Early Papunya Painting at the National Museum

The National Museum of Australia’s exhibition Papunya Painting: Out of the Desert brings to a close an extraordinary year of looking back at the history of contact between the people of the Western Desert, especially the Pintupi, and white Australia, with special regard for the emergence of the painting movement that revolutionized the Australian art world. At the end of 2006, Colliding Worlds: First Contact in the Western Desert 1932-1984 opened at Museum Victoria, documenting the social and anthropological aspects of contact. When that show moved to the Australian Museum in Sydney in April 2007, the AM took the opportunity to arrange for a limited display of their previously unexhibited collection of Papunya boards from 1971-72. Now the National Museum has mounted another show of paintings from the early days at Papunya, paintings that likewise have been unseen for thirty years and probably never exhibited together in the manner offered by this exhibition. But whereas the works owned by the Australian Museum, which constituted Papunya Tula Artists’ original archive, are all small paintings on board, those in the collection of the NMA include some of the largest works ever produced by Aboriginal artists, many of them exceeding six feet in the shorter dimension and ranging up to ten feet long. These are the paintings that came off the stretcher known as mutukariwan, or the “motorcar one,” whose selling price would mean a new broken-down Holden for the artist.

Also included in this exhibition is a generous selection of early paintings on board, many of them equally as stunning as their larger counterparts, if for a jewel-like precision rather than for an imperial majesty. All of the works included here span the period 1972-1981. They come after the Bardon years (represented in the Sydney collection) and before what I sometimes consider the “modern era” of Papunya Tula painting that commenced with the appointment of Daphne Williams as coordinator in 1982, serving the company ever since (with a few hiatuses that masqueraded as retirement). 

These paintings from the 1970s, especially the large ones, are in part the result of the Aboriginal Arts Board’s (AAB) strategy for supporting the Papunya painters. In these early years of the Desert painting movement, there was no large-scale market for the works and government support was crucial, as described by Fred Myers in Painting Culture: the making of an Aboriginal high art (Duke University Press, 2002). Myers also documents how critical government support was to the development of the painting movement in those days.

The AAB commissioned work to be hung in government offices for exhibition abroad. Works sent abroad were often ultimately donated to the country (Canada, Nigeria, and New Zealand for examples) where they were exhibited. The Board’s rationale was that returning the works to Australia would suppress the need for further commissions, and thus reduce the ability to provide support and encouragement to the artists. 

The good news is that a large body of work was produced, and competition among the artists for the large canvases was intense. The bad news is that a significant body of important early work vanished from view. Among these early exhibitions, the only one that I am aware of being documented was the Canadian venture, which was published asArt of Aboriginal Australia (Rothmans of Pall Mall Canada, 1974). Included along with bark paintings, carved sculpture from the Tiwi Islands, and Hermannsburg watercolors were seventeen Papunya canvases. In the catalog, all but one of these are reproduced in sepia prints that lack even the clarity black and white reproductions might provide.

So it is all the more exhilarating to have the superb reproductions of Papunya Painting now to hand. As the AAB’s overseas exhibition program wound down, the works included here were considered for placement with the new National Gallery of Art, but at the time, the NGA had no storage space for them. The National Museum, on the other hand, was able to store the paintings but not exhibit them. And so, much like the early boards in the Australian Museum’s collection, a significant body of historically important paintings lay in obscurity for decades.

These works are now presented not only at the Museum, but also in stunning reproduction on the exhibition’s website and in an equally impressive 150-page catalog edited by Vivien Johnson. The website and the catalog complement one another, and need to be taken together to get the most out of the show. Both provide illustrations of all the works included in the exhibition, along with biographies of the artists, and a map depicting the important sites stretching across the Desert from Papunya to Jupiter Well. The website offers a more concise history of the collection, a look behind the scenes of the exhibition itself, and an extensive and superb list of suggestions for further reading: all of these are lacking from the printed catalog.

Papunya Painting, the publication, redeems itself with a set of varied and excellent essays. John Kean, who managed Papunya Tula at the end of the 1970s, offers a history that, in its evocation of the personalities of many of the artists, reminded me of Bardon’s stories in Aboriginal Art of the Western Desert (Rigby, 1979). Philip Batty, curator of theColliding Worlds exhibition, provides a link between the cultural history of the Pintupi and the world of Papunya painting with his biographical sketch of Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri. Reproducing some of the photographs of the artist, aged nine, from Colliding Worlds, he offers Mick’s life as an exemplar of the changes experienced by the Pintupi in the twentieth century, as well as what they achieved.

Vivien Johnson’s “When Papunya Paintings Became Art” moves from cultural history to art history and presents an excellent encapsulation of the story of Papunya Tula Artists’ first decade. She provides insights into the personalities of the men and women who served Papunya Tula in the 70s–Peter Fannin, Janet Wilson, Dick Kimber, John Kean, and Andrew Crocker–and how their backgrounds and interests influenced the development of both art and marketing in those early years. She provides information on the role of the Aboriginal Arts Board, and on the aspirations of the artists themselves. The essay is one of the best surveys of a revolutionary moment in Australian art history that I’ve read.

