The catalog for Unique Perspectives: Papunya Tula Artists and the Alice Springs Community (Araluen Arts Centre; Papunya Tula Artists, 2012) is deceptively slim in size, a mere 96 pages that is, however, packed with vivid color and equally vivid memories. The exhibition, curated by Araluen’s Stephen Williamson, celebrates not simply forty years of the premier Aboriginal art cooperative, but the entwined history of Papunya Tula Artists and the town of Alice Springs. From the earliest days at Pat Hogan’s Stuart Art Gallery, located across from where the Araluen now stands, when paintings completed with supplies sourced by Geoffrey Bardon from Iris Harvey’s Arunta Bookshop and Art Supplies on Todd Street were first sold, to the present, when the annual November Pintupi painting show at the modern white-walled gallery on the Todd Mall draws art lovers from across the country and the globe, Papunya Tula and Alice Springs have built a relationship unlike any other in the history of Australian art.
The first two-thirds of the catalog is given over to full-color (often full-page) reproductions of the approximately eighty paintings on board and canvas that have been drawn from private collections in Alice Springs and from the holdings of local galleries, including Araluen, to document the ways in which the local community has embraced not only the art works but the artists of the company as well. Although the distribution of paintings tilts towards the past fifteen years, every decade of the company’s history is represented here.
There are exquisite works from the 70s, including Shorty Lungkarta’s large, mossy-colored canvas from 1974, Tingari Men Suffer from Thirst and Mick Namarari’s ravishingly colored and sinuously composed 1972 Children’s Dreaming with Many Body Paint Variations from the Papunya Community School Collection (now held by Araluen). The 80s are variously represented by classic Tingari circle-and-line compositions from the likes of Anatjari Tjampitjinpa, Hilary Tjapangati, and Timmy Payungka. Late efflorescences in the careers of Pinta Pinta Tjapanangka and Yala Yala Gibbs jostle through the 90s against the emergence of women painters Walangkura Napanangka and Makinti Napanangka. Small works by often overlooked masters Yumpululu Tjungurrayi and Pegleg Tjampitjinpa are delightful surprises from this decade as well. The era since the turn of the century is most generously documented here, with stunning examples from the too-brief career of Martin Tjampitjinpa, heroic abstractions by Warlimpirringa Tjapaltjarri and Patrick Tjunugrrayi, and the resurgence of the powerful visions of Johnny Yungut Tjupurrula. There have been many retrospectives and anthologies of Papunya Tula painting, but few have been as consistently satisfying in the quality of work chosen as Unique Perspectives. This fact is a testament to Stephen Williamson’s superb curatorial eye, but also, again, to the depth of engagement and discernment the residents of Alice Springs bring to their relationship with the company.
That engagement is the subject of Williamson’s “Celebrating the Unique,” which introduces the essays that comprise the final third of the catalog. Each essay is a matter of mere pages, but in them the history of the company is laid out with an intimacy and an immediacy that is too rare in the annals of contemporary writing about Aboriginal art. Kieran Finanne, who has written consistently and sympathetically about the company and its Alice-based exhibitions in the Alice Springs News for many years now, describes a women’s dance in the midst of the Todd Mall on the occasion of the 2010 November exhibition, and hangs from that story a brief review of the gallery’s impact on the town. John Kean, who managed the company in the late 70s, follows with a complementary history of its fortunes over the course of forty years.
Dick Kimber offers “Some Early Memories of Papunya Tula Artists,” fleshing out Kean’s narrative by charting the difficulties that the company faced when sales were slow and interest was low and “Aboriginal art” was largely defined as the work of Namatjira’s descendants and the Hermmansburg School of watercolorists. Kimber is especially good at detailing the important contributions of Bob Edwards to the company’s fiscal survival and Peter Fannin’s heroic efforts to bring under control the inventory of unsold paintings that had accumulated out at Papunya.
