Skip to content. Skip to departments. Skip to most popular. Skip to footer.


On Exhibit: Down Under Wonder


By Alison Hewitt

Published Apr 1, 2009 8:00 AM

"Mystery Sand Mosaic," 1974, by Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi. All images © the estate of the artists, reproduced with permission of Papunya Tula Artists through the Aboriginal Artists Agency, Sydney.

For generations, Aboriginal Australians created sacred art using patterns that were the closely guarded secrets of initiated male elders. But when painted copies broke onto the art scene in the 1970s and shattered auction records, the artists struggled to balance opposite extremes — sacred seclusion and worldwide acclaim.

Western desert painting "is one of the most important movements in 20th-century painting, right up there with Cubism, Surrealism and Abstract Impressionism in importance," says Roy Hamilton, a curator at UCLA's Fowler Museum. Now, with permission from senior Aboriginal painters, some of these mysterious religious designs will appear at the Fowler beginning in May, in a traveling exhibit from Cornell University.

The Aboriginals originally painted the patterns on the ground or on their skin during ceremonies in which historical tales were handed down. When contact with modern civilization threatened to disrupt the tradition, the storykeepers painted the images on more durable boards to preserve their heritage.

"During the early years, they painted these sacred designs. Later, they realized they needed to disguise the sacred designs, and they began experimenting with marketable forms very quickly," Hamilton explains. Human figures disappeared as the images became more abstract, and natural earth tones gave way to bold colors. But the Fowler exhibit has permission to showcase some of the rare original designs.

"Visually, anyone can appreciate them as revolutionary, spectacular works of art," Hamilton says. "But you can go beyond that, and there's this entire cultural tradition. It's an international phenomenon."

Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya. May 3-August 2, Fowler Museum, times vary. Free. For more information, call (310) 825-4361 or visit