Journal Blog 3; Aboriginal Art, Culture & Design

Mr Patterns (2004, Director: Catriona MacKenzie)

Lecture Notes: The film tells the story of Geoffrey Bardon [1], a young school teacher at Papunya in the early 1970s who helped instigate the Papunya Tula art movement. He was, as the film notes, ‘the right person in the right place at the right time’ and his arrival coincided with the collapse of the government’s assimilation policy (which demanded that Aboriginal people assimilate with non-Aboriginal Australian society), and the beginnings of new forms of Aboriginal cultural and political consciousness in Papunya and other parts of the nation. As a result of his work Bardon became very unpopular with the community’s non-Aboriginal administrators and his relatively short time at Papunya had dire personal consequences for him.

Dot paintings from Papunya have become one of the most recognised worldwide of the Aboriginal art form. The simplicity of their design is striking; the complexity of their message is astounding.

Waking myself from a dream this morning, I took a moment to wonder how I would recreate its form as a picture on canvas. The image presented in my head made no sense. Therefore, was it the creative visionary of a white man who helped Aboriginal culture translate their dreams onto canvas? My instinct says, No.

Geoffrey Bardon [1] was certainly an instigator of a change in dynamic though. He encouraged the people to paint their traditional designs using western materials. Not groundbreaking stuff for someone who is a teacher – he taught them western ways to paint.

Watching the documentary, Mr Patterns (the nickname for Bardon), I was struck by the way the children’s hands moved in the sand; like they were always meant to move that way ie in a sweeping cupped motion massaging the sand into recognisable shapes instinctively without instruction. The shapes and dots and movements all reflections of their ceremonies and ways for communication.

Quote from “How the dot paintings emerged”: “Bardon helped the Aboriginal artists transfer depictions of their stories from desert sand to paint on canvas. They soon realised that the sacred-secret objects they painted were being seen not only by European, but also related Aboriginal people which could be offended by them. The artists decided to eliminate the sacred elements and abstracted the designs into dots to conceal their sacred designs which they used in ceremony.” Read more:

dot paintings google search

It is on record that Bardon wanted to understand the Aboriginal man’s connection with his land.

Whatever his drive and reasoning, he gave the Aboriginal man, and their community, a reason to thrive in a time when they essentially were being discouraged to do so. I have read article after article scrutinising Bardon’s motives, even from recent times, and it pains me that he is being questioned. Within all the writings, is, at their core, the description of a person who was on the Aboriginals “side” and simply wanted to encourage their wonderful creativity and expression.

There is another argument that says, “why do we have to encourage another man’s creativity, they should be self nourished and be able to thrive in their own time and place”, but we must also understand (even if we don’t respect) the environment, particularly political environment, and time that this was happening.

Embarrassingly, it was a time when white man was still being ignorant.

His legacy, putting Papunya on the map, lives on.

  1. Geoffrey Robert Bardon AM was an Australian school teacher who was instrumental in creating the Aboriginal art of the Western Desert movement, and in bringing Australian indigenous art to the attention of the world. Wikipedia

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