Sometimes I am asked why Indigenous artists went from painting in cross-hatch style, using earth colours, to the brightly coloured ‘dot’ acrylic paint technique. With no such transition but rather separately established identities working over a vast area, I hope the following helps to explain the different regions. There are exceptions to the rule but here are three main art style areas that flourish in North Western Australia.
Across Arnhem Land with the weather being hot and humid, ideal for timber and grasses to grow, wood for sculptures, grass for weaving and sheets of bark for painting on are in abundance. With a fine splice of pandanus grass, or wisp of human hair loaded with pigment, fine lines are drawn in careful parallels creating the unmistakable cross-hatching called Rarrk. Rarrk is the far North, Northern Territory peoples property. Rarrk could be described as unique for each clan across Arnhem Land as that to differences in Scottish clan tartans.
In The Kimberley rocky escarpments to the south west, pockets of ochre are mined and burnt – such as yellow clumps into scorch red powder – to gain the true colour required. The late, great artist and history narrator Queenie McKenzie who lived in East Kimberley, would burn a secret root to extract an emotionally charged green. In southern Kimberley, acrylic paint is more often used on similarly primed boards or Belgian linen but across the whole region you will find fields of these beautiful colours, sometimes laying with pictorial images. Western viewers may think of the Russian American artist Mark Rothko on seeing these thought provoking depths of coulour. Rover Thomas, Queenie’s long time friend, cattle-handling colleague and fellow Kimberley artist, is quoted as saying in front of a work by Rothko, “That bugger paints like me.”
Further South again across deserts where the wild fires fly and the wind burns along with the relentless sun, ephemeral matter perishes into the sand. The hardiest paint platform to last the climate is primed quality linen, the most enduring pigment is plastic, acrylic paint. As many people now know, in the early days of the desert art movement, cultural events were marked and celebrated using easily erased materials for image contents to remain secret. When the more permanent mediums arrived so did the problem of keeping secrecy. Dotting over sensitive areas with acrylic paint was the answer, which grew into the highly identifiable Desert Dot style.
To sum up, a Rarrk bark painting or sculpture could be rightly thought to come from Northern North Australia. To see fields of colour, even divided or painted upon, one might think of the Kimberley area, and an artwork of acrylic paint ‘Dots’ including running dots, double dipped or dumped dots, is more than likely to be by an artist living in the deserts of Central Australia.
I hope this basic overview is helpful. There are exceptions to the rule of course and on meeting the artists especially, or further reading and, looking, one finds each region has its own regions, languages, iconography and relative styles within. And each artist their own, unmistakable, mark and oeuvre.
Image & Text Helen Read
Helen Read is an artist and former nurse pilot for the Pintupi Homelands Health Service in Kintore and Kiwirrkurra, Central Australia.