The Many Lives of Papunya Tula Artists

The first great reference work (perhaps even the first) on Aboriginal art to appear in print was Vivien Johnson’s Aboriginal Artists of the Western Desert: a biographical dictionary(Craftsman House, 1994). Five years in the making, the book was Johnson’s attempt to document one aspect of the sudden burgeoning of art centres and painting endeavors beyond the original efflorescence at Papunya to include Yuendumu, Balgo, Lajamanu, and a dozen other communities. Reprinted in 2001, it is still a classic of the literature and a source for esoteric information on dozens of artists whose brief careers did not last into the 21st century.The Biographical Dictionary’s value and importance was in no way eclipsed in 2004 by the publication of Margo Birnberg and Janusz B. Kreczmanski’s Aboriginal Artists – Dictionary of Biographies: Western Desert, Central Desert and Kimberley Region (JB Publishing). Although the latter publication greatly expanded the number of entries and the number of photographs in addition to extending its reach to the ochre-painting communities of the Kimberley, it lacked some of the fundamental critical apparatus that made Johnson’s book so useful; there is, for example, no index by community, only a single map, and nothing in the way of critical essays that provide context. Perhaps, it could be argued, by 2004, such context was no longer required, or could be located in the list of monographs and catalogues appended to the main body of the work. But the idiosyncratic arrangement of the entries has always made this a frustrating volume to consult, even with the first-name index of artists that precedes the entries providing cross-references. (The main entry for Rover Thomas in the dictionary is under “J” for Joolama.)

Now Johnson has returned with a second great reference work that is both broader and narrower in scope than her 1994 effort, one that builds upon the research she began in 1989 for the original volume, and which far surpasses it, despite being limited to those artists who have been associated through the years with the company known to the world as Papunya Tula Artists. The new Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists (IAD Press, 2008, cover photo, left, by John Corker) strives to be much more than a simple biographical dictionary; it is more than just a reference work, its ambition perhaps first signaled by the echo of Vasari in its title. It is at once, as all such reference works are, a compendium of raw material, of facts, photographs, chronologies, lists, and interviews with its subjects. It is also a history of the company and of a movement in painting now widely recognized to be of international significance. And in fulfilling these primary goals it also implicitly sets out a research agenda for future scholars and sounds a challenge to scholars to begin developing a comprehensive critical interpretation of the artists’ work.

This fundamental difference in intent is signaled by Johnson’s decision to abandon the strict dictionary format in favor of a principle of historical organization which allow her–she would say allows the artists themselves–to tell the story of Papunya Tula Artists. Instead, four essays chart the history of the company. The divisions are governed to a degree by the changing of the guard in company management: “First Artists” covers the Bardon period and the “interregnum” before Peter Fannin assumed the reins; “Early Days” takes in the rest of the 1970s and ends with Andrew Crocker’s departure in 1981; “Art Business” chronicles the extended and stabilizing period of the company under Daphne Williams’s first term; and “Fame” covers the period from Williams’s first attempt to retire through the present day leadership of Paul Sweeney. 

And although it seems strange at first to organize the artists’ stories according to the tenure of the whitefella managers, it quickly becomes clear that this is indeed how the artists themselves organize their chronology, as they refer to the time when they first began painting for the company as “Dick Kimber time” or “Andrew Crocker time.” Generally speaking, artists’ biographies are included in the section which corresponds to the period during which they commenced painting, although in a few cases artists who made abortive initial forays are located in a later section that corresponds to the beginning of serious and sustained work. Within each section, the entries on individuals are arranged by skin name to maximize the proximity of cohorts of relatives and to emphasize shared cultural connections. This strategy doesn’t always work, as it separates brothers from sisters (perhaps not such a serious problem when you think about it) as well as fathers from sons or mothers from daughters (more problematic).


Left to right: George Tjungurrayi, Raymond Maxwell, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Bobby West, Kenny Williams, Charlie Tjapangati, Patrick Tjungurrayi, and Joseph Jurra at Kintore, 2005. Photo: Paul Sweeney.

In telling this story, Johnson has several goals in mind, one of which is to account for the continuing vitality of Papunya Tula Artists through time. She starts of course with the sheer brilliance of the work and the determination of the early painters to bring their stories into the commercial and intellectual marketplaces. The traditions of older men giving younger ones the authority to do so is seen first when Old Tom Onion allows for the painting of the Honey Art Dreaming on the side of the Papunya school house in 1971, but extends into the emergence of the first “younger” generation of painters who began to expand the company’s roster at the end of the 1970s and to take up the tradition as death, age, and blindness began to rob the ranks. The pressures of commercial competition in the 1980s as important art centres emerged elsewhere in the Central and Western Deserts and the emergence of women painters in many of those settlements–especially the furor surrounding Emily Kngwarreye’s international stature–brought new energy into the company throughout its second and third decades. As the last of the old men who started it all passed away just at the turn of the century (excepting Long Jack Phillipus, who continues to paint from his home in Papunya, and Billy Stockman, still living in Alice Springs but no longer painting), their sons, daughters, and widows have become the latest in the series of standard bearers.

