The Painter in Alice Springs

About five or six years after my first trip to Australia, after I’d visited Alice Springs often enough to get to know some folks there (and elsewhere around Australia, come to think of it), I began to hear stories about what happened when painters came into town for somewhat extended periods of time. And about taxi drivers who could sell you Aboriginal art on the street for a fraction of the cost you’d pay in a gallery. About faked paintings, or half-faked paintings, begun by the artist but completed by gallery owners themselves or by people in off the streets. And then there are the stories about the drinking binges and their deleterious effects on artists’ ability to work. I was in a gallery on the Todd Mall many years ago when the door burst open and a large, loud, and presumably very inebriated man started shouting at the gallery assistant, demanding to see the owner. The assistant calmly and firmly explained that the owner was out of town, and after a few minutes of more shouting and more calm rejoinders, the man headed back out into the mall. The unflappable assistant turned to us and asked, “Have you met Clifford Possum before?” On another occasion, a small and unmistakably inebriated man barged in to Papunya Tula’s storefront demanding paint and canvas. Daphne Williams didn’t mince any words, as I remember, telling him he didn’t need canvas, he needed food in his stomach. The painter tried to humbug someone else in the gallery while Daphne marched right out and returned with a large chicken sandwich. The painter finally left with in a taxi Daphne ordered up, and without the canvas.

I’ve learned a lot more about the grog problems in Alice Springs since then–and not just for painters. I’ve read about controls that the town government has tried to enact, and the work of the Tangentyere Council. I’ve seen fewer drunks on the mall over the years, and more policemen. And I’ve heard the stories of the great old men from Papunya who came in to Alice to spend their last days in hospitals or nursing homes on dialysis. None of it is very heartening.

Through it all, though, there remains the controversy over these painters and their residence in town. In its crudest form it seems to boil down to a question of whether they are better off and healthier in Walungurru or Haasts Bluff than in Alice, or whether they are being consigned to a ghetto and kept out of sight of the tourists. I realize that’s a deliberately crass, reductionist statement, but it does seem that, in the end, all the arguments wind up being simplistic. Perhaps that’s because everyone admits that the problems are not simple and the answers not easy.

Shouldn’t the painters be free to choose where they spend their time? If they want to come in to Alice where they came make money quickly, or where they can be close to relatives undergoing medical treatment, or need medical treatment themselves, why should any bunch of whitefellas say no? Isn’t that exactly the kind of paternalism that makes a mockery of the concept of Aboriginal self-determination? Don’t we then end up with a virtual return to the era of missions and town camps? Has nothing gotten better in the decades since Albert Namatjira died?

In some ways, I think the answer to all those questions is yes. But I can’t help feeling that that is still the wrong answer. Or maybe the questions themselves are missing the point. 

I’ve never been out to the communities west of Alice Springs. From what I’ve read, though, it doesn’t sound like they are wonderful places, either. Neil Murray’s barely disguised autobiographical novel Sing For Me, Countryman (Hodder and Stoughton, 1993) makes Papunya in the 1990’s sounds nearly as bad as Bardon’s account of the place in the early 70’s. The picture that Ralph Folds draw of Walungurru in Crossed Purposes: the Pintupi and Australia’s indigenous policy (UNSW Press, 2001) is no more promising. So why do I keep coming back to my gut feeling that, in the end, painters painting in Alice Springs is going to turn out to be a bad thing for both the painters and their art?

A simple place to start that line of reasoning is with the many stories I’ve heard from many people over the years about the salutary effects of a return to country for the artists. Even at a great distance from Alice Springs, this seems to hold true, and I offer as one example the film Painting Country (Ronin Films, 2000) which tells the story of a trip organized from Balgo back to the homelands the artists (Helicopter Tjungurrayi in particular) had not visited in decades and the deep renewal they gained from it. The connection to country that Bardon describes as the wellspring of the first paintings at Papunya in 1971 seems as fundamental and inspirational today as it was then.

One of the things I keep gaining a stronger appreciation for is this connection to land and what it implies. At first it was easy to grasp the notion of a Dreaming and its manifestation at a particular location. And an individual, by right of birth or residence, may have rights to the Dreaming, and responsibility to the country, and that both of those facts could be expressed in painting.

What’s taken me a little longer to appreciate is how the relationships between places also help to define relationships between people. The connections expressed in “right” marriage, for example, express relationships between places, and all of this ultimately emerges from the Dreaming. In part, the hellishess of Papunya in the 60s and 70s was precisely the problem of being in the wrong place. Even at Yei Yei Bore, where Fred Myers worked documenting early paintings, the Pintupi were camped on country that did not belong to them. They had made it out of Papunya by 1973, but the ultimate goal, which took years of work, was a return to their homelands at Walungguru and Kiwirrkura. In some ways, the art supported the community’s return to the homeland, but it’s equally true that the homeland supported the community’s art.

To return to Deborah Bird Rose’s formulation, the Dreaming is about connections. And through these connections individuals locate themselves, not just in geography but in society. To my Western ears, this sounds an awful lot like the psychology of the healthy, integrated individual in society, aware of and comfortable with both an individual self as well as his proper relations to others around him. Alienation may be the metaphor for modern man in the West, but in many ways it is also the overriding problem of Aboriginal history in the last 200 years. Painting at Papunya was a powerful means of ameliorating that alienation from homeland.

