Published  07/05/2008

Papunya painting: out of the desert

Papunya painting: out of the desert

National Museum of Australia, Canberra.
28 November 2007-28 February 2008

Art is a central force in Aboriginal culture and a critical political tool. Through an understanding of the art it has been possible to make a case for Aboriginal rights. The Sydney Olympics in 2000 were used both to expose the dreadfully inhuman conditions under which many Australian Aborigines still lived, and also to incorporate Aboriginal art and ritual into contemporary culture. Thousands of Aborigines took part in the superb theatrical ceremony; a great part of which was inspired and dedicated to the history of Australia before the arrival of white European settlers.

Aboriginal art has provided a focal point for the profound changes that have taken place in attitudes and policy in Australia regarding its indigenous population. Such is the burgeoning nature of the industry that exhibitions and publications now proliferate; most recently a key exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, has shown 40 works by the Pupunya Tula artists that have been in storage for 30 years. What began as a small group of desert painters and their supporters has become a distinctive painting style that represents Australia.

Along with other desert communities, and encouraged by Geoffrey Bardon, a white artist turned schoolteacher, the Papunya Tula Artists' cooperative created paintings of great ambition and scale. It has been argued that these paintings are the most significant group of works or product of an artistic phenomenon in the history of Australian art. Tim Bonyhady states: 'More than any other Australian art movement except the Heidelberg School, Papunya painting sustains what an economist might think of as a genuine marketplace of ideas.1 The Western Desert Art Movement, which originated in the small community of Papunya, some 250 km west of Alice Springs, started after Bardon encouraged the children there to use the motifs and symbols of their own traditions. The senior men of the community took the opportunity to paint a mural on the school wall. They began to make small paintings of their ancestral stories, or Tjukurrpa, on a range of surfaces. Painting was a relief to the hardship and dire poverty of their lives. Given a choice of garbage collection, repairing fences and other itinerant work, painting was a good option. In spite of their meteoric success over thirty years, the first decade of the community's life was met with certain resistance and little market success. Papunya was itself a mixed community drawing on Aboriginal people from their traditional lands, including the Pintupi, Anmatyerre, Luritja, Aranda and Warlpiri. Through the 1980s, more artists became involved, each bringing to the works on canvas, their own language, their own traditional stories. The range of imagery is varied, complex and sophisticated. In the 1980s, as the movement flourished, other artist's communities were also established, including Utopia, Yuendumu and Balgo, with organised marketing of their works. Papunya Tula have been the most distinctive and successful of all the groups.

Papunya Tula is also known as the Western Desert Art Movement. It was formed in 1972, 'at a  hellish, dysfunctional settlement forcibly created by racist government policies'.2 The settlement was officially opened in 1960 under the conservative Menzies government, which held that Aborigines were not ready to live as 'white Australians' and had to be re-educated to hasten their 'advancement'. In practice, this meant that Aborigines were removed from their traditional lands. Their language was suppressed as was their art and culture. The same policy involved the forced removal of thousands of Aboriginal children from their parents and their dispersal into government institutions or church foster homes. The reality of the 'Stolen Generation' was only uncovered as late as 1997, when the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission presented 'Bringing Them Home', the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families. The report was a chilling and public revelation to the media of the systematic attempt at social and biological engineering by the forcible removal of indigenous children in Australia since early colonisation.3

The Papunya community was a disgrace to the governments of Australia that allowed it to exist. It consisted of substandard government housing designed to house 400-500 people. It was inadequate in all respects, resulting in groups living in structures made from sticks and others in humpies, as they were called, made from white Australia's refuse - scrap timber and corrugated iron. Serious illness - hepatitis, meningitis and encephalitis - killed 129 people there between 1962 and 1966. In 1966 the industrial courts in Australia ordered landowners to pay Aborigines award wages. This resulted in many Aboriginal stockmen and farm workers being sacked. It is a tragic irony that Australia's most exciting art movement should be fuelled by unemployed, often sick aborigines who moved to the Papunya settlement from surrounding desert regions; by 1970 the population had grown to 1,000.  Geoffrey Bardon's account in Papunya Tula, Art of the Western Desert conveys the desperate conditions. On arrival there in 1971 he found:

A community of people in appalling distress, oppressed by a sense of exile from their homelands and committed to remain where they were by direction of the Commonwealth government. Papunya was filled with twilight people, whether they were black or white and it was a place of emotional loss and waste, with an air of casual cruelty. I quickly became aware of the breakdown of tribal hierarchies and the disintegration of many of the families.

