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Papunya Tula art movement of the Western Desert

Warning. This article may contain the names and images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased. It also contains links to sites that may use images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased.

A place called Papunya

The emergence of 'dot' paintings by Indigenous men from the western deserts of Central Australia in the early 1970s has been called the greatest art movement of the twentieth century. Prior to this, most cultural material by Indigenous Australians was collected by anthropologists. Consequently, collections were found in university departments or natural history museums worldwide, not art galleries.

Paddy Carroll Tjungurrayi

Barry Skipsey, Paddy Carroll Tjungurrayi, 1994, photo. Image courtesy of Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd and IAD Press, published in Vivien Johnson, Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists

That all changed at a place called Papunya. Papunya was a 'sit-down' place established in the early 1960s, 240 kilometres northwest of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory (NT). The settlement brought together people from several western desert language groups: the Pintupi, Warlpiri, Arrernte (Aranda), Luritja, and the Anmatyerr, who were unaccustomed to living in close proximity to each other. Papunya was described as a 'centralised government settlement established as a marshalling point for Aboriginal people displaced from their traditional lands' (Curator Hetti Perkins, Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2000).

The first artists' collective, Papunya Tula Artists, was set up in 1972 by men from this settlement. Papunya Tula Artists was the inspiration and model for many other Indigenous artists' collectives. In 2009 there are 42 desert Indigenous art communities represented by Desart. The artwork was seen as a way to keep the culture alive, and carry Indigenous stories to the world. The movement was seen as being about recollection and cultural memories linked to Dreamings' or story types.

Timmy Payungka and goods

Jeremy Long, Timmy Payungka and goods, southwest of Kintore Range, ready to return to the bush after visiting his mother in Haasts Bluff, 1958. Image courtesy of Jeremy Long and IAD Press, published in Vivien Johnson, Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists, IAD Press

The Honey Ant Mural

In 1971 art teacher Geoffrey Bardon had been appointed to the school at Papunya. He had found a dispossessed and dispirited community, struggling to maintain cultural practices against the full force of assimilationist policy. A simple school mural project brought him into contact with senior men who were custodians for the Tjukurrpa (ancestral stories). Although Bardon encouraged the children to draw their own stories, the senior men did not permit them to do the drawings. The senior men's mural (known only through photographs as it was painted over by the administration soon after it was made) started the process of transcribing body markings and sand drawings onto more conventional painting supports. The so-called 'dot and circle' style had been born.

The Honey Ant Mural, Papunya Special School

The Honey Ant Mural, Papunya Special School, JuneAugust 1971. Photo: Geoffrey Bardon. Courtesy Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd

Bardon encouraged the elders to paint using 'no whitefella way.' Painting The Honey Ant Mural (JuneAugust 1971) empowered them, and they began to make small paintings of their Tjukurrpa on any available surface, including scraps of board and corrugated iron. Bardon supplied them with acrylic paints and canvas, and by early 1972 a painting area had been set up in the storeroom of the Town Hall hut. Bardon regularly went to Alice Springs to sell the paintings, but many from this time are untraceable. However, the Alice Spring Town Council Collection (held at the Araluen Arts Centre) contains the Jock Nelson Bequesta collection of 10 paintings purchased from the fledgling Papunya Tula Artists Company in the early 1970s.

Professor Vincent Megaw Uta Uta (Wuta Wuta) Tjangala nd, Silver gelatin print. Courtesy of Flinders University Art Museum Collection

Significant early artists

Many of the significant early artists at Papunya were senior men who had vivid memories of their first contact with white people. Typically, they came out of the desert as adults during the 1950s drought and their connection to ritual law was strong.

Uta Uta Tjangala and Anatjari Tjakamarra (Pintupi)

At the time of the Honey Ant Dreaming mural, Pintupi men Uta Uta Tjangala (circa 1926 1990) and Anatjari Tjakamarra (b. circa 1938 (JL), 1940 (RGK) 1992) were employed as gardeners at the Papunya School. Both became celebrated for their intricate and meticulous Tingari cycle paintingsDreaming stories of great ritual significance for Western Desert people. Anatjari's Tingari Cycle Dreaming was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1988, the first to enter a major international collection.

Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa (Anmatyerr)

Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa (Anmatyerr) (b. circa 1926 (JL) 1989), who gained experience in watercolour painting at Hermannsburg, was chosen by the men to lead the mural painting team, and was elected the first chairman of Papunya Tula Artists. He was also one of the first to paint large-scale 'deeds of title' on cotton duck. By the end of the 1970s many of the men had similarly 'mapped out their custodial responsibilities to land over vast areas.' (Vivien Johnson, Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists, IAD Press, 2008, p75)

Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri (Anmatyerr)

Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri (Anmatyerr) (b. circa 1927 ), who with Kaapa had painted the school mural, had a dotting style that was bold and deliberate, softened by his feathery depiction of yam petals. Consequent to the market's recognition of his artworks, Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri travelled internationally with exhibitions, his work fetched record prices at auction and he was the first Papunya Tula artist in the Australian Biographical Dictionary.

Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri (Anmatyerr) and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri

Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri (Aranda/Anmatyerr b. c1929, 1934 (ROW)1984), Honey Ant Hunt 1975, synthetic polymer paint on canvas. Collection National Museum of Australia. Estate of the artist licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd 2009

Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri (Anmatyerr) (b. c1929, 1934 (ROW) 1984) asked to join the painting men late in 1971. His works feature sombre tones, dotting onto wet ground for atmospheric effects and the depiction of figures. He enlisted Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri with whom he often collaborated. Although Clifford Possum was one of the last to join the painting men, he was one of the first promoted as an individual 'star' in the 1984 Adelaide Arts Festival exhibition Painters of the Western Desert. His paintings are greatly admired for their precision dotting and visual effects. He died in 2002, the day he was to receive an Order of Australia.

Dinny Nolan Tjampitjinpa (Warlpiri)

Dinny Nolan Tjampitjinpa (Warlpiri) (b. circa 1928 (RGK), 1946 (JL) ) was another of the original shareholders of Papunya Tula Artists, but did not paint prolifically until the mid 1970s. One of his designs was used for a stained glass window at the National Gallery of Victoria. Since the 1980s he has travelled overseas, most recently to Austria in 2001 for the opening of a new private gallery dedicated to Aboriginal art. He is no longer based in Papunya since his wife's death, but his style has remained consistent over three decades.

Pinta Pinta Tjapanangka (Pintupi) and Billy Nolan Tjapangati

Pinta Pinta Tjapanangka

Marina Strocchi, Pinta Pinta Tjapanangka with his trusty pups and katamala' (pillow, a sports bag he leant on while painting) on the veranda of the Papunya Tula workers' quarters at Kintore, 1999. Image courtesy of Marina Strocchi and IAD Press, published in Vivien Johnson, Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists, IAD Press

Pinta Pinta Tjapanangka (Pintupi) (b. circa 1928 1999) first appeared in Papunya Tula Artists company records in 1977. He moved to Kintore in 1981. His dense white, almost sculpted Tingari paintings, with the typical grid of interconnected circles, are now in major collections. At Kintore he worked alongside Billy Nolan Tjapangati (b. circa 1939 2003) who had come in to Papunya in one of the early Pintupi migrations and, like Pinta Pinta, moved west to be closer to his homelands. Billy Nolan's distinctive scraped-on paintings of Tingari stories recorded country he remembered in extraordinary detail from childhood.

George Tjungurrayi (Pintupi)

George Tjungurrayi showing off a thorny devil lizard

Luke Scholes, George Tjungurrayi showing off a thorny devil lizard, southwest of Kintore, 2003. Image courtesy of Luke Scholes and IAD Press, published in Vivien Johnson, Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists, IAD Press

George Tjungurrayi (b. circa 1943 ) painted intermittently from 1976. Once at Kintore he changed from classic Pintupi dotted grids of lines and circles to topographical linework, in colours that had optical effects. This imagery, which draws on Western Desert carving of fine incised parallel lines, was an immediate success with collectors.

Ronnie Tjampitjinpa (Pintupi)

A younger Pintupi artist who worked with the original painting group, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa (b. circa 1943 ) emerged as one of the major artists in the 1980s, with a bolder linear style influenced by time he spent at Balgo. The so called 'striped' style would come to dominate Kintore male artists' work.

Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd 1972

Establishing the market value of their works was one of the greatest issues for the Papunya community. Another threat was a suggestion that the works could be deemed government property. In order to protect the artist's interests, and again encouraged by Bardon, Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd was incorporated with 11 original members in November 1972. By 1974 there were 40 members.

The company, entirely owned and directed by traditional Aboriginal people, became a model for other art communities, which blossomed under new federal policies towards Indigenous Australians.

The Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council (19731980)

Benny Tjapaltjarri (pointing), Charlie Tarawa Tjungurrayi, Tjampu Tjakamarra, Jimmy Tjungurrayi, Morris Gibson Tjapaltjarri and Willy Tjungurrayi

Diana Calder, from left: Benny Tjapaltjarri (pointing), Charlie Tarawa Tjungurrayi, Tjampu Tjakamarra, Jimmy Tjungurrayi, Morris Gibson Tjapaltjarri and Willy Tjungurrayi, Piggery Camp west of Papunya, 1978. Image courtesy of Diana Calder and IAD Press, published in Vivien Johnson, Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists, IAD Press

The Aboriginal Arts Board (AAB) became one of the principal buyers of works from Papunya Tula Artists. The AAB was established under the support of H C (Nugget) Coombs from the Aboriginal Arts Committee and the Office of Aboriginal Affairs. Thanks to the Labor government's self-determination policy, all the members of the board were Indigenous Australians.

The AAB's collection is now held at the National Museum of Australia, and was celebrated in Papunya Painting: Out of the Desert , (Canberra: National Museum of Australia Press, 2007). The Museum and Art Gallery of the NT and the South Australian Museum were also prominent in their early acceptance of Western Desert art and they have rich and varied collections of the early artists of the 1970s.

The visual language of the paintings

In the short time that Bardon was at Papunya, he took detailed notes about the images they created. These notes described the motifs and symbols of a new modified pictorial language for the expression of traditional culture, and formed an iconography that is now widely understood and accepted.

Bushfire at Djundji 1975

Tommy Wilitji Tjakamarra, Bushfire at Djundji 1975 Acrylic on canvas. Collection and photo: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Image courtesy of IAD Press, published in Vivien Johnson, Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists

The paintings visually represented knowledge about a way of life built upon Dreaming stories within the protocols of the society. The paintings related variously to the location of bush tucker, hunting grounds and water holes as well as describing travelling routes, surface features and natural forces. These 'survival maps' were traditionally memorised by young men as a system of survival and navigation. The artists used colour, tonality and visual balances to create a visual context and graphic meaning in the spatial distance between the forms and their interaction.

The travelling lines in the painting could imply many incidences, depiction or suppression of significant parts of a story. The loops and lines stated the relationships of places to each other. Paintings were described by Bardon by their type: water, travelling, bush tucker, dance, fire, spirit, myth, medicine and homeland (country) dreaming. (This iconography is fully detailed in Geoffrey Bardon and James Bardon, Papunya: A Place Made After the Story: The Beginnings of the Western Desert Painting Movement, Miegunyah Press, Carlton, 2004).

Having a way to interpret the images, and being able to fully appreciate the cultural significance of them, fuelled a flourishing nationwide interest by the late 1980s. Major private and public collections were started, notably the National Gallery of Victoria where The Face of the Centre: Papunya Tula Paintings 19711984 was held in 1985.

High level recognition and art market boom 1980s90s

Installation of Michael Jagamara Nelson c198788. Courtesy Parliament House Art Collection, Department of Parliamentary Services 06/0082.011

In just a decade, the work of artists from Papunya Tula had become highly esteemed. By the 1980s, the architectural firm responsible for the new Parliament House in Canberra, Mitchell, Giurgola & Thorp, determined to incorporate their art into the fabric of the building. Five artists from Papunya (Maxi Tjampitjinpa, Clifford Possum Tjapaltarri, Paddy Carroll Tjungarrayi, Two Bob Tjungarrayi and Michael Nelson Jagamara) were invited to submit designs for a commission in 1985. Michael Nelson Jagamara's Possum and Wallaby Dreaming was selected for the mosaic forecourt commission.

