MELBOURNE- 19 October 2016


It is now more than 45 years since contemporary Aboriginal art quickened at Papunya. Located 280 kilometers west of Alice Springs, the community was dismissed as a dysfunctional experiment in the settlement, education, training and eventual assimilation of Indigenous people. Papunya, wracked by riots and despondency, seemed like the town least likely to spawn an artistic phenomena that would sweep the continent. However, the community was located at the confluence of potent cultural, geographic and historical forces. With the advantage of hindsight, Papunya is a logical location for the emergence of a radical new artform—a movement that is independent from precedents learned from Britain or more recently, the United States.

Papunya is sited on the Tropic of Capricorn where the sun bears down with unrelenting, perpendicular intensity on Honey Ant country. Uniquely, the community sits within the zone where the country of Western Desert, Arandic and Warlpiri peoples overlap. These are the three largest cultural/linguistic blocks in Central Australia and their meeting point is an area of intense exchange and contestation. The assumption of control by missionary and governmental agencies amplified the complexity of the existing intercultural matrix.

The esteemed watercolourist, Albert Namatjira was intimately connected to the area through his patrilineal ancestors and was held under ‘house arrest’ at Papunya before his death in 1959. Indeed, Namatjira’s heritage remained strong at Papunya throughout the 1970s—his influence can be discerned in the graphic assurance and representational realism of early paintings by Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri and Long Jack Philipus Tjakamarra.

The community also attracted a series of creatively-driven southerners – the best known of whom is Geoffrey Bardon. Instilled with the progressive energy of the era, Bardon recognised the power of the icons that Tutuma Tjapangati and Nosepeg Tjupurrula painted on salvaged materials in 1971. The convergence of personalities from such divergent backgrounds resulted in a rich outpouring of ancestral stories, told with the excitement that comes with enlightened collaboration. Under Bardon’s guidance, Australia’s most influential atelier was established in a partitioned area of a Nissen hut, and significantly, the creative output that gained momentum in the ‘Men’s painting room’ continues unabated to this day.

The longevity of Papunya Tula Artists is as astonishing as its inception. Unlike many movements, whose verve is dependent upon the energy of the founders, this artist-owned company has been enriched, and its vitality extended by successive generations of artists. Moreover, as the movement has developed through time, its geographical loci have shifted west, from the relatively well-watered Western MacDonnell, to the dunes, vast saltpans and occasional rocky outcrops of Pintupi country. The trajectory of Papunya Tula Artists has subsequently mirrored, and abetted the triumphal resettlement of the Pintupi in their ancestral country.

Displaced Pintupi speakers comprised the largest group among the original Papunya artists – camping as exiles they dreamed of their beloved country. The Pintupi eventually determined to return, establishing permanent communities at Walungurru/Kintore (1981) and Kiwirrkurra (1983). Re-invigorated, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa and his peers painted with increased conviction, cementing a visual identity that diverged dramatically from that practiced by Anmatyerr and Warlpiri artists who remained at Papunya.

Located in the heart of the Western Desert, the Pintupi resumed regular contact with waltja (family) living at remote communities in South Australia and Western Australia. Instrumentally, the sale of large canvases enabled artists to purchase more reliable vehicles. Once mobilised, they travelled south to Tjukula, Warakurna and beyond, and west, to Well 33 and the Martu communities of the southern Pilbara. Meanwhile, the daunting immensity of the sandhill country, separating Kiwirrkurra from Balgo, was transcended via the Cessna Super Skywagon of Luurnpa Air.

In 1987, the formation of Warlayarti Artists at Balgo resulted in the emergence of a subtly different approach to acrylic painting. Rather than develop in isolation, a process of dynamic artistic exchange ensued between the artists of Balgo and their southern relatives at Kiwirrkura. Gradually, the dots that distinguished the Papunya School began to merge into impelled animated lines – a progression that eventually resulted in ‘desert minimalism’.

The confidence experienced by men on reaching full ritual maturity in their own country was reflected in the restatement of sacred geometry. Publically suppressed since the early days of the ‘men’s painting shed’ at Papunya, squares and ‘key’ patterns (normally associated with the restricted realm of men’s ritual) appeared in the works of Timmy Payunka Tjapangati, George Ward Tjungurrayi and Jacky Giles. While boldly asserting local ontology, Pintupi men’s painting became increasingly minimal and encrypted, as customary signs gave way to scintillating serial pattern.

In 1984, the resurgence of Pintupi culture was heightened with the appearance of a ‘lost’ family of nine individuals. The group had remained in total isolation for two decades at Marawa, a secluded plain just west of Lake Mackay, equidistant from Kiwirrkurra and Balgo. The family had witnessed the distant smoke of hunting fires and travelled south to a dusty road where they recognised the footprints of their relative, Tjumpu Tjapaltjarri. The ‘New People’ were warmly embraced by waltja at Kiwirrkurra, where their resilience and recent experience of traditional life was celebrated. Two of their number, Warlimparinga Tjapaltjarri and Yakultji Ngapangati are now ranked among the most accomplished contemporary Pintupi painters.

However if it was men who founded the painting movement, notably it was women who subsequently enriched its development and sustained its momentum. The breakthrough came at a painting camp in 1994 that brought together senior women including Yinarupa Nangala, Wintjiya and Tjunkiya Napaltjarri. The women worked collaboratively to produce startling forms derived from their own ritual, populating a vibrant landscape with ancestral heroes. Subsequently, other women including Doreen Reid Nakamarrra, Ningura Napurrurla and Naata Nungurrayi have become superstars in their own right.

Viewing the transition from the delicate boards, painted in the Men’s Painting Room in 1972, through to the huge, humming canvases of the new millennia, one could be excused for assuming they came from different worlds. Despite radically differing surface treatments, however, there is a remarkable, if mercurial, continuity between the paintings created over five decades with the focus on Tjukurrpa (The Dreaming) and its traces and effects remaining constant. While the earliest boards offer a carefully observed planar view of ceremony, later paintings are conceived more intimately, filling our field of vision, and immersing the viewer in ever shifting opuses of chromatic and tonal vibration. Indeed, monumental in scale, these contemporary canvases by Pintupi men and women demand that we embrace the power of Tjukurrpa with our bodies, as well as our eyes.