I had come to a community of several tribal groups apparently dispossessed of their lands and quite systematically humiliated by the European authorities. It was a brutal place, with a feeling of oppressive and dangerous racism in the air. Although the culture of these people is based on journey or tracks, and all their Dreamings refer to movement over great distance, the authorities had denied them their birthright to travel. They were frustrated to the point of hopelessness.4

Government employees were housed separately surrounded by barbed wire. The Aboriginal children at the settlement were told that if they approached the whites' houses, they would be shot. Riots took place; at times these required police back up from Alice Springs - they were often triggered by small misdemeanours punished inappropriately and harshly. Young Aboriginal offenders were jailed for quite minor offences. Basic human rights were denied at Papunya and in prison. Before Geoffrey Bardon's initiative, artwork at Papunya was limited to ceremonial activities for initiated elders, and the small-scale production of European-style watercolours for tourists in the vein of Albert Namatjira, who achieved widespread acclaim. Most white Australians were ignorant of the shocking conditions under which Aborigines lived.

Bardon noticed that his pupils drew in the sand with their hands. He encouraged them to do more. It was only with the permission from the tribal elders that the children were allowed to express themselves in less ephemeral media. When seven elders painted 'Honey Eating Dreaming' on a school wall in 1971, the vibrant image acted as a catalyst to challenge the oppressive regime at Papunya. In the following 18 months 600 paintings and 300 smaller art works were produced there. This story alone, of triumph over adversity, perhaps explains the passionate response to the works produced. Many white Australians want to assuage the national guilt. Yet at the time commentators perhaps underestimated the political struggle that still had to be waged for any kind of artistic freedom or independence. The government sought absolute control over the activities of the artists; indeed it became an offence for anyone buying paintings from Aboriginal artists (which they claimed were the property of the government) without the permission of the Native Affairs Branch, a government body. The penalty was a £100 fine or six months in prison. It all reads as bizarre that in such recent history a government could wield such power, especially as Australia has a reputation in the wider world for being prosperous and egalitarian. Bardon himself was threatened by authorities, which he described as 'racist threats'. He became seriously ill in 1972 and was forced to leave.5 It was without doubt his initiative that kick-started one of the most extraordinary movements in Australia in artistic and social terms. The traditional designs of the Papunya artists on Western art materials are of great significance in the history of Aboriginal art and its impact on white Australia.

The recent exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, brings these issues to the fore. John Kean, who was art advisor for Papunya Tula from 1977 to 1979, says the works were created at a time of great energy and optimism.

They were often painted in confusing circumstances permeated by cultural misunderstanding. None of us who were involved in the painting movement at that time could have known the influence that these paintings would go on to have. The settlement that spawned the Western Desert art movement was created in a collision of cultures, much slower than a monsoonal storm, but ultimately just as violent in its effect.