Michael Nelson Jagamara (Warlpiri)

In 1972 Michael Nelson Jagamara (Warlpiri) (b. circa 1949 ) was living at Papunya, where he watched the older men paint. He himself did not paint until 1983, but his rise was then meteoric. He won the inaugural 1984 National Aboriginal Art Award. In 1986 he was included in the Biennale of Sydney. In 1993 he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia. His early work features intricate and carefully dotted Dreaming stories from his country. In the early 1990s he began experimenting with a new looser, more expressionist style with large motifs in bright colours.

'Dreamtime boom time'

Michael Nelson Tjakamarra

Michael Nelson Tjakamarra painting the BMW Art Car in Sydney, May 1989. Image courtesy of BMW, published in Vivien Johnson, Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists, IAD Press

The current art market boom for Papunya Tula works depended upon the identification of individual artists by collectors in Australia and abroad. This move from a collective identity to big names developed as Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd has become a profitable business. The company began to actively promote the artists' work in exhibitions in Australia and overseas, such as the groundbreaking USA tour of Dreamings: Art of Aboriginal Australia (19881990). Ironically this was accompanied by some artists painting outside the company for the private market, and in response Papunya Tula began to offer solo shows at galleries in Melbourne and Sydney.

The emergence of important artists from other places, notably Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Rover Thomas, also gave impetus to the marketplace. In 1993, the coming of age of Aboriginal art in Paris was described in terms of 'Dreamtime boom time'. The market now grasped the significance of early Papunya Tula boards when they began to fetch huge prices at auction.

Sotheby's, now the world's dominant auctioneers for Aboriginal art, held the first stand alone sale Important Aboriginal Art, 30 June 1997. That sale of 306 lots, according to Sotheby's Tim Klingender, 'changed the market irrevocably, more than doubling the pre-sale estimate and breaking all existing records.' (quoted in Gennocchio, p13)

The art market for Indigenous painting has grown exponentially since the art first blossomed in the early 1970s at Papunya and there are now thousands of artists working in art centres across the continent. Many different styles have developed, but the dot paintings of Papunya Tula artists have remained highly regarded and collectable. The prestigious 25th Telstra NATSIAA 2008 was awarded to Pintupi artist Makinti Napanangka of Papunya Tula Artists.

Consolidation of the art, dispersal back to homelands: Kintore, Kiwirrkurra and Kaakuratintja

Fred West Tjakamarra, Tamayinya Tjapangati and Walala Tjapangati

John Corker, From left: Fred West Tjakamarra, Tamayinya Tjapangati and Walala Tjapangati, north of Kiwirrkurra, 1988. Image courtesy of John Corker and IAD Press, published in Vivien Johnson, Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists, IAD Press

Throughout the 1980s people from Papunya moved back to traditional homelands (known as the outstation movement), especially Kintore, Kiwirrkurra and Kaakuratintja. This reduced the population of Papunya significantly. Papunya Tula, the company, initially based in the Papunya area, has met the challenges posed by the homelands movement in the last decade. Whilst it is based in Alice Springs, the company extends its operations into Western Australia, covering an area 700km to the west of Alice Springs.

The outstation movement promised to preserve culture, maintain traditional land care practices and improve wellbeing. The burgeoning art industry helped greatly to make these small communities more viable. Over the years:

'the Papunya Tula artists have made millions of dollars in sales. They have paid for an architect-designed arts centre in Kintore, a dialysis clinic in the town and construction [of] a town swimming pool largely paid for by the artists, who contributed $680,000 towards it.'
Simon Kearney, New start in Papunya , The Australian, 4 September, 2007.

Tradition and transformation

The Western Desert art movement was seen as being about recollection and cultural memories linked to Dreamings or story types as well as being about artistic expression in a new media. The artistic aspect and subject matters were intertwined but based on the importance of telling a specific story. The Tjukurrpa or law behind these stories stayed the same although the form of its representation did change. Bardon believed that 'every stylistic and conceptual aspect of Western Desert art was brilliantly demonstrated by the artists, and then greatly enhanced' (Bardon, Papunya, introduction, p. xxiii).

Women pick up paint brushes

Ningura Napurrula

Vivien Johnson, Ningura Napurrula in the women's room, Kintore art shed, 1999. Image courtesy of IAD Press, published in Vivien Johnson, Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists

Although the original 1971 Papunya movement had been exclusively male, women artists gained prominence as the art movement grew throughout the 1980s.

