Travel Notebook

Discovering Dot Painting – an Aboriginal Art Form

I rarely return from a trip abroad without a special memento – or several! – of my journey, be it a sari from India, a beer stein from Austria’s Lakes District or, in the case of a recent journey to Australia’s Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and the resplendent Longitude 131° (with the thanks of our partner Southern Crossings), an original Central Desert dot painting – the oldest school of Aboriginal art in Australia. The lodge’s extensive gallery features a heady collection of Central Australian indigenous art, and I was most drawn to the dot paintings from Papunya and Mt. Allen … I delved a bit further into the history of this particular art form and discovered the stories of the local people it imparts.

For the art history buffs: Aboriginal Papunya painters first introduced the dot painting technique in the early 1970s with the assistance of their school teacher, Geoffrey Bardon. Since that time, artwork of this kind has become an iconic phenomenon of the Australian body of art. Using dots, lines, footprints and circles, the easily recognizable Aboriginal dot paintings typically represent the stories and cultures of the central and western desert. It is believed that it originated with body painting for Aboriginal ceremonies, perhaps to create a shimmering effect either on a person’s body or in the decoration of a special artifact – this effect would suggest a certain aura surrounding the design and enhance its meaning. I was particularly intrigued by the mysterious aspect of dot painting … it would seem that this medium gave Aboriginal artists a way to keep secret certain elements of the sacred stories they were representing to the outside world, while sharing only that which they cared to.

Our expert connections at Southern Crossings arranged for an art workshop during our stay at Longitude 131°, where we could try our hand at this celebrated technique. The workshop was held at Maruku Arts, a nonprofit art and craft organization that is wholly owned and managed by the Anangu Aboriginals from the southeast and western regions of central Australia. Morning and afternoon sessions are held in Yulara’s Town Square and it was here, on a particularly glorious morning, that I tried my hand at my own dot artwork under the expert tutelage of a local artist. The mysteries of the indigenous symbols used in Tjukurpa (sacred stories) were unveiled, allowing me to craft my very own dot painting to bring home with me – a personal and treasured keepsake of my time in the spirited heart of Australia.

Specialist tours are also available to all guests, whereby one can visit the remote Ernabella Arts studio and mingle with the residents there – open since 1948, this is the oldest, continuously running indigenous art center on the continent. On another memorable day, we met men and women here, young and old, who produce art on a daily basis in a variety of mediums – much of which has been celebrated worldwide.

The dot painting tradition has greatly transformed how Aboriginal people represent themselves to the outside world. While it has been around only 40 years, the diversity and personal feel of the art is cyclical in how it continues to inspire more artists. As you seek out dot painting, you’ll hear about the communities of Papunya – the birthplace of the art form – Kintore, Yuendumu, Mt. Lieig and others.

Should you wish to venture out, Ayers Rock Resort hosts four art galleries with a broad selection of desert art, where one can watch artists at work and talk to them about their craft. These include the Mulgara Gallery, Desert Oak Studio and Wintjiri Arts & Museum.

The luxurious Longitude 131° is a spectacular retreat facing majestic Uluru in the World Heritage-listed wilderness of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Southern Crossings can arrange for stays of any length, allowing for full immersion in the Anangu culture of this irresistible land.