In February 1999 Clifford Possum was flown to Sydney to identify some paintings exhibited under his name. By this time he was 66 years of age and universally recognized as the most famous living Aboriginal painter and one of the Modern Aboriginal Masters.
Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri was born in 1932 on Napperby Station. He worked as a stockman on the cattle stations in and around his traditional country and over time, through travel and story-telling he developed a vast knowledge of the Dreaming Trails of the land north of the western McDonnell Ranges. It is this priceless knowledge acquired over the years and his deep understanding of his country that form the basis of his paintings of his Dreamings. In certain land areas Clifford was observed to be able to recount the name and dreaming characteristics of seemingly insignificant features of the landscape. “What appears irrelevant to western eyes comes alive and develops its own significance as Clifford ‘talks’ it into life.” (Indigenous Art of the Dreamtime, 2006) It is this depth that soaks his paintings in layers of mystery.
Clifford, living at the Papunya Community, was one of the first artists to be involved with the Aboriginal art movement, and in the late 70’s he expanded the scope of Pupunya Tula painting by placing the trails of several ancestors on the same canvas in the fashion of a road map – he depicted the land geographically. Following this was the laying down of traditional Aboriginal Iconography on the canvas, and the removal of any elements of European art, which over time, and working alongside other artists, eventually led to the establishment of the true definition of Aboriginal Art. “Clifford’s work is contemporary but essentially Aboriginal in inspiration” (Jinta Desert Art, 2007).
Despite his initial influences under the already established style of the Pupunya group Possum soon introduced innovative spatial techniques never before seen. For instance, Bushfire I (1972) has its entire surface covered by white dots, which delineates lines and arcs, simply by accenting white on white, evoking ash on the ground in the wake of a devastating bushfire with the lines and arcs denoting fallen trees. Unlike his initial effort, Emu Corroboree Man, also of 1972, which skirted the boundaries concerning the disclosure of sacred-secret information, Bushfire I features no traditional Western Desert iconography. Compared to the bold and stark abstraction of Bushfire I, however, Dreaming connections are explicitly evident in his other concurrent works-Honey Ant Dreaming, Love (Sun) Dreaming, Bushfire II, of 1972 as well as Bushfire at Irpulku and Man’s Love Story of 1973. At the same time, effects of superimposition mean that these paintings play a kind of peek-a-boo effect between floating, overlaid areas and Dreaming landscapes. The effect is like zeroing in and out of focus, as though one peeks through clouds of floating dots (suggesting either ephemeral effects of atmosphere or the passage of fire over a landscape) allowing one to gaze onto a Dreaming site below.
Possum’s 1976 paintings, Warlugulong, are “full of exquisite layering, subtle surfaces, surprises, delights and endless richness.” (Adelaide Review, 2002) The paintings exhibits two attitudes to spatial-landscape organization that sets Possum apart from his contemporaries. The first was his realization that one series of events was “laid down on top of another in the Dreaming.” (Vivien Johnson – Art Gallery of South Australia, 2003)
The second innovation is related to the fact that he “perceived the parallel between the abstract diagrams of ancestral passage in these traditional expressive forms of his culture and the maps of the Europeans.” (Johnson).
Warlugulong is regarded as a key work in terms of narrative complexity, as it was the first time many different legends were told or mapped on one canvas, each story layered one upon the other. Sites are joined along criss-crossing ancestral songlines with precise representations of the tracks and traces left by ancestral beings. Across these vast canvases, each representing hundreds of square kilometres of country, the principal soil and vegetation types are mimicked with patches of dots representing the country as understood from above. The production of these works required an extraordinary knowledge of country, the activities of ancestral heroes as well as sheer technical virtuosity. Coinciding with the superimposed stories was a new paint-layering technique and visual imagery. In this monumental, powerful and profound painting the artist successfully illustrates the complex webbing of powerful sacred stories that weave their way throughout his country. Possum uses inventive conceptual ideas and techniques which successfully invite the viewer into an indigenous way of conceptualizing Australia.
A series of 1978 paintings titled Man’s Love Story, focuses on the story of a love magic being “transmitted” to a woman of the “wrong skin.” The central focus is a ceremonial ground marked out in black dots. The painting depicts a mythological love story about a man and women of the Jungurrayi and Napangardi subsection Groups. Like all cultures,
aboriginal culture has it’s great dramas and legends, which are used to illustrate a point, and this story has all of the ingredients of forbidden love and social taboos that are the corner stone of all great societies. In this composition we can see two sets of footprints representing the two players in this drama, a spindle of woven hair string (Wirrakurru) rising from the centre of the work. The U I forms represent the warrior who has enchanted the woman of his desire to come to him, one end of the string has become unravelled in the wind and is about to be blown away, (a metaphor for the unravelling of life if we don’t keep to our social contracts). The concentric circles represent the site where these events took place.
Possum’s career must be viewed with its bi-cultural considerations – a whole range of cultural and aesthetic attitudes are disparaged as ethnocentric while the very same values are translated into virtues when applied to indigenous artists. Clifford Possum captures the expectation of this bi-cultural process in his work, Two Goanna Men, of 2001, which features a double-headed skeletal figure simultaneously facing opposite directions. It is the counterpoint to Dead Spirit at Napperby, also of 2001, in which two skeleton torsos face one another. Between the two possibilities-facing one another directly and facing in opposite directions simultaneously-there can be no guarantees and no simple dissolution of profound cultural quandaries.
We remain aware of this uncomfortable double-headed quality in the most elegantly composed of Clifford Possum’s work – aware of its productively unassimilable quality at the very same time that his great formal and compositional dexterity makes traditional knowledge and expression palpable for a non-traditional audience. As each innovative divergence in his work treaded precariously, their force was to negotiate overlapping, but disjunctive arenas without guarantee. To say these things, to make these qualifications about the critical framework for the evaluation of indigenous art, does not mean disparaging a genuine achievement. It is to herald Clifford Possum’s art as a genuine feat of engaged critical-cultural experimentation-the achievement of dealing with dislocating effects, and even producing them, in negotiating cultural re-assertion-rather than a superhuman achievement of self-definition. This is perhaps the most offensive part of the plagiarism of Possum’s work; it disregards the deep truths and meanings in aboriginal art and the idea of art as storytelling. ‘Nothing is nothing’ to Possum everything has meaning.
Vivien Johnson, 2007, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri.
Sutton. P Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia
Morphy H Aboriginal Art