Daisy Leura Nakamarra (Anmatyerr, circa 1936 ) was taught to paint by her husband Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri. She joined Papunya Tula Artists in the early 1980s and, with her husband's instruction, became one of the first of the company's female artists to achieve recognition. Nakamarra's work was acquired by the Art Gallery of South Australia in 1982 and is held by the National Museum of Australia. Many of the Papunya women painters learned from their male relatives. For example, Papunya Tjupi artist Punata Stockman, learned from her father, Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri.

A significant step was taken when Warlpiri men at Yuendumu gave women permission to use dots in their acrylic paintings. Established in 1986, Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Corporation was one of the first desert art cooperative to encourage equal participation by both sexes (anthropologist Franoise Dussart).

The art centre movement

In 2009, support agency Desart (the Association of Central Australian Aboriginal Art and Craft Centres), a peak body set up to advocate for desert art centres and oversee management practices, represents 30 art centres, over 3000 artists, and claims its annual business is worth $12 million.

Professor Jon Altman, Director of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University, suggests that it is very difficult to estimate the size and scale of the Indigenous art industry as doing so can yield highly variable results. He states that is because it is difficult to define Indigenous, or joint, ownership of whole or retail outlets, as well as size and scale. An estimated national value of Indigenous visual art sales of between $100 million and $300 million is suggested, although this includes manufactured product, hopefully licenced.

Papunya Tjupi Arts (est. 2007)

Despite many of the original artists returning to their homelands, painting continued at Papunya. Ironically, at the very settlement where it all began, there was no art centre in which to work. In 2007, emerging and established artists established the community art centre Papunya Tjupi Arts, a member of Desart. Michael Jagamara Nelson AM and Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra, who helped paint the original school mural and had stayed at Papunya, were instrumental in getting the new art centre funded.

Export protection

Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri, Wild Potato Dreaming, 1971. Image courtesy of Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd from Geoffrey Bardon, Papunya: A Place Made After the Story

Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri's (1927 ) Yala (Wild Potato) Dreaming (1971) with its stark yellow background and red ochre motifs is an audacious early experimental work. The appearance of this bold painting must have been an extraordinary visual contrast to the harsh and oppressive imagery dominating the Papunya settlement.
Papunya Tulathe birthplace of contemporary Australian Aboriginal art by Susan Allan 24 August 2001

The Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986, administered by the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, incorporates the National Cultural Heritage Control List which sets out the criteria identifying Australian protected objects.

Paintings by Papunya Tula artists require export permits if they fall under the Control List criteria of 'paintings by Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples created in the Indigenous tradition' that are more than 20 years old and worth more than $10,000.

Eighteen Papunya paintings, mostly early Papunya boards, have been refused an export permit. Many of these paintings depict secret/sacred objects and are of great significance to contemporary Indigenous cultural custodians. They are listed on the Movable Cultural Heritage Prohibited Exports Register.

The refusal of an export permit is recognition that the paintings are objects of exceptional cultural importance, whose export would significantly diminish Australia's cultural heritage, and that they should therefore not leave the country. Only a few works, however, have been refused permits in proportion to the overall number exported as part of the flourishing international trade in Australian Indigenous art.

Useful links

Papunya Tula artists

Indigenous artists' peak organisations and agencies

Western desert community and arts centres

Collections and exhibitions

Look, listen and play

Online exhibitions and educational resources

Indigenous art competitions

Recommended further reading:

  • Roger Benjamin et al, Icons of the desert, exhibition catalogue, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, USA, 2009
  • Roger Benjamin, The beginnings of the Western Desert painting movement, review, The Age, 29 January 2005
  • Benjamin Gennocchio, Dollar Dreaming: inside the Aboriginal art world, Hardie Grant Books, Melbourne, 2008
  • Vivien Johnson, Lives Of The Papunya Tula Artists , IAD Press, Alice Springs, 2008
  • Vivien Johnson ed., Papunya Painting: Out of the Desert, exhibition catalogue, National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 2007
  • Hetti Perkins, Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius, exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2000 acknowledges the assistance of IAD Press, Alice Springs, in providing many of the images for this article from Vivien Johnson's book, Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists, 2008.

Last updated: 30 September 2009
Creators: Merryn Gates Services for Arts, et al.