The News (Direct) from Alice Springs

The March 9 issue of the Alice Springs News has a couple of reports on the migration of artists into Alice Springs. The first gives both Paul Sweeney of Papunya Tula and Chris Simon of Yanda the opportunity to comment on what’s going down.

Sweeney acknowledges that as many of the artists are growing old, they come into town to spend more time. He admits, “[t]hey’re shopping around and going to other dealers. But the issue over which artist is painting for which gallery is incidental.” And he argues that there are broader concerns. “It’s gone beyond art, it’s about people’s lives and their quality of life if they live in town for extended periods. Their physical health and appearance is degenerating before my eyes because of alcohol and a number of other issues like people being away from regular medicines and living in overcrowded houses.”

The article goes on to note that Papunya Tula has recently upgraded its facilities in town, which can provide space for eight to ten artists to work. The News also reports that Papunya Tula does whatever it can to encourage the artists and their families to return to their communities, providing regular transportation out to Papunya, Kintore, and Kiwirrkura. The article also takes note of the investment the company has made in the quality of life in those communities over the last few years, including privately funding a dialysis unit and a swimming pool. Plans for a new $1 million art centre are also in the works for Kintore. The article also makes the point that the shareholders of Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd, all of them painters for the company, receive 100 per cent of the profits.

Simon agrees that alcohol is a problem in town, stresses the importance of making sure that the elderly artists have proper access to their medicines, and notes that he tries to provide healthy meals to the artists who are working for him. But the major thrust of his remarks is to the issue of economic choice: that it smacks of colonialism to try to keep the people in their communities. “Forcing artists to stay on the community to paint is a restriction of trade,” he says, and the News states that “focusing on the problems which occur when Aboriginal people come into town” is in Simon’s words “a negative approach.'” On the issue of business economics, according to Simon, money for room and board does not come from the artists’ wages, but is factored into the cost of operating his business.

In past posts on this controversy, I think I’ve made it obvious that I’m partial to Mr Sweeney’s arguments. Clearly, some of these people need to be in Alice to get medical care; others may want to escape the humbug of relatives — although from what I’ve seen in Alice, the relatives manage to continue their humbugging pretty effectively in town.

I don’t know how much things have changed in the 35 years since the company was founded, but I don’t think anyone who’s read the histories can remain ignorant of the importance establishing and sustaining Kintore and Kiwirrkura held for the Pintupi. Papunya Tula has clearly gone to extraordinary lengths, with the help of their artists, to continue to make improvements in the quality of life out west, and the response to events like the Western Desert Dialysis Appeal in 1999 and the Pool Party last year testify to the support the art collecting community puts behind those efforts.

As for the economics, I cannot escape the simple fact the Papunya Tula is owned by the people themselves. As an engine for producing wealth, it directs the profits entirely back into the community.

I would also imagine that the presence of the elders in the communities is important to the continuance of the tradition that allows the art to flourish. There has been an economic argument put forth that artists who paint inferior canvases for dealers in Alice undermine their own product. No doubt that’s true, but I think that an even greater danger exists if the traditions that underlie all paintings, good or bad, suffer from the dispersal of the community itself. In the 70s and 80s, when the men who are now becoming the senior generation of artists were young, the elders of Mick Namarari and Turkey Tolson’s generation were painting out in Papunya or Kintore or Kiwirrkura. The young bucks in those days were more interested in cars and girlfriends than in painting, but as they matured, they began to settle down and learned to paint from the men of their fathers’ generation. Those young bucks are today’s highly sought after Pintupi artists.

The second article in the same issue of the Alice Springs News dealt with what the headline described as a “protest” on the part of a number of artists and their families outside the Papunya Tula gallery on the Mall. It was a short piece and rather than try to paraphrase, I’m going to quote it in its entirety, and hope that the News will excuse me for doing so.

Mantua Nangala, with two other Kintore artists Nanyuma Napangati and Mrs Porter, a recognised artist from Kintore, claimed she was not supplied canvasses by Papunya Tula after she began working for Chris Simon, the owner of Yanda Gallery on Gregory Terrace:

“Long time, I had no canvas. They never give us, or only little canvas. I’ve been getting little money. “That’s why I’m upset.”

Her husband, Russell Spurling said: “We live in town and she’s being told her work won’t be promoted if she works for Chris.

“We’re sick of it.

“It’s been going on since Christmas and it’s come to a head now.

“We’re grateful for Papunya Tula but we’ve put our son through Emmanuel College boarding school in Adelaide only through Chris Simon.

“It’s not right that he’s being discredited.”

Paul Sweeney, the manager of Papunya, refutes the claims. “We would never ever turn our back on someone if they paint for someone else,” he said.

The News has in this issue reported Simon’s argument that “Aboriginal artists should be allowed to follow the rules of free enterprise.” Well, all I can ask now is why, if the income from painting for Chris Simon has allowed Mantua and her husband to pay for boarding school tuition, and if they are now in need of money, why are they protesting on the Todd Mall in front of Papunya Tula, rather than striking a new deal on Gregory Terrace with Yanda?

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