Dance boards by Emma Nungarrayi, 1970s and 80s

Dance boards by Emma Nungarrayi, 1970s and 80s

Two wooden dance boards from Papunya

Two wooden dance boards from Papunya
Photographer:  © Australian Museum


This colour image shows two wooden dance boards from Papunya in the Northern Territory created by the well-known artist Emma Nungarrayi. Both the top and underside surfaces of the boards are slightly convex. The upper surface has red ochre lines and u-shapes on a white ochre background. The smaller shield on the left is 38 cm by 11 cm and the larger shield on the right is 50 cm by 8 cm.

Educational value

The dance boards are used by women of the Warlpiri language group of central Australia in their dance ceremonies. In preparation for the ceremony they cover the boards with oil. During the ceremony they paint symbols relating to the particular ceremony with ochre and dance with the boards in both hands while singing. The u-shapes on these boards represent the women sitting on the ground singing ceremonial songs.

The artist who created these works is Emma Nungarrayi, a Warlpiri Elder and a holder of traditional Indigenous knowledge, songs and dances of the language group. She originally lived at Papunya, 240 km north-west of Alice Springs, where the boards were purchased from her in 1985. She moved to Alice Springs in 2004 to paint at an art gallery and is part of the Papunya Tula Art Movement, which has contributed to Indigenous Australian art being internationally renowned.

The dance boards are used in ceremonies relating to women's Dreaming. Dreamings are passed on through art, oral story-telling and ceremonies. The female Kurdungurlu, a custodian of the Dreaming and Elder who ensures that rituals are performed correctly, gathers the boards up at the end of the ceremony.
The designs on the boards are painted with red and white ochres, minerals that were excavated from the ground in central Australia and the boards themselves are made from hard mulga wood from the 'Acacia aneura', a wattle tree common in central Australia. The shields seen here have remnants of previous designs beneath the top design, indicating the boards have been used in more than one ceremony.

The Papunya Tula Art Movement, of which Nungarrayi is a member, started in Papunya in the early 1970s. Its art style is based on the symbols of traditional body and sand painting of the people of the Western Desert in central Australia. Traditional materials for painting such as the red and white ochres used on the dance boards are sometimes replaced by acrylic paints.

Ms Jen Cork , Senior Digital Producer
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