The Problem of Papunya

King Brown CountryRussell Skelton’s King Brown Country: the betrayal of Papunya (Allen & Unwin, 2010) is an aggravating book.  The publisher’s announcement begins with the following statement:

Award winning journalist Russell Skelton presents a devastating portrait of Papunya, a Western Desert community that once showed such promise, now a community in severe crisis.

Skelton, who writes for the Melbourne Age, ascribes the genesis of his investigation to an email message he received in 2004 urging him to check out “the [petrol] sniffing capital of Australia … a Bermuda triangle for taxpayer funds” (p. vii).  By the time of the book’s publication six years later, the Howard Intervention had been succeeded by the Rudd Apology and Labor’s continuation of the draconian Northern Territory Emergency Response.  The fault lines in Indigenous politics had widened, and Marion Scrymgour’s influence in the government of the Northern Territory had been sapped by the fall of the Martin government.  At around the same time Alison Anderson, a longtime force in local Papunya politics and administration  came to national prominence with a series of calculated (some might say miscalculated) maneuvers.   It was a chaotic time in the Territory.  And unfortunately, the whirlwind may have led Skelton to write a book whose center does not hold.  The King Brown is a rough beast indeed.

The setup for Skelton’s investigations is easy with ironies.  Acrylic painting, the economic engine that promised to lift Indigenous culture out of the mire of unemployment and its twin, welfare, was born in Papunya on the eve of the Whitlam era of self-determination.  The outstation movement gathered its legs under the Pintupi imperative to return home to the country they celebrated in their paintings.  Within a decade, Papunya’s own Warumpi Band had recorded the first rock ‘n’ roll song in an Aboriginal language and begun a transformation of popular culture that is ongoing.  The community achieved mythic status in the Australian imaginary, along with all the promise that such revolutions carry.  Within another decade, all that remained in Papunya was the desert dust, the powder of dreams tossed into the wind.

Perhaps Skelton set out to describe that arc, to explain how desert dreamings led Papunya and, by extension, so many other communities into the state of crisis that came to prevail in headlines for the last five years.  But along the way, and not too long after arriving in Papunya, Skelton encountered the ghost of Alison Anderson in the account books and living memories of Papunya.

Anderson, a Luritja woman of uncommon political instincts and powerful family connections in Papunya, overtakes King Brown Country in its second chapter and dominates much of Skelton’s telling of the story thereafter.  There is no doubt that Anderson has exerted an enormous influence in Papunya and has often since seized the stage in Territory politics and national headlines.  But I wonder if she is the real story in the betrayal of Papunya.

Even before reading this book, I had come to the conclusion that she was a woman capable of being in the right place at the right time.  On occasion she created the right place for herself by commandeering opportunities that a less talented Territorian might have missed.  She has flair, she has connections, and she exalts herself through both.  After Clare Martin resigned as Chief Minister, Anderson nearly brought down the government of her successor, Paul Henderson.  When the Aboriginal art world lit up with excitement over the display of early Papunya boards, Anderson took control of the plans for a major exhibition of the long unseen collection that is housed in the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory and scotched the initiative to curate them and tour them internationally.  When conservative business elements in Alice Springs grew disgruntled once more with “anti-social behavior” in the town this year, Anderson leapt into the fray like Athene before the walls of Troy.  You may admire her or loathe her, but you can not ignore her.

Skelton’s portrait is filled with loathing rather than admiration.  What might have started as an investigation into dysfunction in small town politics and disregard by Territory and Commonwealth politicians degenerates into a screed that at times, I confess, put me in mind of Keith Windschuttle’s rhetorical strategies.  In the fourth chapter, for example, Anderson is virtually blamed for the departure of the Pintupi from Papunya for their homelands in Kintore.  A dispute had arisen over the use of a community truck; the Department of Aboriginal Affairs refused to get involved in resolving the problem.  Anderson argued against the Pintupi demands.

The Pintupi remained unconvinced.  A Pintupi man stood up and said the group wanted a separate budget and wanted to move to Kintore.  and that was precisely what happened.  Anderson and the council not only failed to keep the Pintupi at Papunya, but hastened their departure.  [Anderson’s partner Steve] Hanley thought that was a disguised blessing.  After they left, he said, Papunya became a less violent place and its population–reduced to about 400–more manageable.  Hanley’s workload with the housing association also eased, though the housing crisis was far from over.  The community’s cultural life took a sever blow, however, as many of its the [sic] prominent painters had been Pintupi.  Their departure scattered the influence of the Western Desert painting movement and diminished Papunya’s place in it (pp. 44-45).

There is no doubt some truth in what Skelton narrates.  But the Pintupi had been unhappy at Papunya for years, living on land to which they had no rights, and had begun to distance themselves from the settlement far in advance of the incident that Skelton describes.  The promise of funding for bores and stores had more to do with their departure for Kintore than Anderson’s refusal to grant them a truck.  It is absurd to think she could have prevented the exodus, and equally absurd to think that she contributed significantly to it.  And while Kintore  and Kiwirrkura painters rose to prominence in Papunya Tula Artists during the 80s, some of the greatest and most successful painters stayed on in Papunya.  Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra and Michael Nelson Jagamarra remain there to this day.  Others like Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula and Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri were slow to establish themselves on outstations and continued to paint at Papunya after the first wave of Pintupi went westward.

