We are delighted to be celebrating the work of the Artists of Ampilatwatja in our twenty-fourth annual Songlines exhibition.
The Aboriginal community of Ampilatwatja, 330 kilometers from Alice Springs in the heart of Australia’s Northern Territory, is home to barely 500 people. It is also home to a wonderfully vital and idiosyncratic art movement.
With few exceptions, all the Aboriginal people living at Ampilatwatja belong to the Alyawarr language group. Their traditional country extends over some 17,000 square kilometers, including the large pastoral properties of Ammaroo, Murray Downs, Elkedra, Derry Downs, Utopia, Lake Nash and Urandangie. Unlike many of the other clans of Central Australia, the Alyawarr people have never been moved off their land. They were never rounded up and relocated to ‘foreign’ country where they had no traditional presence, and of which they had no traditional knowledge. As a result of this unbroken thread, the cultural knowledge of the Alyawarr people and their connection to country remains intact and extremely strong.
It is this sense of connectedness, and of deep cultural knowledge, that imbues the art produced at Ampilatwatja with such resonance and power. It is however a power that reveals itself in a subtle, almost indirect way.
Certainly the approach of the artists of Ampilatwatja is very different from the instantly recognizable ‘dot-and-circle’ style of the Aboriginal desert art movement that began in 1972 in Papunya and spread to numerous other communities across the central Australian deserts. That style, with its distinctive aerial perspective and its common iconography of lines and concentric circles, derived directly from the ancient and traditional patterns used in the ephemeral body paintings and ground paintings that accompanied the ceremonial recounting of the great creation stories of the Dreamtime.
The Artists of Ampilatwatja, when they first began to practice in 1999, made a conscious decision not to paint their ‘altyerr’ – or Dreaming stories – but, rather, to depict the country where those stories belong – to paint the landscape fashioned by the ancestral figures of the Dreamtime.
Adopting something close to the traditional Western perspective, they began to produce wonderfully bright landscape paintings, celebrating the fecundity, the variety, and spiritual richness of their land. The images were built up from myriad tiny dots – a technique which they discovered for themselves. It carries hints of the pointillism of Seurat and the stark abbreviations of Fred Williams. It perfectly captures the sense of shimmering light and desert vegetation.
The Northern Territory (an area six times the size of the UK) is home to the oldest continuous artistic tradition in the world. The art of Ampilatwatja and other contemporary communities stands in an unbroken line that reaches back some fifty thousand years to the ancient Aboriginal rock paintings found in Kakadu National Park and elsewhere in the remarkable Northern Territory.