Papunya Tula at Holmes a Court

The Holmes a Court Collection in Perth has rung in 2006 with a 25th anniversary “reunion” of paintings from the exhibition organized by Andrew Crocker (and sold to Holmes a Court) that has became known as Mr Sandman Bring Me a Dream. Billed this time as Papunya – circa 1980: works from the Holmes a Court Collection and Lenders, in association with Papunya Tula Artists, the exhibition opened on December 2, 2005 and closes in a week’s time on February 5. News of this exhibition sent me back to my bookshelves once again to retrieve and examine the catalog of the original (published by Papunya Tula Artists Pty, Ltd and the Aboriginal Artists Agency, Ltd, 1981).

The fact that there was a catalog in 1981 for an exhibition devoted solely to Western Desert painting strikes me as of considerable significance, let alone that it was republished two years later as Papunya: Aboriginal paintings from the Central Australian Desert and translated into Portuguese and German. (Whether there were other translations made and whether they existed primarily as “souvenir books” for the tourist market in Alice Springs I haven’t been able to determine.) Geoff Bardon’s Aboriginal Art of the Western Desert(Rigby, 1979) was the only other published monograph on the Desert acrylics at the time, although general exhibition catalogs of Aboriginal art were beginning to include paintings from Papunya by then.

More so, the exhibition is the most visible marker of Andrew Crocker’s tenure as art advisor for the cooperative, a tenure which was itself a watershed in the company’s history. The company had struggled for economic survival through the 1970s and struggled indeed with a definition of its mission. For the first decade the line between art object and ethnographic object was never clearly delineated. Although the aesthetic power of the works was undeniable, much of the interest they generated lay in the stories and in the glimpse into Aboriginal cosmology and myth that they provided. In economic terms, supply outstripped demand, capital was locked up in inventory, and paintings accumulated in the company’s own “collection,” which was sold finally in 1979 to the Australian Museum in an effort to restore liquidity. An element of cultural preservation was mixed into all of this, although it seems ambiguous whether the notion of documenting Aboriginal culture before it disappeared had yet truly given over to the idea that painting could provide a renewal of that culture, infusing life into a tradition that had somehow managed to persist since 1906 when Bishop Frodsham of the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS) had speculated, more with despair than with the cynicism usually attributed to his remarks, that “missionary work then may be only smoothing the pillow of a dying race.”

(As an aside here in aid of rehabilitating Frodsham, in the speech to the Australian Church Congress in which the Bishop made that famous remark, he also told his colleagues, “We have an airy way of speaking about Australia as a white man’s country. But Australia was, first of all, a black man’s country, and I have never heard that the black man invited us to take his property from him” (quoted in Andrew McMillan’s An Intruder’s Guide to East Arnhem Land (Duffy & Snellgrove, 2001), p.94). McMillan comments that this statement “could be construed as one of the first recorded declarations of Aboriginal rights to native title.”)

Crocker was determined to change all that. His idea was first of all to market the paintings–to actively create a demand for them. And it is only the concept of marketing that can explain to me the far too clever and far too cute “Mr Sandman” conceit. But to truly generate demand, he felt it was essential to emphasize the aesthetic qualities of the work: the paintings were to be presented as art, not as stories, and the emphasis on documentation decreased under his direction. (I wonder if this also accounts for the change in the catalog’s title two years later.) Crocker’s understanding of the importance of positioning the work in the fine arts sphere was underscored later in the decade when he mounted the first solo retrospective of an Aboriginal artist’s work, Charlie Tjararu Tjungurrayi: a retrospective 1970-1986.

An Englishmen, unlike his predecessors, Crocker was eager to extend the reach of Papunya Tula beyond Alice Springs and into the national and international market. His sale of the 27 paintings in Mr Sandman to Robert Holmes a Court for A$35,000 certainly helped to do so. Although the amount of money the sale generated was not exceptional, the placement of the works in such a major art collector’s hands must have made people take notice. And Crocker was able to take the exhibition abroad a few months later to Los Angeles, taking along with him Charlie Tjapangati and Billy Stockman. In 1983 the exhibition traveled again, to France, where it was shown at the Australian Embassy in Paris.

To my eye, the paintings themselves are a mixed bag. Stylistically, they seem to anticipate the art of the 80s more than they show their roots in the previous decade. Many of them display an emphasis on symmetry or at least regularity of design that blunts some of the power of the earlier works. In his catalog essay assessing the state of Papunya painting at the turn of decade, Dick Kimber asks,

What do Aborigines think of this ‘new’ transposition of their art now that a decade has passed? In general, despite continuing tensions, the artist and their communities have adjusted or ‘settled-in’ to the change. The early delight and surprise has passed, but pleasure, satisfaction, teaching and social interest remain. Again, the initial surprise at the white or other ‘outsider’ people’s wishing to purchase paintings has yielded to acceptance of the quirks of the ‘white-fellow’ way. Aborigines see the purchasers as wanting a ‘pretty picture’ and perhaps an ‘easy story’ — that is, a satisfactory and true enough explanation but not a ‘deep law’ story.

Some of the painters are represented by works that I personally find undistinguished, Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, Charlie Tjararu Tjungurrayi, Paddy Carroll Tjungurrayi, and Clifford Possum among them (although I should confess that I rarely find Clifford Possum’s work inspiring). There are a couple of lovely Water Dreamings by Dick Pantimatju Tjupurrula (d. 1983, the younger brother of Johnny Warangkula) that evoke Old Walter Tjampitjinpa, but do not rise to the standards set by the master’s treatment of the subject. Three paintings by Johnny Warangkula may exhibit what Crocker calls the painter’s “hallmark … three-dimensional effect which he achieves by superimposing dots of different colours and sizes” but to my eye they do so without the gentle lyricism of his earlier and smaller works. Indeed, size may be the enemy of effect in many of these paintings, but in this respect they also point forward to the larger canvases of the 80s and the artists’ attempts to grapple with adapting their designs to the scale of works appropriate to an art museum’s collection. Perhaps this is what Kimber had in mind when he wrote of pretty pictures and easy stories.

