic based in New Delhi.

Twitter: @blessyaugust