State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 50 Spring 1992


Tanami Desert Painter: Ronnie Jakamarra Lawson

“I been born in the desert, a long way between Balgo and Tanami Downs (N.T.) I was born in the middle…I grew up here, in the bush, away from the white fellas…I am a man now - I take paintings from my father and my Dreamings from my father and for myself - my Dreamings.”
These are the hesitant words of Ronnie Jakamarra Lawson, painter of the western desert tradition.
He has been performing ceremonial paintings for generations. His flowering as artist in the European sense flows from the extraordinary events in Papunya in the desert west of Alice Springs near the Macdonnell Ranges. In 1971 art teacher Geoffrey Bard on, originally from Sydney but with experience of aboriginal people in Gunned ah and Darwin, came to the settlement (if it may be called that). To the aborigines Papunya was something like the first circle of hell, run by welfare officers, public servants, and police.
The aboriginal men who looked after the schoolyard (occasionally) offered to help paint a mural on the school wall. When that was completed they did another, five metres long, which contained a snake story, a water story, a wallaby story, and a widow story.
Of the camp of perhaps fourteen hundred, forty or more of the men began to take an interest in painting their traditional stories. It eased the boredom, displayed their skills, brought them back in touch with their desert past. Geoffrey Bardon assisted with the paints and brushes, began to collect the mythologies inside the paintings, and took some to Alice Springs where they had a ready sale.
According to Bardon, Johnny Warrangkula was the first to use dotting as the background for his paintings. Clifford Possum and Tim Leura followed. The dotting technique lends itself to great subtleties of style. It may be simple or richly ornamental. It is also useful for concealing the full meaning of a Dreaming story.
Ronnie Jakamarra combines a careful dotting technique with firm clear colours and simple, elegant lines and circles. He paints on large canvases with the best acrylic. The paintings have simple titles such as Bush Bean, Water, Bush Onion, Men (see outside back cover). They have their genesis in the traditions of the Walpiri people of Lajamanu and the north Tanami Desert. Ronnie is a teacher and custodian of the ceremonies: the dances, songs and designs of the Walpiri. These are ancient. In his canvases they seem powerful and concentrated.
How can permanent master-works proceed from the tradition of the corroboree - those ancient ceremonies where rituals mosaics were dotted and lined in sand and the red interior soils? Some ceremonies were performed on sand and soil designs which covered an acre or more. But all were blown away shortly after the event.
To better appreciate the scope of the desert paintings a few differences have to be kept in mind until the imagination of the European viewer has a firm hold:
The soil and sand drawings were and are horizontal rather than vertical. The paintings which have followed are as well seen lying flat as hanging vertically on a wall. They do not have the same problems with the perspective of the sky as paintings in the European tradition. Whether on a wall or parallel with the ground,
the paintings invite the viewer to enter into them; to join the journey, follow the food tracks, sit at the rock holes, look up at the stars.
Most of the symbols are common to the tribes of the western and north-western desert: circles for waterholes, lines for journeys, half-circles for people, extended hatching for the wider desert, linked concentric circles for running water, white dots around a circle for stars, etc.
Some aspects of aboriginal mythology are remarkably like the Book of Genesis, except that the Bible has one supernatural being and the aboriginals have many. All natural features have an explantion in the Dreamtime when the spirit ancestors were shaping the world and its inhabitants.
It is also useful to know something about the Dreaming. Each male aboriginal owns a Dreaming after tribal initiation and he is the custodian of that Dreaming in his tribal group. It is passed on through generations. In the words of Ronnie Jakamarra:
My Dreaming is my painting. I can only do paintings from the Jakamarra and Jupurrula, that's the right skin. If other men take these paintings or my ceremony there'll be big trouble. They's my Dreamings from my father; the same way I can't use anyone else's Dreamings or ceremonies …
Ronnie Jakamarra says of his works:
My paintings are important, we do not take these paintings as fun, that's our business, Blackfella law really important, that's why we paint. “They tell my life, my story, my family story, they keep that story alive. That story will not finish - my son will take him …”
With earth colours, the dotting technique, the contained myths and stories, the abandonment of horizons, the Dreaming allusions, the simple, powerful symbols, the claim has been made more and more insistently by admirers of aboriginal works that out of the western deserts has come a new art form.
Brian Buckley