After 50 years, the Papunya Tula Art Movement has carved out a deep niche in Australian art history, but the settlement itself was a desolate place born from a long history of misunderstandings and misguided policies.
The one and only time I visited Papunya, roughly 240 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs, it was almost deserted. By this stage, most of the leading artists had died, and the remainder had moved back to more distant locations, taking up opportunities offered by the homelands movement.
It’s hard to reconcile memories of that barren husk of a community with the incredible vibrancy of the paintings we associate with the name Papunya Tula. This anniversary show at the S H Ervin Gallery has been assembled from private collections by Christopher Hodges of Utopia Art, who has been dealing with this work since the 1980s.
There are breathtaking paintings from the earliest times to the present day, when Papunya Tula no longer stands for a place but an Indigenous corporation with members spread out across 700 kilometres of central Australia.
The community was founded in 1959 when a government policy of assimilation gathered together people of diverse language groups, from Pintupi and Luritja, to Walpiri, Kukatja and Anmatyerr, throwing them into one glorified campsite of concrete and corrugated iron. With people cut off from their country and their tjurrkupa (or as we used to say, their “dreamings”), this lifestyle was a recipe for alienation.
The turning point came in 1971 with the arrival of school teacher Geoff Bardon, who got the children to paint a mural, drawing on their local stories. Soon the men decided it was actually their job. They collaborated on a honey ant dreaming mural that would be painted over by a subsequent group of administrators.
Bardon was impressed by what he had seen and began encouraging the men to paint on wooden off-cuts, parts of sawn-up boxes and the backs of tiles. In this modest way, an art movement was born. He found he could sell the works, providing the artists with a useful source of income. Pieces that were purchased for $20 are now worth tens of thousands.
This show contains a good selection of small pictures from those early days by artists such as Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri, Mick Namarari Tjapaltarri, Uta Uta Tjangala, Pinta Pinta Tjapananka and Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, the latter’s Water dreaming with rain and lightning (1972) being the most complex and layered of compositions.
Disputes and confusion over money hastened the end of Bardon’s time at Papunya, a tragic episode covered in the documentary Mr. Patterns (2004), which is screening in one corner of this exhibition. The film does justice to Bardon’s achievements in a series of interviews recorded at the end of his life when he was ravaged by ill health.
Over the past two decades, there have been a series of important exhibitions devoted to the Papunya Tula story, starting with Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2000, along with further surveys at the National Museum of Australia and the National Gallery of Victoria.
In 2008, Vivien Johnson published Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists, and in 2018, Melbourne University Press brought out a landmark edition of Geoff Bardon’s writings, Papunya: A Place Made After a Story. The most notable recent publication is Alec O’Halloran’s full-scale biography of Mick Namarari, The Master from Marnpi (2018), which also serves as a history of the desert art movement.
When it comes to writing about Papunya Tula, there is a huge amount of material. The good news is that one need know nothing at all about the complexities of Indigenous art to appreciate the show at the S H Ervin.
The paintings are their own best argument, especially as we watch the artists beginning to work on canvas, some on a massive scale. The most accomplished in this regard may have been Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, who is represented in this survey by only one substantial work, Ngarlu Love Story (undated).
During the 1980s, the energy slowly drained out of Papunya, but this was only the prelude to an entirely new phase, when the women started painting. By the mid-1990s, the pace was being set by artists such as Doreen Reid Nakamarra, Ningura Napurrula, Naata Nungurrayi, all of them well represented in this selection.
Among other highlights, pause to consider Makinti Napanangka’s Untitled (Rockhole site of Lupulnga) (2001), which is as distinctive as anything in the show, with its wavering lines of ochre and lavender; or an Untitled painting of 2017 by Mantua, so finely detailed it’s a miracle of patient application.
To give some impression of the amazing variety of styles that emerged from under the Papunya umbrella, Hodges has assembled two large blocks of small, square canvases comprising a total of 75 panels.
It’s a showstopping presentation, but probably not as impressive as a wall on which we find a sequence of large-scale works by Naata Nungurrayi, Mick Namarari, Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula and Ningura Napurrula. These paintings, by two women and two men, could not be more distinctive or accomplished.
If I had to pinpoint the distinctive feature of the best Papunya painting, it would be the effortless sense of grandeur one finds in these canvases.
With Turkey Tolson in particular, it seems as if there was never a moment’s hesitation when it came to laying in a long, straight line of dots. If it wasn’t a cultural non-sequitur, it would be tempting to ascribe a classical spirit to this work.
Then again, perhaps Papunya Tula does deserve to be called classical. Not only does so much of this work display an extraordinary sense of calm and equilibrium, the community served as the birthplace for an efflorescence of Indigenous painting that would engulf the Australian art world.
Before the early 1970s, Aboriginal artists had never painted their stories with acrylic on canvas using a traditional lexicon of signs and symbols.
That groundbreaking innovation, engineered by Geoff Bardon, translated one of the world’s oldest living artforms into an utterly contemporary movement.
It was a moment in which the foundations of Australian culture underwent a tectonic shift. Half a century later, looking at these works, one can still feel the earth trembling.
Papunya Tula: 50 Years 1971-2021
S.H.Ervin Gallery, until April 4.