This website was developed for the exhibition Irriṯitja Kuwarri Tjungu | Past & Present Together: Fifty Years of Papunya Tula Artists that was on view at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia from 2021-23 and the Embassy of Australia in Washington, DC in 2024. It was made possible by our creative partnership with Papunya Tula Artists and the generous support of UVA Arts Council. Site design by Urban Fugitive for V21 Artspace.

Why all the dots?

Walkatjurninpa | Dots

Detail of Rumya Tjukurrpa (Goanna Dreaming at Wantaritja) by Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi.
Dotting is a universal human form of mark-making. Dots have always been used in Aboriginal cultures: on ceremonial objects, in sand paintings, and in paintings on the body for ceremonies. Terms for dotting are generally associated with ceremonies, and the use of dots in acrylic painting echoes this sacred significance.

While early paintings on fiber board from Papunya featured few dots, the technique became more prominent after 1972. In particular, artists such asJohn Warangkula Tjupurrula increasingly used them to fill their compositions to the point of being dotted all over.

One early challenge for the Papunya painters was that they wanted their paintings to contain the ceremonial information that would make them sacred and significant, but at the same time, they knew this information could not be seen by non-Indigenous and uninitiated Aboriginal people. Some scholars suggest that artists began applying a layer of dots over these sacred elements to cover and hide them, solving this dilemma. As Johnny Warangkula’s paintings show, dotting was just one creative way of doing this. He and other artists like Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa and George Tjungurrayi also used sophisticated line work to conceal this knowledge.

Detail of Yam Spirit Dreaming by Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri.
Anthropologist Fred Myers suggests that the main reason that dotting became so prominent in desert painting was the desire of the artists to “make ‘em flash” – or in other words, to create a pulsing optical effect that expresses the flow and presence of ancestral power in the paintings. He says “the overall decoration of these paintings with dotting has a further effect in indicating the power of Tjukurrpa through the visual patterning and optical effect of foreground and background.”

Dotting quickly became a defining feature of Aboriginal art from the desert. Artists noticed that audiences expected this, and in turn, dots became a way to assert their Aboriginality: an easy short-hand that artists could use to assert who they were.

Artists today use dots in many different ways—sometimes as outline, sometimes as background, sometimes to create shapes, and sometimes as the entirety of a composition.

Detail of Rain Dreaming at Mount Denison by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri.
Some overlap their dots so much that the dots can hardly be separated. Look closely at the works in this virtual exhibition. Can you find ten different ways that artists are using dots in their paintings?