Johnson develops this narrative in considerably more detail than outlined here, but she also studs it with notes and observations that point the way to critical investigations that may be of considerable interest. To illustrate, I want to draw together several facts and observations that Johnson scatters throughout her text on the styles and techniques and influences of several painters over the course of perhaps two decades in order to tease out one thread that might prove interesting to follow up in future researches. And to do so, I want to make use of one of the images that IAD Press kindly provided me with as part of the media package for reviewers they’ve put together. (All the images contained in this post come from that package and are used by permission.) Before I begin, I will beg one imaginative indulgence on your part, and that is to transform the colors of this painting (Tingari Men at Marawa, 2004 by George Tjungurrayi) from the red and white the artist chose in this instance to the yellow and brown that much more frequently characterizes Tjungurrayi’s paintings as well as those of many of the men who have painted for PTA over the years.


Tingari Men at Marawa, 2004, by George Tjunugrrayi. Photo: Vivien Johnson

In discussing work of one of the early masters and original shareholders in Papunya Tula Artists, Limpi Putungka Tjapangati, Johnson notes that he developed a characteristic and frequently thereafter imitated use of “alternating double bands of brown and yellow in the background dotting” (p. 136). Among the artists who adopted this style were the Warlpiri men Paddy Carroll and Two Bob Tjungurrayi; William Sandy, who originally hailed from the Haasts Bluff area, is perhaps the best known exponent of it.

Later, in discussing the emergence of the second generation of painters including Two Bob (also originally from Haasts Bluff) and the Warlpiri proteges of Old Mick Wallankari like Maxie Tjampitjinpa and Don Tjungurrayi, Johnson observes that several of these men “took up the stripes favoured by the Haasts Bluff painters. Interestingly, it was Turkey Tolson and Mick Namarari, the two Pintupi painters who had remained behind in Papunya to observe these developments, who a decade later in Kintore popularised the ‘stripe’ style which has since become the dominant form of Pintupi men’s painting” (p. 174) and which is seen in the work of George Tjungurrayi reproduced above.

Johnson also discusses the influence of the Balgo style of “linked” dotting that Dini Campbell brought back to Kiwirrkurra from Balgo and that was “later taken up by Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, whose scaled-up version would take Pintupi men’s painting at Kintore and Kiwirrkurra in bold new directions over the following decade” (p. 173). It is my impression that Ronnie’s development of this style is characterized especially by long strokes in which his brush is heavily laden with paint at its start and allowed to thin out over the length of several centimeters before a new stroke is laid down.

Finally, as she brings the story up to the present day and speculates on future directions for Papunya Tula painting, Johnson has this to say:

The new, less labour intensive styles of linework, particularly in the men’s paintings, no longer require the older artists to avail themselves of the assistance of younger relatives on dotted backgrounds. In the past, these collaborative working practices, integral to Western Desert culture, have produced a training ground for new artists (p. 270).

It may not be possible, given that almost all of the men I have referenced in these selections are no longer living, to reconstruct clear lines of influence from Bardon’s “painting men” down to the present day, but I offer this an example of the tantalizing possibilities for future research that emerge from the wealth of material that Johnson has assembled in Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists. The individual biographies, by clearly laying out family relationships and relationships to country, offer much, much more.

And finally, there are the photographs, which do so much to bring all these men and women to life. Each artist’s entry is illustrated (except in rare cases) with at least one portrait and the reproduction of one characteristic work. There is a lovely pair of portraits of Yumpululu Tjungurrayi, one taken near Yayayi, his forehead blackened with charcoal, on his return from a hunting trip, the other taken twenty years later and showing the artist adorned with a telephone headset. A two-page spread of Pinta Pinta Tjapanangka taken during the last year of his life, slouched over an uncompleted canvas on the verandah of the old Kintore painting shed in the company of his dog brims with sadness. On one page, Makinti Napanangka is shown in 1974, also at Yayayi, painted up and dancing with the hairstring belt whose depiction in paint features prominently on the following page in a portrait taken by Luke Scholes in 2003; she is recognizable 30 years later, and her puckishness is undimmed as she blows the photographer a kiss. And on the facing page to that image is Mantua Napanangka, who was married to Nosepeg Tjupurrula, also painted up for ceremony and wearing in her headband a pair of floral sprigs instantly recognizable from dozens of women’s bush tucker paintings.

Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists will be an enduring resource for scholars who study Aboriginal art from the deserts in addition to being an unending source of surprise and delight for anyone who has ever fallen in love with the paintings and the extraordinary people who have made them.


Left to right, standing: Wintjya Napaltjarri, Eileen Napaltjarri, Kawayi Nampitjinpa, Tatali Napurrula, Josephine Napurrula, Yuyuya Nampitjinpa, Nanyuma Napangati, Narrabri Nakamarra, and far right, Kayi Kayi Nampitjinpa; seated, Pantjiya Nungurrayi, Irene Nangala, Nancy Nungurrayi, Naata Nungurrayi, Nyurapayia Nampitjinpa, in front, Ningura Napurrula and Makinti Napanangka, at Kintore, 2005. Photo: Paul Sweeney.

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