Papunya, Kintore (Walungurru) & Kiwirrkura: Paul Sweeney

SYDNEY- 8 March 2015

Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd was founded by a small group of senior men in 1972 at the Papunya community, 240 kilometres west of Alice Springs. Approximately twelve months earlier, through the encouragement of Geoffrey Bardon, a school teacher working in Papunya at the time, the men had begun painting on masonite boards, floor tiles and scraps of timber off-cuts from the local building sites. These early works were graphic representations of ceremonial life, featuring designs and iconography previously reserved for such things as body painting, ground designs and incised sacred objects. These works, executed between August 1971 and June 1972, have since become some of the most valuable and precious works ever produced in the history of Australian art.

Papunya was originally established in the late 1950s to accommodate people from the surrounding area, mainly Luritja, Anmatyerr and Pintupi speakers. It was the men from these three language groups who were the original artists that went on to form Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd. The Pintupi, who were from the Gibson Desert area roughly 500 kilometres west of Papunya, were the last to arrive, and they occupied the western fringes of the settlement. The assimilation policy practised by the Australian Government at the time was largely disastrous and had devastating effects on the entire community, in particular the Pintupi. By 1970, Papunya, initially intended to accommodate 400 to 500 people, had a population of more than a thousand.

Despite the overcrowding, the abnormally high morbidity rates and the social dysfunction of the community at the time, the art being produced by the men rejuvenated their sense of self-empowerment. Through depictions of ceremonial life and their traditional homelands, painting offered the men an opportunity to reassert their undeniable link with their country and to demonstrate to government authorities their need to return. While those artists who aligned themselves with the immediate country surrounding Papunya stayed at the settlement along with some Pintupi, a majority of the Pintupi community broke away and began the migration west, back towards what would later become the communities of Mount Liebig, Kintore and Kiwirrkura. It was no coincidence that the Pintupi homeland movement and the genesis of the Western Desert art movement coincided, as they were fundamentally connected, and in many ways each had inspired the other.

A significant number of the original artists participated in this migration, some of whom went on to become the best known of the Papunya Tula painters. It was also during this period, in late 1972, that Peter Fannin, the art co-ordinator from the end of 1972 until the middle of 1975, supplied the artists with canvas to paint on as an alternative to wooden surfaces. By the middle of 1973 about 200 Pintupi were camped at Yayayi, slightly west of Papunya. As was the case in Papunya, the men set up a ‘painting camp’, where they worked apart from the women and children. Artists such as Uta Uta Tjangala, Shorty Lungkata Tjungurrayi, Timmy Payungka Tjapangati and Yala Yala Gibbs Tjungurrayi were all living and painting at Yayayi, while others such as Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula and Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula remained at Papunya. Richard (Dick) Kimber, Janet Wilson and John Kean all worked as art advisors during the important period between 1976 and 1979. During this time several trips were organised with artists, particularly by Dick and John, to travel west and revisit traditional lands in several areas of the Western Desert, including those around Kintore.

By the early 1980s both Kintore and Kiwirrkura had been established and many of the artists were again living near their traditional lands. Some had remained in Papunya and some had settled in Mount Liebig, 75 kilometres west of Papunya. With the artists now spread over a 700 kilometre distance, the art co-ordinator’s job and the challenge of managing the company had become much more demanding. Daphne Williams, who to this day maintains a strong association with the company, began working in 1981 as a field officer and was later the general manager. Art materials were being distributed to artists on all communities and regular trips were being made to purchase, catalogue and transport the finished works back to Alice Springs. With the lack of studio space, canvases were being prepared and painted out in the open or under makeshift shelters. Despite this, some of the most iconic paintings to come from the Western Desert art movement were being produced and major national institutions later acquired a number of these paintings.

Paintings by the Papunya Tula Artists were exhibited virtually from the very beginning of the movement, with some public recognition coming in the form of a shared first prize to Kaapa Tjampitjinpa in the Alice Springs Caltex Art Award in 1971. At the time a broader public awareness and appreciation of the work was almost non-existent, so the initial exhibitions were mostly local events at places such as the Residency Museum and Art Gallery in Alice Springs and the Alice Springs Show. Significantly, in 1972, the Museums and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory acquired a major collection of very early boards, which represented the first purchase of Papunya Tula work by a public gallery. Other state galleries later followed suit and paintings from the Western Desert would eventually be held in every state and national gallery in Australia.

