Rumors that Vivien Johnson was writing a history of painting at Papunya have been reaching my ears for a long time now. When the publication of Johnson’s Lives of the Papunya Tula Painters was announced in 2008 by IAD Press, I thought at first that the dream had been realized, but I was mistaken–though not entirely disappointed by that book’s bounty. Early in 2009, I had the privilege of meeting Johnson at opening of the Icons of the Desert exhibition at Cornell University and learned that I would still have a couple of years to wait for her history.
But now, at last, there is Once Upon a Time in Papunya (University of New South Wales Press, 2010). It is art history of the first water, an anthropological and sociological inquiry, a memoir of a research project, an investigation into ethics, and a rip-snorting, edge-of-your-seat good read.
Johnson has an unparalleled record in scholarship on Aboriginal art, and in particular the art of the Western Desert. In addition to the Lives, there was the ground-breaking reference work Aboriginal Artists of the Western Desert: a biographical dictionary (Craftsman House, 1994). Her scholarly works on The Art of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri (1994) and Michael Jagamara Nelson (1997) remain the most exhaustive and authoritative monographs on individual artists of the movement ever published. There have been exhibition catalogs of substance, including Dreamings of the Desert: Aboriginal dot paintings of the Western Desert (AGSA, 1996), Copyrites: Aboriginal art in the age of reproductive technologies (Macquarie University, 1996), and Papunya Painting: out of the desert (NMA, 2007). Earlier there was Koori Art ’84 (Artspace, 1984), groundbreaking in its own way, and The Painted Dream: contemporary Aboriginal paintings from the Tim and Vivien Johnson Collection (Auckland City Art Gallery, 1990). The list goes on.
Once Upon a Time in Papunya now stands beside Fred Myers’ Painting Culture: the making of an Aboriginal high art (Duke University Press, 2003) at the head of the short list of indispensable works on contemporary Aboriginal art, with only Howard Morphy and Luke Taylor and their respective explorations of Yolngu and Kunwinjku painting to keep them company.
Johnson’s initial focus is on the history of the Papunya boards, the one thousand works painted at Papunya in roughly eighteen months from the middle of 1971 to the end of 1972, a period largely coinciding with Geoffrey Bardon’s presence in that place of “appalling distress,” as he characterized it (Bardon, Papunya Tula: art of the Western Desert, 1991 p. 10). Most of the work produced in that period was sold by Bardon, either in Papunya or through Pat Hogan’s Stuart Art Centre in Alice Springs. Much of it disappeared from public view almost immediately, either into private hands or into state gallery collections where it remained largely undisplayed and unstudied for decades. About 750 of them are accounted for today.
In the early years of the 1990’s, following a blossoming of commercial interest in Aboriginal art in general, a strong secondary market emerged, driven to a great degree by Sotheby’s and their curator of Indigenous art, Tim Klingender. In 1997, Sotheby’s mounted its first exhibition solely devoted to “Important Aboriginal Art” and it was at that sale that Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula’s Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa sold for a shocking, unprecedented $206,000. In the years that followed, Papunya boards emerged from their obscurity, many of them to hang on Sotheby’s walls, others to grace exhibitions like Papunya Tula: genesis and genius at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in the Olympic year of 2000, still others from the storerooms of the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory or the Araluen Art Centre in Alice Springs.
It was during this decade of expansiveness and change that Johnson began her historical researches, compiling for herself a database of the boards culled from exhibition catalogs, Hogan’s inventories as published in Dot and Circle: a retrospective survey of the Aboriginal acrylic paintings of Central Australia (Flinders Art Museum, 1986), and her visits to the public collections around Australia.
The initial chapters of Once Upon a Time in Papunya detail some of this research, and form the most intriguing art historical analysis of Papunya painting that I have ever read. Johnson begins her examination, not with Bardon, but with Jack Cooke, the man who took half a dozen paintings by Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa to Alice Springs and entered them in the 1971 Caltex/Northern Territory Art Award, where one of them shared first prize. In the first of her surprising historical reconstructions, Johnson sorts out the evidence that suggests strongly that these paintings pre-dated Bardon’s arrival in Papunya and Kaapa’s participation in the painting men’s activities under his sponsorship.
Johnson proceeds to examine the qualities of paintings from this so-called “School of Kaapa” that included among others, Tim Leura Tjapalatjarri and his brother Clifford Possum. These early works by the Anmatyerre painters are quite unlike those Bardon later encouraged the men to paint, for Bardon wished them to eliminate all traces of western iconography and representation from their art, and focus on what he felt were proper blackfella ways.
The presence of human figures and explicit ceremonial elements in the works of the School of Kaapa began to look more puzzling when Johnson turned her attention to the earliest paintings that Bardon took into Alice Springs as the first consignment to the Stuart Art Centre. Contrary to the received notion that dotting in Papunya painting grew up as a means of obscuring sacred imagery, she demonstrates that these very first works that we have from Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, Walter Tjampitjinpa, and Johnny Warangkula–all of which employ extensive dotting–must have been among the earliest paintings produced at Papunya. All featured a basic palette of black, red, and white enamel house paint that differentiated them from works in succeeding consignments done in the synthetic polymers that became the norm when Bardon’s art supplies became available to the men.
By this point in Johnson’s exposition I was thoroughly hooked, and my interest and amazement only grew more intense as she explored the works in succeeding consignments, questioning attributions (most spectacularly of Billy Stockman as the painter of the bright yellow Yala (Wild Potato) Dreaming of 1971 that was an icon of the Genesis and Genius exhibition thirty years later), sorting out chronologies, and examining the influence of the “new Pintupi” who joined the Anmatyerre and Warlpiri artists. Little did I realize that the real story of Once Upon a Time in Papunya was only about to begin.