Papunya Tula painting was generated by the impact of Indigenous culture with European aspiration and aesthetics. It is the shiniest of the shards from this collision of cultures. The products of this encounter have been embraced worldwide and are recognised as among Australia's foremost cultural achievements. These vast experimental paintings, conceived and executed with breathtaking confidence, were the creative effort of 50 Aboriginal men.6

Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, Gerard Vaughan, observed, 'The visual art of Indigenous Australia has a stronger presence, diversity and dynamism than ever before in its history. Many Australians have been looking at, thinking about, and - consciously or unconsciously - absorbing this new art for at least twenty years. It is impossible to deny that Aboriginal artists have transformed the way we see our land and the history of Australian art. In fact, Aboriginal art, in all its diverse forms, has become the mainstream of contemporary art practice'.7

At the NGV, curator of Aboriginal art Judith Ryan has recently celebrated 30 years in her job as a pioneer of the collection of Aboriginal art. When she became curator 30 years ago, there were not sufficient works in the collection to mount an exhibition. As recent exhibitions there have shown, the collection is now encyclopaedic. She has made the collection relevant to contemporary society. A colleague at the Alcaston Gallery, Beverley Knight, says that the breadth of the NGV's collection has given a voice to indigenous artists from all over Australia.8 Aboriginal art, Ryan observes, was driven by deep political and cultural necessity. Cultural pride on the part of Aborigines against the appalling treatment of Aboriginal culture by white settlers from 1788 onwards, has resulted in a diverse art with rare and powerful qualities. The dialogue that accompanies this cultural phenomenon is of the highest standard, with heartfelt observations. Judith Ryan explains:

Like any other form of contemporary art, Aboriginal art participates in a global art market and is subject to the same arbitrary market forces and the greed principle. Yet as much more becomes known about individual artists and particular cultural traditions, it becomes increasingly difficult to talk about Aboriginal art in the abstract, as if it were something generic. The use of other general categories creates tensions and contradictions that fail to acknowledge where individual artists fit or how they position themselves. If artists signal their work as Indigenous, they are potentially 'ghettoised'; but if Indigenous art is absorbed within broader categories of Australian art or contemporary art, it is in danger of being homogenised or stripped of complexity and specific context.9

The collection of Aboriginal art at the NGV now forms a key part of the overall museum's collection. More than five million people have been through the Aboriginal galleries on the ground floor of NGV Australia since it opened at Federation Square in 2002, justifying the decision of the then director Timothy Potts to relocate them there. Judith Ryan recalls, 'It was a curator's dream to work with the architect's planning the space. Aboriginal art had always had such a meagre space previously. We never even had a proper storeroom - the Pukumani poles (from the Tiwi Islands) used to be stored in a broom cupboard'.10 The new building was the culmination of Judith Ryan's work over twenty years. The NGV had not bought any Aboriginal art from 1968 and 1984. It had therefore missed the opportunity to buy the Papunya Tula paintings available in the 1970s. Ryan did buy 10 Papunya works in 1987 after convincing Patrick McCaughey that the purchase was vital, in spite of his misgivings that the price tag of $100,000 was too high for relatively small works. When James Mollison became Director of the NGV after many years as Director of the NGA, where he had overseen the collection of indigenous art, he changed the policy by insisting that Aboriginal art be treated in the same way as any other art because he was convinced they were great works.11 Key works by the Kimberley artist Rover Thomas were bought for $6,500 each. Several years later a work of his was sold for $450,000. Ryan's determination has been a necessary ingredient in the development of the NGV collection, where regular exhibitions, such as Colour Power: Aboriginal Art post 1984 was staged in 2004. The gallery has also published extremely good catalogues with a high level of scholarly dialogue.

The field of Aboriginal art continues to expand. The names Clifford Possum and Emily Kame Kngwarreye are now well known, their work forming major museum exhibitions in the past 10 years. Some critics have compared their works to those of Claude Monet, or the abstract expressionists, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri (1932-2002) was a co-founder of the Papunya Tula style and the first Aboriginal painter to be critically acclaimed by art patrons in Europe and North America. He grew up in severe poverty in the shadow of the Coniston massacre in 1926, where police shot and killed almost 100 Aborigines. Possum received no formal education but knew six Aboriginal languages and a little English. He worked as a stockman and learnt his ancestral stories from tribal elders. He met and learned from Albert Namatjira and in the late 1950s was involved in the establishment of the Papunya settlement. By the mid-1970s he was the chairman of the Papunya Tula Artist's Company. Possum's career is one of the most extraordinary; his first major retrospective was at London's Institute of Contemporary Art in 1988. It attracted media coverage and record attendances. Later that year he travelled to America to attend the 'Dreamings' exhibition in New York. 'A gentle and quiet-spoken man with a light hearted sense of humour, Possum was proud of his life as a stockman and passionate about his artistic work. His determination to express and pass on his ancestral stories to the next generation became the means for forging his distinct artistic vision.'12