The cover of the catalog reproduces one of Turkey Tolson’s fine figurative paintings, a coiled Snake Dreaming that also graced the cover of the next major catalog of Papunya Tula paintings, The Face of the Centre: Papunya Tula Paintings 1971-1984. Inside the catalog, the first painting presented, by Harper Morris Tjungurrayi, is one of the simplest and strongest. A central roundel with four perpendicular straight lines represents the tracks of an Emu Ancestor to the waterhole at Anangra. At the corner of each quadrant delineated by this central design, another circle represents a cave site in the area, with two arcs depicting the hills in which they are located. Although I’m usually loathe to compare Aboriginal masterworks to modern painting from the west, I spent several minutes puzzling over the mental echoes this work seemed to evoke in me before realizing that in its somber tones and torqued energy, it brought to mind the face of one of Picasso’s Three Musicians.

Mick Namarari’s contribution depicts a Dingo Dreaming at the rockhole at Nyunmanu, and while I would never call it a masterpiece, it does play interesting changes on the patterned and decorative qualities that dominate so many of the paintings in the show. As Crockers describes it, 

The sequential motif shews a mother dingo walking with difficulty back to her litter. The difficulty arises because of the prey which is hanging from her jaws and which causes her to walk with a looping [sic] gait, rather like a swimmer’s crawl. This notion is conveyed by the bow-leg-like line emanating from the circles. One dingo print is shewn.

The asymmetry of the depiction of the dingo’s path in which arcs swing backwards and forwards in no readily apparent pattern creates a visual tension across the surface of the painting that contrasts with the decorative lines of bush bananas that delineate the yellow and white bands of background dotting. This background itself is in some ways the best part of the painting for me, adumbrating as it does the minimalist, monochrome dotting of Mick’s dingo and marsupial mouse paintings of the 90s, which are particular favorites on mine in his catalog.

Likewise, Charlie Tjapangati’s Tingari canvas depicting events at Nakinga, two roundels on a background of alternating bands of black, white, and yellow dots has hints of the subtle and similarly minimal sandhills designs that have dominated much men’s painting coming out of Papunya Tula in the last couple of years. Charlie’s other painting in the exhibition is a tall, thin (66 x 19 inches) jittery Tingari design whose somewhat off-center, lumpish, and irregularly sized roundels connected by attenuated pathlines has the glow and vibrancy of fine works by John Tjakamarra and early Anatjari Tjampitjinpa.

Willy Tjungurrayi’s painting of Tingari events of Kulkuta has many fine subtleties in color, patterning, and shape that prevent it from settling into regularity, although at first glance it doesn’t seem to be a particularly striking piece of work. Crocker apparently wasn’t impressed; in his annotation he offers the following judgment: “The artist has some beautiful works to his credit. They are, however, rather different from this one.” (Fred Myers tweaks Crocker’s affectations noting that “only Crocker would insist on the circumflexed old-fashioned British spelling of ‘role’ in the catalog” (which I can’t reproduce here); note also the spelling of “shewn” in the annotation of Mick Namarari’s painting quoted above. Elsewhere, Crocker explains Charlie Tjararu and Mick’s freedom from traditional ideograms by noting that they have been “acquainted longest with Europeans.” But lest you suspect that this contact has somehow compromised the integrity of their cultural attachments, he adds “Both remain thoroughly au fait [my italics] with the song cycles”.

There are two paintings rich in surprise and delight for me. Tommy Lowry’s Tjapaltjarri treatment of a Snake Dreaming at Talipata is a real riot of color, greens, blues, and reds providing incident and contrast amidst the black, swirling, writhing path of the snake. Once again, Crocker’s assessment is cause for a smile. “The fact of his not having the habit of painting regularly gives his work a naive quality and a certain freshness absent from many of the other works.” The judgment is dead on, even if I wouldn’t have phrased it that way.

And lastly, there is a wonderful work by Pinta Pinta Tjapanangka, glossed by Crocker as an increase ceremony for the mungilpa grass which takes place at Mayitayinya. The work adheres to the traditional four-color palette and features a large central roundel representing the ceremonial site. Small roundels and even smaller black circles spin and radiate away from this focal point in a design that brings to mind some of the earliest (often unattributed) examples of work from Papunya, but with an overall surface cohesion that anticipates the large masterpieces of the 80s. Perhaps my appreciation of this work stems from its recapitulation of Mr Sandman as a pivotal exhibition in the early history of Western Desert acrylic painting.

And this is, in fact, the delight in the opportunity afforded by a presentation such as the one now appearing at the Holmes a Court Gallery. The major retrospectives of Papunya Tula work, including The Face of the Centre (1986), Dot & Circle (1986), Twenty-Five Years and Beyond: Papunya Tula Painting (1999), and Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius(2001), by their very scope, offer riches far beyond those presented in Mr Sandman. Its appeal lies rather in the opportunity to examine a body of work from a single moment in time, and an important moment at that. The delights of temporal comparisons are compressed into a single year and the examples of Papunya – circa 1980 lie in discovering in each painting its own links forward and backward through time. In this respect these paintings stand in relation to the history of the acrylic painting movement as any instantiation of the Dreamtime does to the Dreaming itself: they capture the past and the future in the “present” moment.

Note: As usual, I have relied heavily on Fred Myers’ Painting Culture: the making of an Aboriginal high art for historical details. The facts are his (I hope); any mistakes in the interpretation of them are, of course, mine.

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