It is exceedingly rare that a truly new process for producing art comes into being. In Western art history we may cite the invention of oil paint in the 15th century that displaced tempera and fresco. In the mid nineteenth century both the availability of oil paint in tubes so the artist no longer had to mix colours by hand and the appearance of photography both had seismic vibrations upon contemporary art. More recently, the invention of effective acrylics in the 1960's and the ongoing emergence of quality video art as a legitimate and effective method of creation come to mind.

In Aboriginal art an entire movement, destined to become the most important contribution in Australia to International art and the creative process, was born when Geoffrey Bardon encouraged artists in 1971 to lay down ceremonial designs on board. This quickly turned into acrylics on canvas and the rest, as they say, is history. Less widely known is the invention of the Mimih spirit as sculpture for use in ceremony in Maningrida by Crusoe Kuningbal in the mid 1960's that spawned an entire generation of sculptors in Arnhemland including his sons Owen Yalandja and Crusoe Kurdal who carve Yawkyawk and Mimih spirits. The fabrication of very large hollow log coffins or ceremonial poles in Yirrkala is another example.

New forms of expression are few and far between and to be at the forefront of a genuinely original vehicle for expression is indeed exciting. Through the shared vision of a number of central desert artists and the tenacity and facilitation skills of Arnaud Serval, an artist and collector whom has divided his time between Paris and Alice Springs for twelve years, we are witnessing a rebirth in this exhibition WAMULU. Most western desert paintings are based on ceremonial ground or and body paint designs that reflect the dreaming and the status in the hierarchy or law of the owner. The actual ground paintings are executed for purely ceremonial reasons and destroyed once the ceremony is over. Never before, however has anyone been able to use the same materials and techniques to physically apply an actual ground painting to a support, thereby creating a painting which may be exhibited conventionally.


The first step is to gather together the flower known as "Wamulu", which is ubiquitous in the Alice Springs area. This is then laid in the sun for a number of days and once dried it is cut into a fine chop using hatchets. The plant matter is then mixed with natural ochre and a binder. Boards are prepared and primed with white paint. The artist who owns the story, the "boss" then applies the designs directly to the board while the others look on - often singing the story as this is done. The last step is to apply the Wamulu roughly to the design and producing a work with the same texture and feel as a ceremonial work ground painting. This last part is entirely communal. Therefore, the artists to whom the paintings are attributed is the artist who owns the story but the process in general is shared by all apart from the initial application in ochre of the design. The images come from ground painting as well as body paint designs. The process is extremely labour intensive and requires both skill and patience for the lengthy process of producing the finished artwork as images are not brushed on but rather built up. The organization of communal work is no easy task. For this exhibition, the artists lived and worked together for several periods lasting up to six weeks such was their commitment and belief in the project. Arnaud Serval is to be credited with this as an outstanding facilitator, coordinating materials for the paintings and providing encouragement, logistical support and food and shelter for the artists and some members of their families at his home he refers to as the "life centre" outside Alice Springs.

During my visit to Alice Springs in October last year with Josh Lilley we were lucky enough to see the progress of a Wamulu painting. Under Ted Egan's directions we drove to some locations near Emily?s Gap and gathered some Wamulu. The next day we picked up Johnny Possum and brought him to the house. Ted and Johnny eventually indicated they would like to do a painting and Arnaud set to work preparing a medium size board. During this time Ted and Johnny began singing as they turned over pages in a book of reproductions. When the board was primed and the previously mixed wamulu ready the singing intensified. The work was a POSSUM DREAMING in this exhibition. As it was his story, Johnny acted as the "boss" and applied the design to the board using a brush and ochres. Ted continued to sing intermittently as Johnny proceeded with the design but was acting as "policeman" or assistant and did not participate until it was time to begin applying the wamulu mixture. The process had a ritualistic air about it, full of memory (Johnny often mentioned how much he missed his late brother Clifford) and there was a sense of communicating through the story with their ancestors. Particularly in the first couple of hours the artists were entirely focussed and often in what appeared to me to be in a near trance. As the work progressed and the job of applying the medium became more taxing physically, the singing became more sporadic but the sense of a meditative, communal process was continuous. I was deeply impressed by the authenticity of the project. At no time were the artists pressed to do the work, there was no time frame for execution or completion and the work was done only when the artists were ready according to their own inner time. Too fast, too slow, formal execution of design - these are all categories of our making - not theirs  and it is a credit to both the artists and Arnaud that an atmosphere was established to allow this creative energy to flourish unhindered. Six hours later, the painting was finished; I was exhausted from just watching but felt privileged and exhilarated to have been present.

At a time when the emphasis is on solo shows and sometimes innovative, personalised designs or styles perhaps the importance of these paintings is that they take us back to the land, the ceremony, and the communal spirit from which this art originally derived and still derives it's power today. The artists know exactly what to paint and how to do it. While each work has an individual feel which occurs as a result of the process itself there is no question the basic form of expression goes back for hundred of generations.


2002 the exhibition "Wati - The Law Men" exhibition, Passage de Retz, Paris 27 June - 8 September, takes place in Paris featuring works from the Arnaud Serval Collection including a 130 page catalogue. Ted Egan Tjangala and Albi Moriss Tjampitjinpa attend the exhibition and produce a ground painting in situ. The plant material and ochres were collected around Alice Springs.

Early 2004 Arnaud Serval is in Alice Springs living with Ted and Albi. Having some experience in his own art using varied materials such as feathers, tar, sand and wood, Arnaud feels from discussions with the artists that there is a way of transferring their ground paintings onto board. He proposes to Ted that they try a ground painting on a little board with a special binder. Ted thought this over for some time, looked at Serval wisely for some time and said he was OK with the idea.

Mid 2004 the artists collect the wamulu plant and did the first small board followed by several larger paintings.

October 2004 Bill Gregory arrives in Alice Springs with Josh Lilley to organise an exhibition of some aspects of the extensive collection of Arnaud Serval at Annandale Galleries in March and possibly overseas at a later date. Upon seeing the WAMULU paintings, it was decided that an exhibition of this exciting new work should take priority and be done as soon as possible. Following the lead of Ted Egan, the artists were enthusiastic in their support.

November 2004-January 2005 the four artists lived in the house in Alice Springs and produced a further twenty paintings.

Statement from Arnaud Serval

In Serval's words; " Members of the Aboriginal families came and went as well as my brother Antoine. Together they were all witness to this extraordinary project". The house was transformed into a rebirth of an traditional way of writing, the ground paintings were pages of a book written by and made with nature by people who come from nature and have the traditions and the craftsmanship to realise the work and express their traditions. The four artists made the paintings, sometimes together, sometimes alone or in different groups. The work is comparable to a school of writing with sacred laws, to the study of the Koran, the Bible or other sacred books. However, here they are telling deeply personal creation stories from nature and the sacred sites in rocks and rivers. It is simultaneously in the past, here and now, and in the future - always alive. For these artists, their church is not of bricks and mortar but of the land. With WAMULU, the old men have opened another way to carry on their culture."

- Bill Gregory Sydney February 2005


New medium of ground paintings natural fibres & ochre on board
2 March - 2 April 2005

Exhibition features:

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Please note, works in previous exhibitions may no longer be available, please visit our stockroom for available works