Fred Myers’ contribution, “Painting at Yayayi, 1974,” seems to downplay the central position of the art in the life of the Pintupi at the time. In this respect it is perhaps a welcome corrective to those of us who tend to focus our understanding and attention on Aboriginal society through the lens of “art.” Nor do I think it accidental that Myers talks consistently in this essay about “painting” rather than “art.” For him, this activity is part of a larger cultural activity, and indeed, he speaks of the work at Yayayi in 1974, during which time he camped with the Pintupi and did the field work for what later became his first monograph, Pintupi County, Pintupi Self (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1984), as primarily ritual work to which the activity of painting was accessory.

Given this focus on ritual activity at Yayayi in 1974, it is fascinating to turn the page from Myers’ essay into the next section of the catalog wherein the paintings are reproduced, divided into chronological periods according to the presiding coordinator, and hence, first to “Peter Fanning Time, 1972-1975.” The majority of paintings reproduced in this section are indeed from the last two years of that era, and can be very roughly divided into two categories: those produced by the Warlpiri/Anmatyerre mob, including Billy StockmanTim Leura , and Kaapa Tjampitjinpa and those done at Yayayi by the Pintupi mob, including Freddy West, Shorty Lungkarta, Anatjari Tjakamarra and Uta Uta Tjangala. 

The former comprise the large canvases, in general. They have a softer look to them, the palette more subdued and tonally consistent, the designs frequently more symmetrical, the country covered with bush tucker, clouds, or smoke. It’s been remarked that Fannin’s background as a botanist may have influenced the Papunya painters at this time to develop the patchwork, multi-colored representation of country and tucker that is characteristic especially of the Anmatyerre painters of this period.

By contrast, the Pintupi paintings are bold and angular, the best of them, like Uta Uta’s Ngurrapalangu (1974, p. 59) and Charlie Tjararu’s Wanatjalnga (1974, p. 58) dense with symbolism, disrupting symmetry with torque that imparts an enormous sense of motion and energy to the paintings. These are relatively small paintings, roughly 75 by 60 cms, on board, and of a size that could be managed in the creekbeds adjacent to the ceremonial grounds and carried back to Papunya in Fannin’s truck. Although, like Tim Leura’s paintings, they are maps of country, they bristle with an visual power that evokes Ancestral energy in a palpable manner.

This contrast between two “schools” of Papunya painters has never been so evident to me before, and the distinction is maintained through the rest of the exhibition. Even as the size of the works by the Yayayi painters increases (see the astonishing pair by Shorty and John Tjakamarra on facing pages 72-73), the immanence of the Ancestral power shining through the canvas is undiminished. 

Perhaps the most astonishing works come toward the end. Shorty Lungkarta’s 1977 masterpiece Punyurrpungkunya (p. 91), at 279.2 by 349.5 must rank among the finest paintings of the Tingari cycle produced, the hordes of elders and initiates as thick and numerous as stars in the sky, the infill in each of the three sections of the painting varied and, especially in the central section, quite unlike other paintings of the period. I wonder how much the structure of this painting influenced the design of Charlie Tjapangarti’s equally expansive Tingarri Dreaming of 1981 (p. 98). The most breathtaking aspect of this latter painting is that is was completed when the artist was only about thirty years old. Johnson notes in her essay that Crocker’s annotations describe the oversight of Freddy West, Yala Yala Gibbs, and John Tjakamarra “to ensure that the whole story was absolutely correct.” Still, this is a staggering achievement for such a young painter.

And finally there is Uta Uta’s grand, great, red Yumari from 1981, a work whose creation Johnson also documents with excellent photographs, and which Myers discusses at length in Painting Culture. In the boldness of its unconventional color, in its use of an anthropomorphic design long after most such representations had been banished from Papunya painting, in the legendary collection of luminaries who assisted in the creation of this great work (Yumpululu Tjungurraryi, Timmy Payungka, Anatjari Tjampitjinpa, John Tjakamarra, and Charlie Tjapangarti), it seems the unparalleled achievement of the era.

I wonder if it is mere coincidence that led Philip Batty to “warrior” as one of the epithets chosen to describe Mick Namarari, or is there something (that Brenda Croft has also lately sensed in Canberra, at the National Gallery) about the pride and the strength which lies behind these assertive paintings that demands such muscular language? If I can absorb this vigor in the diminished representations available on the printed page and the illuminated web screen, I can hardly imagine the impact of the works in person. Papunya Painting: out of the desert is on view at the NMA until February 3. Maybe there’s time for one last holiday gift, to buy a ticket to Canberra and see it for yourselves.

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