Dot paintings are everywhere
Detail of an Aboriginal dot painting. Note how the dots form shapes and areas which encode information for initiated viewers.
Aboriginal dot paintings are everywhere. Walk into any Aboriginal art gallery and you’ll find them. The dot painting style is used for paintings, vases, on t-shirts, stones, fridge magnets—anything people would buy.
But is dot pointing traditional Aboriginal art?
You’ll be surprised to learn that dot painting on canvas emerged in central Australia in the early 1970s as a result of Aboriginal people working together with a white art school teacher, Geoffrey Bardon .
The Papunya Tula art movement
Map: The central Aboriginal community of Papunya is located about 240 kms north-west of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory.
Bardon was assigned as an art teacher for children to the Papunya community in 1971. Papunya then was an artificial community of 2,500 Aboriginal people who had been assimilated from the desert.
Bardon encouraged his students to paint a mural based on traditional dreamings on the school walls [5,6]. The murals sparked tremendous interest in the community and soon many started painting , in the beginning only men because some of the paintings depicted secret, sacred things – related to ritual and ceremony – that were not for women, children and uninitiated young men to view .
As their reputation grew and their work went out into wider Australia and beyond, the painters of Papunya became more careful about what they depicted, removing sensitive elements or camouflaging them with layers of paint and dots. Some believe that this layering of meaning is the essence of Papunya painting, rather than just the dot-style.
Artists at first used cardboard or pieces of wood, which they later replaced with canvas.
Geoffrey Bardon stands in front of the mural on a school wall in Papunya, August 1971. Photo: Robert Bardon 
In 1972 the artists established their own company, Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd. Their works sparked the genesis of the Western Desert art movement, now internationally recognised as “one of the most important events in Australian art history” .
The company is entirely owned and directed by traditional Aboriginal people, mainly from the Luritja/Pintubi language groups. In 2011 it had 49 shareholders and represented 120 artists . Artists Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra and Ronnie Tjampitjinpa were among the founding members.
Today the community is famously known as the Papunya Tula School of Painters and is home to around 150 Aboriginal artists .
Papunya Tula now raises money to fund a new dialysis service, for example. But it also is a social hub which contributes to the well-being of its often very senior artists.
“[Painting] is not just a profession, it’s a social activity,” says Paul Sweeney, Papunya Tula Arts General Manager . “The ladies get together and chat and talk about men probably and gossip I guess, and that’s what art centres are all about. It’s a hub, it’s a communal hub where people get together and do what they do and the kids and the rellies [relatives] come through and that’s a good thing because they’re all sharing in the atmosphere of the art centre and watching and learning and taking it all in.”
Fact Albert Namatjira painted his last works in Papunya before his death in 1959; and it’s also where 1980s rock act the Warumpi Band hail from.
How the dot painting style emerged
Bardon helped the Aboriginal artists transfer depictions of their stories from desert sand to paint on canvas. They soon realised that the sacred-secret objects they painted were being seen not only by European, but also related Aboriginal people which could be offended by them . The artists decided to eliminate the sacred elements and abstracted the designs into dots [4,5] to conceal their sacred designs which they used in ceremony.
During ceremonies Aboriginal people would clear and smoothe over the soil to then apply sacred designs which belonged to that particular ceremony. These designs were outlined with dancing circles and often surrounded with dots .
In the early years of Papunya paintings still showed clear depictions of artefacts, sand paintings and decorated ritual objects. But this style disappeared within a few years.
Uninitiated people never got to see these sacred designs since the soil would be smoothed over again and painted bodies would be washed. This was not possible with paintings. Consequently Aboriginal artists abstracted the sacred designs to disguise the meanings associated with them.
Some paintings are layered, and while they probably appear meaningless to non-Aborigines, the dot paintings might reveal much more to an Aboriginal person depending on their level of initiation.
The first paintings to come from the Papunya Tula School of Painters weren’t made to be sold. Papunya Tula Artists manager, Paul Sweeney, explains that they “were produced by people who were displaced, and living a long way from their country. The works were visual representations of their own being. They painted sites that they belonged to and the stories that are associated with those sites. Essentially they were painting their identity onto their boards, as a visual assertion of who they were and where they were from.”