Papunya, Forty Years On

Mick Namarari Yam Travelling

40 years ago at Papunya: Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, Yam Travelling in Sandhills, 1971

It has been forty years since senior men at Papunya joined forces with Geoffrey Bardon to begin marketing paintings in acrylic, based on traditional designs and iconography, to art collectors, locals, and tourists passing through Alice Springs.  Bardon’s sponsorship of the new commercial scheme  was not, of course, the start of an Aboriginal art industry.  That had been underway for decades in locations stretching from Hermannsburg to Yirrkala.  But the mythology of Aboriginal art production has always featured as an essential element the concept of continuity.  If I had a nickel for every time the phrase “the world’s oldest continuous artistic tradition” has been breathed, published, or transmitted across the internet, I could buy a lot of great Aboriginal art.

What makes 1971 a significant marker in the history of this mythos of continuity is the establishment of an Aboriginal owned collective dedicated to the production of works for a commercial market that achieved commercial success and recognition for its aesthetics as much as for its reproduction of cultural imagery and knowledge.  The quick establishment of Papunya Tula Artists set a new model for the production of Indigenous art that opened new arenas of discussion, new opportunities for economic growth, and new horizons of intercultural engagement.  The adoption of Western materials and marketing strategies combined with a powerful Indigenous aesthetic has not been seen before in quite the same way, either at Hermannsburg or at Yirrkala, or at places in between.  Papunya Tula Artists proved to be a hardy desert blossom that has come to exemplify continuity of purpose and achievement amidst the shifting fortunes of Indigenous art production in the four decades since its inception.

The reasons for the emergence of Papunya Tula are many.  Bardon, of course, has long been recognized as a tutelary spirit, in part through his own mythologizing publications and films.  But the roots of its efflorescence go far deeper than Bardon’s fortuitous arrival on the scene.  The droughts of the 1950s, the testing of rocket-powered weapons across central and western Australia, and the increased accessibility of the western deserts brought new contact between European Australia and formerly isolated groups like the Pintupi.  An expanding interest in the lot of the Indigenous, spurred by the social revolutions of the 1960s and the 1967 Referendum in particular, played its part.  The equal wages award that collapsed Indigenous participation in the cattle industry left men with senior ritual status abandoned in government settlements.  Even the arts industries themselves contributed: Albert Namatjira changed attitudes about the Aboriginal production of art among both whites and blacks, including in the latter case, some of the men who would spur the painting activity at Papunya.  Bardon claimed that the misery of the Papunya settlement itself provoked an emotional eruption that found expression in the act of painting as a symbolic reunification with lost country.  And the larrikin act of Kaapa Tjampitjinpa in putting forth one of his paintings for the Caltex Award in 1971 and the judges’ audacious decision to share the prize with him was a minor revolution in its own right.

I am not going to rehearse the origin myths here; they are too well known to need repetition.  What I do want to celebrate in the unusual continuity that is found in the story.  Although Bardon was gone from Papunya in less than two years, the company prospered through its first decade–modestly, no doubt–as one after another in a series of dedicated and creative individuals worked to keep the young company’s wares in the marketplace.  Peter Fannin, Dick Kimber, Janet Wilson, John Kean, and Andrew Crocker successively kept the art commercially viable, and Crocker was perhaps the first to aggressively pursue the reconceptualization of the work as “fine art” worthy of the whitefella’s apparatus of museum acquisitions and one-man shows.  That first decade of persistence culminated in the establishment of Kintore, taking the Pintupi back to their homelands, with Kiwirrkura being set up two years later.   After Crocker’s untimely death came the incredible twenty-year tenure, with minor interruptions, of Daphne Williams, in company with Fay Bell and Janis Stanton.  Since Daphne’s final retirement, Paul Sweeney has managed the company’s affairs and expansion for another ten years.  A record of commitment this steady is unparalleled amongst Indigenous art centres.

But of far greater significance was the continuity of effort by the painters themselves.  There is a famous and often reproduced photographs of Bardon standing outside the Papunya painting shed with a dozen of the artists who were among the thirty or so to incorporate Papunya Tula Artists.  (See Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius, AGSNW, 2001, p. 246 for the best reproduction and identification of the twelve men.)  What astonished me when I saw that photograph in the catalog ten years ago was how many of those men were still actively painting for the company, or had been until just a few  years earlier when several of them, including Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, Timmy Payungka Tjapangati, and Yala Yala Gibbs Tjungurrayi, passed away.

For the past decade, a growing recognition of the story–the mythos–of Papunya Tula and  its place in the national imaginary has been flowering in all sorts of ways.  The economic boom of the 1990s boosted the art market in general, and the clever machinations of Sotheby’s in establishing a secondary market for Indigenous works and especially for the early boards of Papunya Tula Artists illuminated a narrative that was ripe for exploitation on the centenary of Federation and the happy coincidence of the arrival of the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000.  A thousand desert dots blossomed.

