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10 / The Natural World

Possum Ancestors
Possum Ancestors
Artist / Origin Anatjari (Yanyatjarri) Tjakamarra (Australian, Pintupi language group, ca. 1938–1992)
Region: Oceania
Date 1975
Material Acrylic
Medium: Painting
Location Private Collection
Credit Photo courtesy of Fred Myers

expert perspective

Fred MyersProfessor of Anthropology, New York University

Additional Resources

Bardon, Geoffrey, and James Bardon. Papunya: A Place Made After the Story: The Beginnings of the Western Desert Painting Movement. Aldershot, Hants, UK: Lund Humphries, 2006.

Benjamin, Roger, et al. Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya (Distributed for the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University). Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009.

Morphy, Howard. Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Morphy, Howard, Margo Smith Boles, and University of Virginia. Art from the Land: Dialogues With the Kluge-Ruhe Collection of Australian Aboriginal Art. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.

Myers, Fred R. Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Myers, Fred R. Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self: Sentiment, Place, and Politics among Western Desert Aborigines. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991.

Ryan, Judith. LandMarks: Indigenous Australian Art in the Nation. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria in association with Woodstocker Books, 2006.

Possum Ancestors

» Anatjari (Yanyatjarri) Tjakamarra (Australian, Pintupi language group, ca. 1938–1992)

Anatjari (Yanyatjarri) Tjakamarra, an Aboriginal artist born in the southern Pintupi region of Australia, was part of the original group of Papunya painters.

Part of the Australian government’s assimilation policy, Papunya was established in 1960 as a settlement for indigenous people, including the Pintupi, who had formerly led semi-nomadic lives. When art teacher Geoffrey Barton arrived to teach at the Papunya school in 1971, his encouragement spurred an important development in Australian art.

Previously, the sacred designs of the Aboriginal people were given form only temporarily, applied to the earth, to ceremonial objects, or bodies with natural pigments. When they were given more permanent form it was generally on rock walls that were difficult to access. With the Papyuna school, for the first time Aboriginal artists began transferring sacred and ceremonial arts to modern supports (e.g., masonite board) using synthetic materials (e.g., acrylic paint). The portable pieces they created were used to transport traditional signs and symbols beyond the local community.

The imagery in Possum Ancestors and other Aboriginal paintings is closely linked to the belief system known as Tjukurrpa, or “Dreaming,” according to which creator-ancestors were responsible for shaping the living world and the physical features of the landscape, as well as the moral and spiritual code for human behavior. Through Dreamings, individuals are believed to be connected to both ancestral beings and the land upon which those beings left their marks and traces of their supernatural substance.

The Dreamings that Anatjari (Yanyatjarri) Tjakamarra painted are primarily related to the Tingarri cycle, which includes stories about the wayurta (possum) and other figures from the Lake McDonald region to which the artist claimed ancestral ties. Possum Ancestors tells the story of two ancestral beings, half-human, half-possum, who eloped in violation of their peoples’ marriage rules. The couple fled south seeking protection, but their kin followed. When the family of the lovers crossed paths with their defenders, a fight ensued. Where spears were dropped, mulga trees cropped up, and where stone knives were left behind, stony rises appeared.

As with other Aboriginal paintings of the Dreaming, the story of the possum ancestors is given two-dimensional form through the use of traditional icons, based in geometry. In addition to the footprints of the possum ancestors, there are a variety of shapes and lines. In other works circles might stand for trees seen from above, for fires, or for mountains. Here they indicate watering holes, while diagonal lines represent the dry sand hills of the country.

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