Having thoroughly enjoyed Vivien Johnson’s previous book, Once Upon a Time in Papunya, her attempt to chronicle the rise of Papunya Tula Artists, I didn’t really think twice when Rosina Di Marzo of New South Books reached out to ask if I would be interested in reviewing Johnson’s newest publication, Streets of Papunya: the re-invention of Papunya painting. A few weeks late the handsome volume appeared in my mailbox, and I settled in to read.
Johnson’s allegiance to the town of Papunya itself has not wavered over four decades since she and her husband at the time, the artist Tim Johnson, trekked out to the settlement to investigate the new art movement that was taking shape there. And although the town donated its name to the longest-lived and most prosperous Aboriginal art company to date, the force of the movement went west, “Kintorelakatu,” as the Warumpi Band sang it, in the great exodus of the Pintupi to their homelands, first at Kintore, or Walungurru, and later even farther west at Kiwirrkura, where the movement and the company continue to flourish to this day.
In recent years, with the flourishing of the desert art movement again in the central and southern reaches, Papunya’s name has come into common parlance in a new way, associated now with Papunya Tjupi, a new company that remains firmly rooted in the Honey Ant, or Tjupi, Dreaming. In her new book, Johnson sets out to chronicle art in the town of Papunya from the early day soy the 1950s up to the present, and in doing so she has woven a story that fills in many blanks and provides much-needed continuity. She has also, for me, told a tale that evoked many partly forgotten memories of my own earliest explorations of the art of the desert.
The literal streets of Papunya have long held a fascination for me, ever since I first saw an aerial view of the town that displayed an uncanny resemblance to a traditional sand drawing of four people seated around a campsite. It took a while to track down the origin of this striking design as documented in the Rev. J. H. Downing’s Aboriginal ‘Dreamings’ and Town Plans: a report on traditional Aboriginal camp layout in relation to town planning (Institute for Aboriginal Development, 1979).
The conscious decision to pattern the settlement’s growth on the honey-ant designs has found new expression in recent times. The legacy of the founders of the Papunya art movement (as distinct, in some cases, from the founders of Papunya Tula) now lives on in the streets of Papunya, which bear names like Warungkula Court and Possum Crescent. In a new access of pride in their history, the residents of Papunya, many of whom are direct descendants of the old men who initiated the painting movement and became it earliest household names, have rememorialized the families that are the backbone of tradition in the community.
Johnson’s history begins in the 1950s, an early chapter being the story of Albert Namatjira’s six months of court-ordered house arrest after his conviction for supplying alcohol to a “ward of the state.” The presence of the most famous Aboriginal artist of all time in the town seems to have ignited a keener interest in the production of art, although the majority of the earliest attempts were either watercolors in the style of the master, or wood carvings that, despite their complexity and beauty, could easily be hawked to the tourist trade.
By the time of Geoffrey Bardon’s storied arrival, then, several of the names that now adorn the streets of Papunya were already in circulation as artists, names that became the first rank of superstars: Kaapa Mbitjana, Johnny Warungkula, Clifford Possum, Michael Nelson Jagamara. These men, along with others like Long Jack Phillipus, Limpi Putungka Tjanpangati, Don Tjungurrayi, and Two Bob Tjungurrayi, were to become the Papunya artists: they painted early on for Papunya Tula, but they also remained behind when the Pintupi left to invent new pictorial traditions and sustain the Dreamings of Papunya.
The story of Papunya painting in the 80s and 90s as Johnson tells it is for me the emotional center of Streets of Papunya, although I must say up front that that is a most personal judgment, reflective of my own history far more than Johnson’s. The first Papunya painting that I owned was a brilliant Water Dreaming by Long Jack Phillipus. The most startling early Papunya board I’ve ever fallen in love with is a Crow and Yam Dreaming by Limpi (at right), an artist I had never heard of until I saw the work reproduced in an auction catalog. For some reason I could never recapture, I was fascinated by the work of Two Bob Tjungurrayi; now having read Johnson’s book I understand that the brilliance of Turkey Tolson’s Straightening Spears paintings owes a great deal to stylistic innovations that Limpi and Two Bob undertook in the late 80s, before Turkey and his fellow innovator, Mick Namarari, themselves left the streets of Papunya behind. Reading about the heyday of Warumpi Arts, then located on Gregory Terrace around the corner from the old Papunya Tula shop, made me remember how thrilling it was in those days to be discovering the genius of the art of the central desert.
Many of the artists who catapulted Papunya Tula to fame remained in Papunya after the Pintupi exodus, and considerable artistic innovation was happening there. Limpi Putungka and Two Bob Tjnugurrayi introduced a tile of dotting backgrounds in stripes of alternating and contrasting colors, adumbrating the Straightening Spears motif that would make Turkey Tolson internationally renowned. Turkey and Mick Namarari themselves stayed close to Papunya for years after the settlement of Kintore. Warumpi Arts was providing a successful commercial outlet in Alice Springs for the likes of Long Jack Phillipus, Dinny Nolan, and Dini Campbell. But art making in Papunya remained a precarious business without the support of a local art centre.
As many of the old men died or grew too frail to paint extensively without support (Johnny Warungkula was nearly blind), wives and daughters became more central to the continuing painting tradition in the tiny settlement town. Appeals for government support stalled in Canberra’s bureaucracy or went unheard at all. But the artists (and Johnson) persisted in their efforts to pass on the stories in the new format of acrylic paint.
Finally in the mid-noughts, the developing talents of the women painters and the persistence of friends and supporters began to bear fruit. A disused mechanic’s garage and an empty schoolteacher’s apartment were turned over to the use of a fledgling art centre and its coordinators. But even then, obstacles remained: for example, although the garage was fitted up with utilities and plumbing that allowed work to take place there and be stored safely, it proved impractical to subdivide the building in order to provide culturally appropriate separate spaces for men and women to work in. This simple fact helps to explain why even today the output of Papunya Tjupi, as the new centre came to be known, features primarily the work of women artists: the men have had a hard time finding the proper support to develop their talents.
The women, however, have become a force to be reckoned with in the 21st century wave of desert painting, developing a style that recognizably belongs to Papunya Tjupi, but at the same time constantly developing new idioms and experimenting with new compositional strategies. Doris Bush Nungurrayi, Candy Nelson Nakamarrra, Isobel Gorey Nambajimba, Narlie Nelson Nakamarra, and Martha McDonald Nampitjinpa are among the artists who feature regularly in survey shows of desert painting, and even some of the old-timers, like Emily Andy Napaltjarri, who painted for Warumpi Arts in the 90s, have been re-invigorated in their practice.
Johnson’s new book documents this living tradition with warmth, affection, and fervor. Beautifully illustrated with artworks that capture the history of painting at Papunya for nearly sixty years and with affecting family portraits (and in an appendix, extensive family trees), it captures this vital but long overlooked chapter in the history of desert art. It cannot fault to generate even more enthusiasm for the constantly evolving sensibilities that have sustained Papunya through all its trials. It is a lovely, and loving, testament.