In 1971, at Papunya, a government-established Aboriginal community in Central Australia, a Sydney-based schoolteacher provided a group of men with the tools and the encouragement to paint. Known as “Papunya boards,” these works constituted the beginning of the Western Desert art movement where indigenous Australian artists explore images and experiences in a new medium and on permanent surfaces. Drawn from the John and Barbara Wilkerson Collection, the exhibition includes masters of the Papunya School such as Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, and Mick NamararriTjapaltjarri.
Icons of the Desert is illustrated with full-color plates of forty-nine works from the exhibition. In addition, it features numerous color figures of comparative works and documentary photographs of the original artists at work, some never before published, and a chronological catalog documenting the works’ history and iconography. The leading Indigenous curator in the field, Hetti Perkins, contributed the preface. Roger Benjamin authored the lead essay, which situates the works in their historical and cultural context. Fred Myers, an internationally renowned cultural anthropologist who undertook his doctoral research at Papunya when the movement was still in formation, has written an essay on the stylistic development of one of the painting men he knew personally, Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi. Vivien Johnson, the most prominent Australian author on Western and Central Desert art, writes on a second important artist in the collection, Charlie Tarawa Tjungurrayi. Also included are the memories of relatives of deceased painters in the exhibition, presented in the form of an interview conducted by Dick Kimber, who was a schoolteacher at Papunya in 1971 when the paintings were first produced.