Aboriginal Artists of Australia: November Modernism Feature

In an international context, it is often that traditional works are viewed and further analyzed through a western lens. While stylistic similarities are notable among many artistic developments globally, it would be ingenuine to ignore the overwhelming role western-centric ideas has imposed. Our November Modernism Auction features two Aboriginal artists of Australia, both from the Anmatyerre cultural-linguistic group. These artists were frontrunners of the Aboriginal art movement seen in the later half of the 20th century, helping define traditional Aboriginal arts outside of western perspective.

Cliffor Possum

Lot 67: Perentie Dreaming, c. 1986

Lot 67 is a large scale acrylic work by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, born north-west of Alice Springs in Tjuirri, Australia around 1932. Following the encouragement of Aboriginal people to translate their cultural ‘dreaming’ stories onto canvas, Tjapaltjarri emerged with the Western Desert Art Movement as a leader. He is considered one of the most renown Aboriginal artists of his time and was one of the first to be involved with this emerging Australian Aboriginal Art Movement. From the 1970s to 1980s Tjapaltjarri was a chairman for Papunya Tula Artists, which was a collective that helped in the shift from “assimilation to self-determination” in Australian federal policies regarding Aboriginal culture.


His works have been exhibited in notable galleries and museums in Australia including National Gallery of Australia in Canberra and the New South Wales Art Gallery in Sydney, as well as notably in the United States, from New York to Los Angeles, all the way to here in St. Louis.


Emily Kame Kngwarreye orignal work, in orange color scheme

Lot 68: Alagura - My Country, 1993

Lot 68 is another large scale piece, created by Emily Kame Kngwarreye, born north-east of Alice Springs in a desert area known as Utopia around 1910. Through a government-funded program "batik-making," which is a textile dying method using wax, was introduced in 1977 and a year later, with Kngwarreye as a founding member, Utopia Women’s Batik Group was formed. A decade afterwards, Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) initiated a project introducing Kngwarreye and her group to painting with acrylic on canvas. It was from there at the age of 80 that her works reached a global audience, where she went on to create over 3,000 works in just 8 years. She was notably the first female Aboriginal artist to break into this male dominated movement, laying the groundwork for and encouraging future Aboriginal women in art. Described by National Museum Australia, Kngwarreye’s full collection of works “is always the same story, in which the whole is about the totality of her existence expressed as her Dreamings in all their manifestations.” Like Tjapaltjarri, Kngwarreye's role was key in furthering the appreciation, respect and acknowledgement for Aboriginal arts.


Her works have also been exhibited in notable Australian galleries, including National Gallery of Australia and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. On a global scale, Kngwarreye has exhibited from Tokoyo, Japan to Liverpool, England to New York, USA. Along with continued exhibitions of her collections in Australia and internationally, her work continues to cycle through the auction world, from Sotheby's to Selkirk.


Both refined their skills as artists while maintaining their roles in their respective communities, where Tjapaltjarri lived as a stockman and Kngwarreye similarly worked pastoral lands.


Before being introduced to synthetic paints, both artists utilized the same methods and materials as the generations before them. Tjapaltjarri began as a traditional carver, and by the 1950s he was considered one of the most accomplished carvers in Central Australia. Kngwarreye was a senior custodian to women’s Dreaming sites, where they would dress their bodies and the Earth with markings known as Awelye, using organic material such as ochre, ash and charcoal. These body markings translated to canvas were Kngwarreye’s artistic language. Similarly, while both had background in painted art from their cultural education, it wasn’t until much later in their careers that they began creating these iconic, large-scale canvas works and joined the Aboriginal art movements.


Even while adopting new and different mediums, the art remained a means to record and visualize their ancestral Dreaming, which their people describe as “Everywhen:” a story beyond the constraints of time that is understood as the interrelationship between ancestral spirits, people, animals, plants and the land. The two artists did not stray from traditional symbols, art styles or beliefs, yet, while adopting non-indigenous materials, were able to further explore the depictions of these stories in new and ground-breaking ways that shifted the conversation surrounding Aboriginal art.