Painting also quickly became a major point of entry for these people into the cash economy from which they had been excluded for so long, as Tim Rowse reconstructs powerfully in White Flour, White Power: from rations to citizenship in central Australia (Cambridge University Press, 2002). Geoff Bardon detailed how powerful an incentive for the painters this was. He also began the tradition of mediating between the painters and the market, becoming in effect the first art adviser, providing guidance on how to make the paintings more salable. So from the very beginning, the interplay between Aboriginal culture and the white market helped shape the development of the movement. (This is also one of the major themes of Myers’ Painting Culture.) And today it is certainly one of the dominant responsibilities of art advisers to bring the sensibilities of the marketplace to the community as well as to bring the vision of the communities to the market.

In the years that I have been following developments in Aboriginal painting from the Western Desert, I’ve come to the conclusion that the market is at least as important a factor in that development as anything else. Whether it is the Western appetite for innovation in the fine art market, or the Western emphasis on the individuality and singularity of the artistic vision, or simply something inherent in the sensibility that painters bring to their work in any culture, there has been a remarkable amount of experimentation in painting styles since the early 90’s. (This may be true of earlier decades, too, but I’m speaking here from my own observations, which begin in about 1990.) It seems to me that there is a fairly direct line that starts with Turkey Tolson’s Straightening Spears paintings (see for example Sotheby’s 2005 auction catalog, lot 87) and Mick Namarari’s Tjunginpa Tjukurrpa(Marsupial Mouse Dreamings, Sotheby’s 2005 162 and 185). In the mid-90’s George Tjungurrayi followed by stripping down the Tingari schema (Sotheby’s 2003, 181), by eliminating the circles and lines that characterized Tingari Dreamings from the 1980’s and painting only the spaces in between them. Today painters as diverse as Morris Gibson Tjapaltjarri (Sotheby’s 2005, 84) and Willy Tjungurrayi (Sotheby’s 2005, 83) are filling large canvases with simple, undulating lines representing the sandhills in country, and if there is a dominant style in Western Desert painting today, it is this extremely successful minimal approach to design. (I’ve been chastised for referring to this style as “minimalist,” and I certainly don’t want to suggest that there is any connection between these paintings and the movement that flourished in Britain and America during the 70’s.) My point is simply that styles emerge and spread rapidly, or as one wag put it once, “everybody’s painting everybody else’s painting.” And that this undoubtedly reflects the market’s demand.

This dynamic, the interplay between the inspiration of country and place on the one hand and the spur of the market on the other, can in the best of cases produce strongpaintings. I choose the word “strong” deliberately for the resonance it has in both spheres–keeping country strong being one motivating factor in creating these paintings, while satisfying the desire of the market for strong work, which I use as artspeak shorthand for well-executed and impressive output. And to return to Fred Myers’ theme, Aboriginal painting, especially in the Western Desert, in a hybrid, intercultural phenomenon.

I seem to have wandered fairly far afield from Alice Springs, so let me see if I can return there to pose a series of questions that I can’t answer very well, but which I’ve spent a lot of time pondering since my last visit there.

If country, the locus, is critical to the creative dynamic, is the painter who spends extended time in Alice somehow disadvantaged by the attenuation of contact with country? The example of the early 70’s might be seen to argue against detrimental effects of that attenuation, for it was he longing for country that was the wellspring of the work done at Papunya. But I’m not sure the parallel holds in present-day Alice.

The painting men of Papunya were not necessarily there by choice, and even if they originally walked in for their own reasons, it may have been without realizing how extremely difficult the return to country was going to be. If the Painter in Alice Springs is there for access to health services or access to grog, will the art be as strong? Can the work thrive in the middle of all the humbug?

Moreover, is the balance between painting as a form of knowledge and the painting as a commodity disrupted in Alice, where the overwhelming context for the art is its commercial value? Does the painter become a producer of commodities? Do commercial enterprises have that as their primary concern? Is there a concern, perhaps for the immediate well-being of the artist as producer, but not the welfare of the community? 

If senior members of the community (and by definition painters have some seniority in the community in that they know the Law that lies behind the paintings) are spending more time in Alice Springs, what is the effect on the transmission of knowledge out in the country? If they are not there to participate in ritual, is there a risk that the already threatened transmission of traditional knowledge will grow weaker? Do we get the benefit of a burst of paintings now at the price of continuity into the future? Or will desert painting simply grow in new directions as so much of Aboriginal culture clearly continues to do?

I’ve been struggling with this post for four days now, trying to come to an objective answer. But it’s all too easy to read between the lines and know that I’m not at all objective, and I may even be irrational. But I’ll come down on the side of the communities every time. I heard plenty of arguments about this issue during my month around the country this year. But there were two incidents that stick in my mind, incidents that didn’t have anything to do with this particular controversy, but which convinced me that I will always come down on the side of the communities and the community arts organizations.

The first occurred at the opening of Eubena Nampitjin’s solo show on Danks Street in Sydney on August 20. We dropped in and out of the gallery over the course of an hour or more, and each time, Eubena was sitting stoically in a chair, seemingly oblivious not only to the rest of the crowd but even to all the attention that was being devoted to her. Well-wishers and patrons took photographs, spoke to her, and fussed over her, but she remained as calm as the eye of a storm until Stephen Williamson, who was pretty much ending his career as art adviser at Balgo with this show, approached her. Her face lit up with such delight, joy, love….it was a startling and amazing transformation, and spoke far more about the relationships that can be forged out in the Desert than anything I’ve ever heard or read about. Here was the artist’s heart on open display.

The other incident, if you can call it that, was subtler and took me longer to appreciate in the whirl of commentary surrounding the Art Award in Darwin. There was plenty of dissatisfaction expressed with the judging, with the hanging of the show, with the overall quality of the works. But after the doors opened on the exhibtion Friday night, just about everyone was trying to buy one painting: the Naata Nungurrayi submitted by Papunya Tula.

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