Johnson’s sequential analysis of the consignments is interrupted in the midst of the fourth and fifth shipments. An exhibition of thirty paintings entitled Wailbri and Pintubi Art and drawn largely from the fifth consignment was sent off on a national tour. That tour ended abruptly in Alice Springs, in 1974, with the famous incident wherein Pitjantjatjara men hurled spears at the Residency venue of the exhibition. Their displeasure forced its closure and resulted in intense negotiation and finally reparations to custodians of some of the Dreamings and ceremonies depicted in the paintings on display. And with this incident, Johnson’s central themes of secrecy, restriction, authenticity, and ethical display of this early art bolt to the fore of the story.
To prepare for that investigation, Johnson turns her attention to the Sotheby’s saga, which proves to be a fascinating bit of history in itself, one that I’ve never before seen presented quite so coherently. I’ll admit, as well, to the fascination of reading history that I personally watched unfold in the late nineties and early naught’s. The perspective and the wealth of knowledge that Johnson brings to the telling weaves together the stoking of the marketplace by Sotheby’s with the media fascination over questions of inauthenticity that encompasses Kathleen Petyarre’s 1996 award-winning Storm in Atnangkere Country II, the revelation of Elizabeth Durack’s masquerade, and the claims and counterclaims of forgery surrounding works by Clifford Possum and Turkey Tolson.
By the time the narrative reaches the 21st century, Johnson herself becomes a player in the drama through her work on the Papunya Tula Reference Group, which was charged with determining whether individual works sold at auction should be granted export permits if sold to buyers from outside Australia. The vagaries of government oversight and the mixture of economics and politics compound an already conflicted struggle and ultimately bring Johnson face to face with an ethical dilemma that has far-reaching implications for the research project that has been the focus of the study to this point.
Johnson had for many years urged the various government ministries charged with overseeing cultural heritage (including export permits) to consult with the present-day custodians of the traditions embodied in the early Papunya boards. As the final chapters of the book begin to unfold, Johnson tells how she headed out with Alison Reid from the Cultural Heritage Secretariat in Canberra on a tour that was to take them through Alice Springs, Papunya, Kintore, and Kiwirrkura. It turned out to be an ill-starred and abbreviated voyage.
In Alice Springs, in February of 2006, they met with Bobby West Tjupurrula, chairman of Papunya Tula Artists and son of Freddy West Tjakamarra, who had painted with Bardon in the early days. At this time planning for Icons of the Desert, an exhibition of early Papunya boards from the collection of Americans John and Barbara Wilkerson was well under way. The itinerary of Icons included several stops in Australia. Johnson was hoping, at the very least, that West would be able to offer them guidelines for future decisions about the display and export of early Papunya boards. Dick Kimber, Centralian historian and art advisor at Papunya Tula from 1975 to 1977, was to have been a party to the discussions. But a sudden change in plans that brought West to Alice Springs in advance of Johnson’s road trip to Papunya meant that Kimber did not join them that night. West seemed surprised and unsettled by Kimber’s absence.
Johnson began showing West images from her database, to which he responded with interest. But the atmosphere changed when Johnson searched for paintings by Bobby’s father Freddy.
The first Freddy West entry that came up was Old Man’s Ceremony, the large board later included in the Icons of the Desert exhibition. It was only a thumbnail — I had not even clicked on it to bring up the larger image, but Bobby saw it all right — and visibly flinched. He asked me not just to move off that image but to close down the computer. Then he explained to me and Alison that he did want to talk about these issues, but not with us. He asked Alison very pointedly: ‘Don’t you have any men in your department?’, then lapsed into loaded silence (pp. 232-233).
In my reading of Johnson’s story, this is the turning point, the moment that she fully realized the implications of her quest for cultural consultation, not only for the art market but also for her own research project. It accounts, in my mind, for the sudden change of direction away from the consignment-by-consignment analysis of the early boards with which she began the book towards this investigation of the ethics of such research, which would inevitably expose information about restricted images to a broad public. Never mind that many of these images had already been published by Sotheby’s or in newspaper stories easily accessed on the web. Johnson needed to find a way to resolve this dilemma.
The final chapter of Once Upon a Time in Papunya is an extended discussion of how these concerns played out in the context of Icons of the Desert. Dick Kimber sought out relatives of the artists whose works from the Wilkerson collection might pose problems of display. The Wilkersons and curator Roger Benjamin came on board. In the end, the Australian leg of the tour was cancelled, the opening date pushed back two years, and the problematic images removed from the pages of the catalog. Photographs of those paintings were published in a special supplement to the catalog, inserted inside the back cover of the American edition and removed entirely from the Australian. When the show arrived at New York University’s Grey Gallery, where two Pintupi women painters from Papunya Tula Artists were to be present, the restricted images were hung in a separate gallery on the floor below the main exhibition halls. It was, in Johnson’s estimation, an exemplary compromise, respecting the varied interests of all parties, that could point the way towards future discussions and accommodations.
I can conclude only by saying that this book is a treasure. Apart from Johnson’s lucid prose, there are 48 pages of full-color photographic documentation of the painters and paintings that are central to her story. You will need an extra bookmark to facilitate consultation of the informative endnotes at the back of the book. There is an extensive bibliography and an excellent index as well.
Despite the length of this summary of the major themes of Once Upon a Time in Papunya, I have slighted much of the book’s complexity and subtlety. As I have been writing, thinking, and talking about this book in the past week, my estimation of its accomplishment has grown day by day. In its structure and its storytelling, its analysis and reflection, it holds a mirror up to the very experience that Johnson has lived in its creation. It is in itself a work of genesis and genius and one to which no review will ever do justice. If you care at all about Aboriginal art and culture, it is a book that you must read for yourself.