For much of Warlpiri history, ancient Aboriginal symbols representing their Dreamings were traced into the sand, erased by desert winds once the ceremonies were over. Though these shapes and their meanings were passed down through generations, they had no tangible, transportable way to preserve their art for future generations and in this day, for the outside world.
In the early 1980s, Warlpiri people were experimenting with acrylic paint, a western art medium, in order to detail their lives, their land ancestry, and their Dreamings. A cumulative decision had been made by the community – it was important for the Warlpiri people living in Yuendumu, to bring their knowledge, their ancestral traditions and culture, to the world beyond the desert.
Terry Davies, a local school principal, invited a group of Warlpiri elders to paint their sacred Dreamings onto the classroom doors of the school. This act opened up a two-way education between the Aboriginal and white communities, introducing Aboriginal Art and associated stories to those who had never seen it before. 30 doors were painted with important Dreamings, teaching the Yuendumu children about their ancestry and connection to country. These doors remained at the school for 12 years before being acquired by the South Australian Museum.
The doors were a way for Warlpiri people to connect the Yuendumu youth to their culture, particularly important to Aboriginal people since white settlers had made their home in their ancestral lands and now dictated much of daily life. Not only were these tangible paintings essential for imparting knowledge, but also as a source of pride for Aboriginal people in the community. These rich, vibrant, and public paintings were a way to preserve their culture and history, and more-so to celebrate it.
Unlike more traditional examples of Aboriginal artwork, the Yuendumu doors are brightly coloured with a full palette. Able to use more than the ochres and earth tones of their own ancestors, the artists took advantage of western mediums to create Dreamings full of vitality and eye-catching patterns and hues. Intricately detailed, the Yuendumu doors are one of the earliest examples of the successful transference of Indigenous art from its original ancient designs to a large-scale, western medium.
Each door depicts a different Dreaming, with symbols dating back thousands of years to show people, animals, and the land that Warlpiri people are so intimately connected to. While Dreamings are passed from generation to generation with deeper meanings than the art world is privy to, in each painting we are given a glimpse of the profound connection to the land, to ancestry, and to the strength of Warlpiri culture.