How dot paintings were swapped for a government 4WD

It was a bold deal that benefitted both parties — but it is hard to imagine it being approved today.

It was 1986, and five artists from the Northern Territory community of Yuendumu swapped two paintings for a government four-wheel drive vehicle so they could travel to their homelands.

The artworks, known as Toyota Dreaming, were some of the first acrylic dot paintings made at Yuendumu, which is now a hub of world-famous Central Desert art.

They were created by Paddy Jupurrurla Nelson, Paddy Japaljarri Sims, Larry Jungarrayi Spencer, Paddy Japaljarri Stewart and Tower Jakamarra Walker, who were among the artists who had earlier painted the Yuendumu school doors.

Swap ticked off in Canberra

The trade was initiated by Eric Michaels, a researcher for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) who at the time was working with the community.

“The artists were quite separated from their own country which could be up to 400 kilometres away, so the community really needed some transport to get there,” Alana Garwood-Houng, AIATSIS curator of art and artefacts, said.

“Our principal at the time, Warwick Dix, had to get permission … the community would have had to get new licence plates.

“But from the correspondence it didn’t look like it was difficult [to organise].”

Mr Dix wanted the paintings to hang above the entrance of what he hoped would one day be a purpose-built AIATSIS building in Canberra.

In 2001, when the building opened on Acton Peninsula, they were displayed in the foyer.

But to better protect them, they are now hung on rotation in the AIATSIS library reading room.

Ancient stories told through acrylic on canvas

Artists painting at Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Art Centre, 2003
Paddy Japaljarri Sims (left) and other artists at Yuendumu, 2003.(Supplied: Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Art Centre)

AIATSIS curator Charlotte Craw said the paintings drew on millennia of cultural knowledge and traditions.

But at the time they were made they were a new medium for the Warlpiri artists.

They mark the moment the community decided to enter the burgeoning Indigenous art movement and allow their stories to travel.

“The other important thing about these paintings is that they bring together a lot of major stories,” Dr Craw said.

“The senior men have worked out how to put those different Dreaming stories together.”

While the paintings are now a treasured part of the AIATSIS collection, the fate of the four-wheel drive was never documented.

“I’m sure it got very well used by multiple members of the community,” Ms Garwood-Houng said.