In the mid-1980s regular exhibitions by Papunya Tula Artists were being held in several interstate and regional galleries around the country. Unlike a majority of the shows curated earlier, many of these became selling exhibitions as the public’s exposure to, and knowledge of, the work grew. By that time the company had begun to form relationships with interstate galleries such as Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi in Melbourne and Utopia Art Sydney, who, by the end of the 1980s, were holding regular group and solo exhibitions. In 1987 the company opened its own gallery in Todd Street, Alice Springs, which served as its retail outlet for nearly eighteen years before the gallery relocated to the Todd Mall in 2004. At Kintore there was now a small building, which acted as accommodation for the company staff as well as an area for storing materials and preparing canvases. In Kiwirrkura a single-room shed had been given to the company, also for the purpose of studio space and storage. Between 1986 and 1990 international exhibitions of paintings by Papunya Tula Artists were shown in New York, London, Auckland, Los Angeles, Paris and Venice.

Up until the late 1980s the work being produced by the company was almost entirely done by male artists. In some cases women had assisted their male relatives with the infill dotting once the ‘story’ had been drawn, but with the exception of a small number of women, mainly from the Papunya region, the company was male dominated. Those women who were painting included Pansy Napangati, who in 1988 had her first solo exhibition at Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi in Melbourne, before winning the 6th National Aboriginal Art Award the following year. Other artists to win major awards included Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri (14th Alice Prize 1983), Maxie Tjampitjinpa (Northern Territory Art Award 1984), Michael Nelson Tjakamarra (1st National Aboriginal Art Award 1984), Uta Uta Tjangala (2nd National Aboriginal Art Award 1985), Don Tjungurrayi (Alice Prize 1986), Ronnie Tjampitjinpa (Alice Prize 1988), Fred Ward Tjungurrayi (Northern Territory Art Award 1989), Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri (8th National Aboriginal Art Award 1991, Alice Prize 1994, Red Ochre Award 1994), Kenny Williams Tjampitjinpa (National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award 2000), George Ward Tjungurrayi (Wynne Landscape Prize 2004), Walangkura Napanangka (Uta Uta Tjangala’s widow) (Redlands Westpac Art Prize 2005).

The last decade at Papunya Tula Artists has seen massive changes in several areas of the company. Women artists at Kintore and Kiwirrkura began painting regularly in 1996, introducing a fresh, inspired style not previously seen in Western Desert art. As with the male artists in 1971, many of these women were senior members of the community at the time. Despite their age, in a very short period artists such as Inyuwa Nampitjinpa, Makinti Napanangka, Tatali Nangala and Naata Nungurrayi quickly asserted themselves as future stars. The studio at Kintore soon became a vibrant hive of activity as the women arrived each morning to settle in for the day’s painting. Loud conversations, singing and celebratory laughter became a regular part of the day, both inside the studio and in the surrounding yard where the women painted. The first exhibition of their work outside Alice Springs was held at Utopia Art in Sydney in 1996, from which the Art Gallery of New South Wales acquired several works, and solo exhibitions by Makinti Napanangka, Inyuwa Nampitjinpa, Ningura Napurrula, Tjunkiya Napaltjarri, Pirrmangka Napanangka and Walangkura Napanangka soon followed at galleries in Sydney and Melbourne.

The most recent developments at Papunya Tula Artists have included the relocation of the gallery to the Todd Mall in 2004 and the construction of a new studio and staff accommodation at Kintore in 2007. The new studio has been able to offer both the men and women huge air-conditioned interior spaces to work in, as well as a variety of veranda and courtyard settings for those who prefer to work outside. The ‘painting shed’ at Kintore has always acted as far more than just a place to paint and is considered to be the cultural and social hub of the community. Young people visit regularly to observe and learn from their older relatives, who sit for hour after hour, carefully interpreting their ancient ancestral knowledge into a contemporary art form using acrylic paint and linen. This younger generation has now begun to make its mark in the history of Western Desert art and will be keenly followed and anticipated by those who have come to admire so greatly the art from Papunya Tula Artists.