Aboriginal Traditions Take Shape in Contemporary Paintings by Ronnie Tjampitjinpa and Minnie Pwerle

Aboriginal artworks can often visually resemble modern abstraction, but are in fact deeply rooted in symbolism and incorpate forms and imagery that have passed through Australia’s native cultures for millennia. 

Minnie Pwerle and Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, two of its most prominent practitioners, have blended the unique art-making traditions of their heritages with those of Western painting. Each creates works on canvas that display the differing perspectives and responsibilities between the masculine and feminine roles in society as related to their Dreaming—an Aboriginal term referring to personal spirituality, connected to land and culture. 

  • Installation view of “40 years of Ronnie Tjampitjinpa,” Wentworth Galleries, Sydney. Courtesy Wentworth Galleries and the artist.

    Installation view of “40 years of Ronnie Tjampitjinpa,” Wentworth Galleries, Sydney. Courtesy Wentworth Galleries and the artist.

Ronnie Tjampitjinpa produces works with heavy symbolism related to masculine Dreaming traditions. The shapes and patterns of Tjampitjinpa’s paintings are bold and geometric, mapping the pathways along which a landscape can be traveled according to sacred landmarks, animals, and historical markers. While referring to secret myths known only to male elders of that tribe, the artist utilizes a freehand style of intersecting, labyrinthine lines over a plane—a type of ancient imagery that has influenced Western artists from Frank Stella to Keith Haring. The large scale of the works, painted in acrylic on linen, demonstrates a sheer physicality, bringing a palpable weight to the viewer. 

Minnie Pwerle began painting on canvas toward the end of her life, encouraged by her daughter, the artist Barbara Weir. Pwerle appropriates the tradition of body painting known as Awelye, part of an all-female ceremony meant to show respect for the tribe’s ancestors, and which reflects the feminine characteristics of fertility and nurturing. Painting in vibrant color on dark ground, her hand patterning shows a light, sometimes translucent touch, creating draping fields of color through the repetitive build up of similar marks, much like the work of canonical Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Compared to the bold and concretized paintings of Tjampitjinpa, Pwerle’s works have an air of looseness and intimacy, retaining the ephemerality of their inspirational medium.

While bringing an awareness of the legends and customs of an often invisible minority to a greater audience, the works of Minnie Pwerle and Ronnie Tjampitjinpa create an archive of visual traditions that are threatened by the effacing nature of modernity. Visually impactful as well as historically important, art forms such as these continue to inspire new generations of artists and push the practice of art-making forward around the world.


—K. Sundberg


40 years of Ronnie Tjampitjinpa” is on view at Wentworth Galleries, Sydney, May 6–20, 2015.

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