Ten years ago, then, a great wave of retrospective exhibitions and publications began to swell.  The harbinger of this movement was Twenty-five years and beyond : Papunya Tula painting, the 1999 exhibition curated by Doreen Mellor and Vincent Megaw at the Flinders University Art Museum in Adelaide.  The following year brought Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius at the Art Gallery of New South Wales; its catalog was a gorgeous and astonishing record of the company’s achievement devoted in equal parts to documenting, as its subtitle proclaimed, both the genesis of the company and the genius of its practitioners in 150 pages of full color plates.  The reproductions of the artworks were supplemented by an equally astonishing set of essays authored by Paul Sweeney, Hetti Perkins, Hannah Fink, Vivien Johnson, Geoffrey Bardon, Dick Kimber, John Kean, Daphne Williams, Fred Myers, Paul Carter, and Marcia Langton.

Since then, the celebration of the achievements of Papunya Tula Artists has steadily continued.  Fred Myers published Painting Culture: the making of an Aboriginal high art (Duke University Press, 2002), which remains in my mind the single best history and analysis of the movement.  Vivien Johnson’s Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri (Art Gallery of South Australia, 2003) with a catalog that set the standard for artist’s monographs in the field.  Geoffrey and James Bardon’s Papunya: a place made after the story (Miegunyah Press, 2004) is virtually a catalog raisonné of the early days of the company, a documentary counterpart to the more subjective memoirs Bardon published in 1979 and 1991.

The National Museum of Australia mounted Papunya Painting: out of the desert in 2007, with another fine catalog edited by Vivien Johnson.  The same year, Johnson produced the long-awaited biographical reference work, Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists (IAD Press).  Organized in a loosely chronological fashion, rather than in the more customary alphabetical ordering of such works, Johnson’s book resurrects the reputations of many of the minor contributors to the Papunya Tula story and provides a historical perspective on the men and women of the company.  To complete her trifecta, Johnson published Once Upon a Time in Papunya (University of New South Wales Press/New South Books) in 2010.  Begun as an attempt to trace the stylistic evolution of the art produced in the first years of Papnuya Tula Artists, the book wades into Johnson’s personal history of researching the early output of the company and the problems she encountered in attempting to scrutinize the content of many paintings whose significance and public status has once more come into dispute.

The collection of early Papunya paintings amassed by Americans John and Barbara Wilkerson debuted at Cornell University’s Johnson Museum in 2009 and was published by Cornell University Press as Icons of the Western Desert: early Aboriginal paintings from Papunya.  It was this exhibition that once more brought the controversial nature of some of the early boards, with their explicit detailing of sacred ceremonies and regalia, into a critical spotlight.  Plans to tour the exhibition in Australia were scrapped; the most  disputed paintings were removed from the body of the catalog, presented in a detached supplement to the American edition, and eliminated entirely from the Australian version.  When company artists D. R. Nakamarra and Yukultji Napangati traveled to New York City for the opening of Icons at the Grey Gallery, a special gallery below the main space was dedicated to these “dangerous” paintings and kept them sequestered from the ladies’ sight.

These monographic publications by no means exhaust the list of scholarship and promotion that have surrounded the activities of Papunya Tula Artists.  A search for the term “Papunya Tula” in the Trove database of the National Library of Australia turns up 131 articles in journals, magazines, and newspapers, along with 99 books, a couple dozen resources in miscellaneous other formats, and 200 archived websites.  During the market boom in the early years of this century, Papunya Tula increased the number of galleries it worked with interstate, and many of those galleries took to issuing small catalogs of their exhibitions.  There is now a wealth of information and documentation available (not even taking into consideration the reproductions of work that have appeared in numerous auction catalogs in the last fifteen years) that I could not even have imagined when I examined the few books and pamphlets that graced the front room of the Papunya Tula shop on Todd Street during my first visit there nearly twenty years ago.

These were some of the thoughts that ran through my mind in the days while I was waiting for the catalog from Tjukurrtjanu, the National Gallery of Victoria’s spectacular new anniversary show focused on the first year of the company’s activities.  The exhibition opened on September 30 and runs through February 12 of next year before traveling to the Musée du quai Branly in Paris for a run scheduled for October 9, 2012 to January 27, 2013.  I am happy to report that the new publication  is a delight in many ways and opens up new vistas for our understanding of the accomplishments and promise of the company and for our understanding of a seminal force in this great new modern art movement.  I will return to Tjukurrtjanu soon with further reflections on this most amazing body of work.

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One Response to Papunya, Forty Years On

  1. Pingback: Tjukurrtjanu: Reconstructing Papunya History | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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