Of course, for those familiar with the history of Papunya Tula Artists, the phrase “heroic efforts” conjures nothing more quickly than the contributions through more than a quarter of a century of Daphne Williams. Beginning as an accountant for the Alice-based Centre for Aboriginal Artists and Craftsmen in the mid-70s, Daphne moved out to Papunya in 1979 before taking over from Andrew Crocker as the company’s manager in 1981. For much of the following decade she spent weeks at a time traveling out west to Walungurru, Kiwirrkura, and other outstations to replenish paint and canvas before returning to Alice with finished art works. (Kean tells a wonderful story of how she slept in her swag in the tray of her ute while out in the communities and how, one night, a joyrider made the mistake of stealing the truck with Daphne on board.) She modestly recounts her unstinting efforts to bring solvency to the company here in an interview with Sarita Quinlivan, remembering along the way the opening of the Todd Street store in 1987, her warm, familial relationship with Timmy Payungka, the soft-spoken generous Yala Yala, the cheeky exploits of Uta Uta, Kaapa, and Shorty, as well as the personal support she received from important figures like Charlie Perkins and Marcia Langton.
Daphne’s successor, Paul Sweeney, contributes his own assessment of the “love at first sight” that has bound town and company together over the years. Former field officer Luke Scholes brings the essays to a close with a surprisingly frank and emotional reflection on his personal investment in the company and their country. Scholes’s essay is in some way the perfect summation of the stories revealed in Unique Perspective‘s pages demonstrating as it does that the relationships that have been founded, grown, matured, and transformed over the years are the essence of Papunya Tula’s history.
The volume closes with a checklist of works in the exhibition that provides the brief explications of the paintings’ stories familiar to anyone who has perused PTA documentation over the years, and with brief biographies of all the painters whose works are included in the catalog.
Although many of the stories recounted in the pages of this catalog were familiar to me, I came away with some feelings of surprise by the end, perhaps no more so than the realization that I have watched over half the company’s history unfold since the day in 1990 when I stood with my face pressed against the glass of the shop at 78 Todd Street. I’d arrived in Alice on New Year’s Eve not realizing that galleries closed for several weeks at the Christmas holiday, a mistake I repeated three years later; on the second occasion, however, a fax to the office brought Fay Bell down to open up for us and gave us the chance to buy our first Papunya Tula Artists’ painting, a magnificent Rain Dreaming by Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra. On our next visit we met Daphne Williams (along with Janis Stanton) for the first time, and on the trip after that Daphne introduced us to Long Jack. Ten years after that first aborted visit, Daphne opened the back room to us and we spent almost our entire stay in Alice unrolling canvases, discovering the riches of women’s painting, while Daphne commended Benny Tjapaltjarri and Pegleg to our growing awareness. That was to be our last visit to the old shop, which I had no idea until now had only opened three years before we flew in for the first time. By the time we returned, the new gallery in the Todd Mall had opened, and Paul Sweeney had come in from the field and taken the reins; it was on that visit that we met Sarita and Luke for the first time. The struggling enterprise that Daphne had guided for decades was the model of Aboriginal art centres, the success of the Western Desert Dialysis Appeal was about to be replicated in the cause of funding the swimming pool, and the new studio at Kintore was already an architect’s maquette. Soon to follow were the commission to Ningura Napurrula for an installation at the Musée du quai Branly, the Pintupi show at Hamilton’s in London, where demand for the work was so great that the distribution of paintings among customers was decided in part by lot, the string of continuing successes at the Telstra awards, the new studio at Kiwirrkura.
Forty years is an eternity in terms of art movements in the west. Encapsulating as it does the history of Aboriginal art’s emergence onto the national and international scene, the history of Papunya Tula Artists is in some ways truly the history of the last great art movement of the twentieth century, not to mention the success story so far of the twenty-first. Unique Perspectives, even though focused not on these larger stories but rather on the place of the company in the little town that made it happen, is a brilliant testimony to the dynamic vitality of the artists and their supporters, casting into high relief the achievements of the company through time.
Unique Perspectives is on view at the Araluen Galleries through April 16, 2013.