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Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula

I’ve been back from Australia for two weeks, but my intoxication with Aboriginal art continues unabated. My night dreams and daytime ponderings are populated with images and senses that are not of this hemisphere.

For years I have studied Aboriginal art though reproductions. As is the case with any artist whose work I feel deeply–Mark Rothko, Brice Marden, Bill Viola, Joan Mitchell, Richard Diebenkorn, Lee Bontecou, Gerhard Richter, Agnes Martin, among others–everything shifts when you sit with the work “in the flesh.” When art speaks to you, it is because it is embodied with an essence and an energy field of its own. Spending time with actual Aboriginal paintings has shifted my insides in a way that is hard to describe.

I have been thinking/feeling about how Aboriginal art speaks to an Aboriginal relationship to space. In Geoffrey Bardon’s posthumous account of the Western Desert painting movement, Papunya: A Place Made After the Story, Bardon observes that the painters “felt no need to read a painting from right to left or from a standing position…A painting was read from any direction, as if it were lying upon the earth and able to be walked about…the artists could read their paintings with ease and naturalness while the representations were upside down.”

He also comments on how the Aboriginals had a “predilection for a sensitivity of touch, a hapticity or physical quality different from the visual sensation of eyesight…The painters seemed to me to understand space as an emotional idea, the capacity to feel this idea often excluding any need to visualise what was represented.”

Bardon’s observations speak to profound differences between the Aboriginal and the Western way of perceiving. David Michael Levin (author of Sites of Vision) makes this distinction: “I think it is appropriate to challenge the hegemony of vision in the ocularcentrism of our culture. And I think we need to examine very critically the character of vision that predominates today in our world.”

It may seem contradictory for a painter to be questioning the primacy of the retinal experience. But there are so many ways to map the territory, and it is those other ways of knowing that made me want to paint. Aboriginal artists navigate the terrain with a different set of tools that we, relying so completely on our eyes, may have lost access to through disuse. “Seeing is believing, but feeling’s the truth.”

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