I don’t intend to be an apologist for Anderson, nor do I want to nitpick my way through Skelton’s arguments.  I offer this incident as a trivial example of the author’s tendency to ascribe anything that has “gone wrong” in Papunya to Anderson’s machinations.  There seems to be plenty to worry about there without inventing or misrepresenting complicated issues.  Indeed, Skelton’s failure to engage with the complexities of the problems that beset Papunya is the most frustrating feature of this book.  I kept wondering throughout how a treatise centered on life in an Aboriginal community could have so little feel for and be seemingly so sparsely populated by Indigenous Australians.

The latter half of the book covers the time during which Skelton was conducting his research, when Anderson had moved on from Papunya to engagements with Territory politics in Darwin and beyond.  It is here that a larger problem in the administration of the community emerges.  While there can be no argument that local politics was often fierce and bitter, and that Anderson played an enormous role in those politics for many years, it is clear that government indifference on a much larger scale has contributed even more to the plagues that beset Papunya.

In this respect the story of the Intervention’s mismanagement and insensitivity is an example of business-as-usual writ large.  If Anderson was fiddling financial management in Papunya to provide motorcars to members of her extended family or to shore up political support when she needed it, the lack of attention that the Territory and Commonwealth governments paid to the proper disbursal of taxpayer dollars stands as a far more serious matter for investigation.  But Skelton’s campaign against Anderson shifts his focus away from the larger economic and political issues that contribute to the ongoing poverty and marginalization of remote Aboriginal Australia.

The book’s subtitle, “the betrayal of Papunya,” most certainly captures a subject worthy of investigation, especially if Papunya is taken as an exemplar of troubled Indigenous communities throughout the Territory.  Part of the appeal of this story derives from the mythical status of Papunya as the birthplace of a cultural movement that has become the emblem of Indigenous culture in Australia and around the world.

But the mythologizing that surrounds the story of  the “genesis and genius” of Papunya art has obfuscated both the details and the implications of the emergence of the acrylic art movement and of the marketplace that has developed around it.  And the mythologizing of one woman’s political ambitions similarly obscures both the true measure of her impact (which strikes me in the end as rather marginal) and the complex history that has led to the ongoing devastation of the desert homelands.

Papunya deserves better, as do Wadeye and Yuendumu and dozens of other townships.   Unraveling the roots of dysfunction is not and can not be the work of a single book.  But settling for easy and simplistic answers is, in the end, the essence of betrayal.

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4 Responses to The Problem of Papunya

  1. Nampajimpa says:

    Well written Will. It does appear that the truth may not have necessarily gotten in the way of Skelton’s story here. In my opinion either Skelton has fashioned a book around a personal attack on Anderson with the vitriol of a jilted lover or a he has a strange and concerning obsession with Alison Anderson. As far as the “Betrayal of Pupunya”, its most recent betrayal is the same story as the betrayal of any of the Northern Territory’s remote aboriginal communities. It is betrayal by the watered down, luke warm, limp, Labor Government Response. What is it called now? the “emergency response” more a REPLY or lip service (certainly not much action), rather than what is needed and wanted an “Intervention” /or INVOLVEMENT. Intervention was the touted intention of the previous Federal Government Mal Brough and John Howard, it was the first time there was any decisive real action taken in decades. Our Army even marched in to help, and who better equipment than our proud and resourceful Defence Force, it looked for a minute that there was glimmer of hope in these communities that were set to finally turn the corner after decades of death and dysfunction.
    If Skelton wants a conspiracy to follow up why doesn’t he follow the trail of almost a Billion Dollars that is pouring from the public purse into the “Golden Sewer” of no outcomes “SIHIP” (Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program), or call to account the ineffective Emergency Response which is now just another bureaucracy. No probably not! Skelton is more likely to prefer the cutting down of tall poppies, they are easier targets than the Government, because generally like Alison Anderson they are tall, proud and do stand up, unlike most.

  2. elsewhere says:

    Good review, Will–I’ve never quite understood Skelton’s obsessive witchhunting of AA. I sometimes think white people are disappointed when Aboriginal leaders fail to live up to some idealised notion of Aboriginality while failing to recognise that they’re political operators like any other any, and often shrewd survivalists on top of that. Which isn’t to excuse bad behaviour, but you know what I mean.

    There’s certainly more to the dysfunction of remote communities and towns like Papunya that could be examined.

  3. Dee says:

    Thanks Will, your comments are very interesting and your analysis is a refreshing change from some of the comments that abound around Indigneous issues. I prefer not to read books by Skelton and his ilk as there is enough sensationalising of Indigenous issues, right from the everyday newspapers to academic writings, it never ceases to amaze me the ability of so called ‘dispassionates’ writing with such pathos and sympathy for the less fortunate than themselves, never stopping to think on what foundations the fortunate are sitting.
    I have a great interest in ‘returning the gaze’ having a look at the dominant culture that seems to have got off scott free as far as historical reflection goes, and I suspect the pathologising of Indigneous people maintains the one up position. This is not to say that pathologies do not exist, in every culture, it just happens some pathologies are on show for all to see and comment on, as Skelton appears to, and others are hidden, ie the motivations for people like Skelton writing. If he had a look at his own culture, that would be a nice change.

  4. Alicia Melonie Jones Jones says:

    i was about to buy the book for research – glad i read this – well done

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