The case of Emily Kngwarreye (1910-1996) is central to the emergence of Aboriginal art in a contemporary context. She belonged to the Woman's Batik Group at the Utopia Ranch in the eastern desert (north-east of Alice Springs) in 1978. She started painting in the 1980s when she was in her seventies. Her career only lasted ten years and in that time, 'She rapidly established herself as one of the leading artists in the renaissance of Aboriginal art at that time'.13

The work of Kngwarreye differs significantly to the more familiar Papunya and other central and western desert groups. Painting in the eastern desert region is an almost all-female activity (as opposed to senior men). 'Its roots lie in Indonesian batik and body painting rather than sand painting. For it was out of the rich strand of traditional designs associated with the body-painting applied to women's arms, breasts, and legs before the traditional awelye dreaming ceremonies and so enthusiastically adapted by the Utopia women to silk batiks, that came their first public and critical success in the early 1980s'.14

Emily Kngwarreye emerged as the central figure when the group first used acrylic paint on canvas in the late eighties. Kngwarreye, who was 86 when she died in 1996, is arguably one of the most important artists to have emerged in the last part of the twentieth century. In the last eight years of her life she produced over 3,000 works on silk, cotton, paper and canvas.

In her essay 'Moorditj Marbarn (Strong Magic)', Aboriginal artist Julie Dowling quotes Jean-Paul Sartre, who says that 'the painter paints the world only so that free men may feel their freedom as they face it'. Her belief that painting is her means of cultural and personal survival provides an important perspective to the notion that painting is alive in the broadest sense:

[O]n a metaphysical level, the use of pigments and materials such as ochres is a sacred act coming from sacred lands. Such pigments have power because they project these same values, while we translate the many layers of meaning we possess in our minds and hearts as Indigenous peoples. Such colours create relationships between people and the land by travelling great distances throughout the world on bark boards, carved objects and on canvas.15

Recent publications and exhibitions such as Papunya Painting at the National Museum reveal the distance that has been travelled in the past 30 years. Curator Vivien Johnson notes, 'Throughout the 1970s, Papunya paintings languished in obscurity, rejected by art galleries as too ethnographic and by museums as not ethnographic enough. No public collecting institution in Australia was buying Papunya paintings in the 1970s. There was no appreciable private market for them either. That was why the Aboriginal Arts Board collection came into being'.16

In 1973, the then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam announced the establishment of the Aboriginal Arts Board, 'To stimulate and protect Aboriginal culture in Australia'. By the late 1980s the vast collection required housing. The National Gallery was the obvious place by then, but they did not have sufficient space to store them. Until 2001, the National Museum had storage space but no room to display them. Johnson says, 'So almost by default, 102 Papunya Tula paintings from the most neglected and revolutionary decade in the history of Western Desert art were transferred in 1990 to the custodianship of the National Museum of Australia. Finally, after more than 30 years in seclusion, this unique collection has emerged into the light. Remarkably, none but a handful of the works in this exhibition has ever been previously shown in Australia, though some of them went halfway around the world in [Aboriginal Arts Board] exhibitions during the 1970s and early 1980s. So obscure are the canvases from the first half of the 1970s, that their very existence has been overlooked in previous histories of the Papunya Tula artists'.17

Johnson continues:

There could hardly be a more appropriate group of works upon which to stake a claim for museums as legitimate places to explain not only what Papunya paintings are in cultural terms, their relationships to land and nature and to Aboriginal society, but also the revolutionary impact on mainstream Australian culture of the contemporary desert painting movement of which they are the progenitors. There is a need to make this connection now. For when Aboriginal art was first displayed in art galleries in the early 1980s, it came trailing clouds of ethnographic glory. Those clouds have long since dispersed before the bright lights of art stardom. The more indigenous art, especially tradition-based indigenous art, takes on the appearance of modernist painting, and the more art audiences accept it as part of Australian contemporary art, the more it is presented without the kind of explanatory texts or even explanatory titles which originally accompanied it into the sphere of high art.18

In a recent article in The Canberra Times, 'A way out of the wilderness', Sasha Grishin reports on the new generation of Papunya artists. In 2007 the Papunya Tula cooperative had 160 artists on their books (about 100 painting regularly), having handled some 3,000 works. Numerous other communities have been established on similar lines, the art production remarkable. 'The concentration of art production in Central Australia makes it one of the most vibrant and active centre in the world; Paris and Manhattan by contrast appear like sluggish backwaters.'19 Social problems and poverty continue to dominate life in the centre where art provides the only really viable alternative to the cycle of poverty and dependence, yet 'the Aboriginal artists of remote communities of Central Australia are changing the face of contemporary art nationally and internationally'.20 Most artists at Papunya are elderly and in spite of their remarkable role in bringing their culture into a wider audience, few young artists are of their calibre. Justin Corby (b. 1982) started to paint at the age of 25 and is considered the most promising young artist there. He is the son of the famous Papunya artist Lindsay Corby Tjapaltjarri, whose full-blood brother was one of the original Papunya Tula artists - David Corby Tjapaltjarri. The family is custodian to many important dreamings. It is of great importance that they have been passed to the present generation. Justin Corby is telling his family's dreamings but in his own distinctive style, with bold forms and vibrant colours. In January this year he was given a solo exhibition at Metro 5 gallery in Melbourne. 'In what at times appears as a bleak and harsh environment with few prospects for employment with few prospects for employment and personal advancement, Justin Tjungurrayi Corby, through his art, is celebrating a fresh flowering of the brilliant Papunya tradition.'21

Dr Janet McKenzie


1. Tim Bonyhady, 'Sacred Sights', Sydney Morning Herald, 9 December 2000, Spectrum, p.4.
2. Charles Green, '"Papunya Tula", Review of Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Artforum, New York, 12 January 2000.
3. See also Peter Read, A Rape of the Soul So Profound, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1999.
4. Geoffery Bardon, Papunya Tula, Art of the Western Desert, McPhee Gribble/Penguin, Sydney, 1991.
5. Ibid.
6. Quoted by Diana Streak, 'Papunya's dream images', Panorama: The Canberra Times, 1 December 2007, p.4.
7. Gerard Vaughan, 'Foreword', in Judith Ryan (ed.) Colour Power: Aboriginal Art post 1984 in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2004, p.7.
8. Quoted by Robin Usher, 'Bold Vision of Artistic Rebirth', The Age, A2, 5 January 2008, p.15.
9. Judith Ryan, 'From Reckitts Blue to Neon: the Colour and Power of Aboriginal Art', in Colour Power, op. cit., p.99.
10. Quoted by Robin Usher, op. cit., p.15.
11. Ibid, p.11.
12. Susan Allen, 'Pioneer of contemporary art dies: Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri (1932-2002)', World Socialist Website, 4 July 2002.
13. Nicholas Usherwood, 'Introduction', You Beaut Country, A Selection of Australian Paintings 1940-2000, Agnews Fine Art, London, 2001, no pagination.
14. Ibid.
15. J. Dowling, 'Moorditj Marbarn (Strong Magic)' in Colour Power, p. 138.
16. Quoted by Streak, op. cit., p. 5.
17. Ibid, p. 5.
18. Ibid.
19. Sasha Grishin, 'Away in the Wilderness', Sunday Canberra Times, 16 December 2007, p. 24.
20. Ibid, p. 25.
21. Sasha Grishin, 'Next Generation Papunya', Panorama: Canberra Times, 8 December 2007.

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