Papunya Stories

by Tim Bonyhady

© all rights reserved

The demand for writing about Aboriginal art – like that for most other art forms – is directly related to the demand for the work itself. The greater the market for the art, the more books, exhibition catalogues and articles result. Hence the wealth of writers about the art of Papunya, west of Alice Springs in the central desert, while other regional forms of Aboriginal art typically have just one or two. More than any other Australian art movement except the Heidelberg School, Papunya painting sustains what an economist might think of as a genuine marketplace of ideas.

Yet the market, typically, is only partly responsible for who writes what about Aboriginal art. The way in which anthropologists acquire expertise through extended fieldwork is also significant. Most anthropologists pursue this fieldwork in relation to just one Aboriginal community – even if they return their again and again. In doing so they may become part of this community just as it becomes theirs, both off and on the page.

Arnhem Land exemplifies how most different regions have their own writer. The art of the Yolngu people from Yirrkala to Blue Mud Bay in eastern Arnhem Land is the prime terrain of the anthropologist Howard Morphy. That of the Kunwinjku people around Oenpelli to the west, who have a very different language and culture, is the territory of the anthropologist Luke Taylor. In between – around Ramingining in central Arnhem Land – is the domain of the arts adviser and curator Djon Mundine.

This type of territorial demarcation diminishes the chances of debate, whether over matters of fact or ideas. But just as competition is no guarantor of good writing, so monopolies need not be a cause of bad. An art form may have only one voice but be better served than by several as demonstrated by the literature on Arnhem Land, from Morphy’s Ancestral Connections(1991) through Taylor’s Seeing the Inside(1996) to Mundine’s central contribution to The Native Born(2000).

One stock recipe for books and exhibition catalogues about Aboriginal art is to present an assortment of essays by authors with this regional expertise. The results, on the whole, are lame. Not only is the geographical coverage of these books and catalogues necessarily limited but their essays also typically offer little new. Repeated recycling blights publishing about Aboriginal art possibly even more than it mars writing about non-Aboriginal art.

Sylvia Kleinert’s and Margo Neale’s new Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Cultureis unprecedented in its breadth and depth. No other book has presented such an array of material, both old and new, about Aboriginal art. Its production in just four years is itself a significant achievement given the difficulty of coralling academics and curators, let alone art writers. Its very bulk – eclipsing the 716-page Oxford Companion to Australian History edited by Graeme Davison, John Hirst and Stuart Mcintyre in 1998 – is a powerful affirmation of the significance of Aboriginal culture.

Yet as much as the Aboriginal Companionextends the cultural landscape, it also flattens it. Organized part geographically, as well as partly chronologically and thematically, theCompaniondivides Australia into six regions, each of which receive more or less equal treatment. The art of Papunya – one of the most remarkable expressions of Aboriginal culture – consequently looms no larger than the much more modest products of artists from Torres Strait. The Companionequally gives little sense of the many different accounts of Papunya painting.

The most famous and influential contributor to this rich literature has been Geoffrey Bardon – the catalyst and, to a significant extent, also the orchestrator of Papunya painting in 1971-72. Bardon’s pioneering Aboriginal Art in the Western Desertappeared in 1979, his Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desertin 1991. In between and since he has proved himself a remarkable essayist – more evocative, even magical, than perhaps any other writer about Australian art.

Yet Bardon has never had a monopoly on Papunya writing. The ethnographer Dick Kimber, who was more closely involved with Papunya painting than any other non-Aborigine through the 1970s, first discussed these ‘Mosaics You Can Move’ in 1977 and has kept writing ever since. So too, since the early 1980s has an increasing array of other writers, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. Only the voice of the original artists remains more or less muted.

Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius– the catalogue of the recent exhibition at the AGNSW edited by Perkins and Hannah Fink – is another big book. But whereas most of the reproductions in the Companionare poor, the AGNSW catalogue is one of the most sumptuous Australian art books ever produced. Just as with the Gallery’s Olive Cotton catalogue earlier this year, so its Papunya Tulais a triumph of design. The catalogue’s photographs are as compelling as the paintings reproduced. Jon Rhodes’ 1974 picture of John Tjakamarra striding through the Kintore Range in his flash second-hand suit – not unlike The Beatles on the zebra crossing of Abbey Road four years before – is just one example.

The catalogue’s essays are also unusually original, as well as consistently informative. In several cases, they too are imbued with the writer’s sense of amazement not just that the Aborigines of Papunya could have produced such remarkable art in such an awful, impoverished place but also that he or she had the good fortune to witness at least part of this story unfold. Bardon draws on ‘a particularly cherished memory’ in his essay. These were ‘privileged times’, Kimber echoes, ‘I treasure these memories’.

Yet what makes this writing most interesting is how so many questions remain unclear. Here, for once, is a form of Aboriginal art discussed at length by a host of accomplished writers. But key ingredients of the Papunya story are either obscure or the subject of increasingly diverse, often contradictory explanations. The first few years of Papunya painting – particularly the period in 1971-72 which local Aborigines sometimes call ‘Bardon-time’ – is still not the subject of anything like a coherent, convincing account.

The confusion over why the artists initially revealed so much secret material by depicting sacred objects such as tjurunga,then how and why they made their paintings more secular, is most significant. The conventional view has ben that Aboriginal religious practices, including the treatment of restricted material, were traditionally more or less static. In the Aboriginal CompanionFranchesca Cubillo, the Curator of Anthropology at the South Australian Museum, argues instead that what has been sacred or restricted has never been the subject of fixed, unchanging rules. Yet the reasons why Aborigines have revealed this material to non-Aborigines is still a major issue.

Cubillo is just one of many recent writers who argue that this disclosure has been and remains a matter of choice on the part of Aborigines. ‘The Community itself’, she maintains, ‘dictates and orchestrates the fluid nature of restricted material’. Yet this argument ignores the power of non-Aborigines to encourage, if not induce, disclosure. Rather than being just a matter of Aborigines deciding to demonstrate the depth and strength of their culture, it has also been due to an array of outsiders – often anthropologists and collectors – saying ‘We want your secrets’.

When Bardon first discussed this issue in 1979, he explained that he ‘did not want to know any of the secrets’ behind Papunya painting. Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri was, he recounted, one Papunya artist who ‘readily understood’ his concern that ‘secret-sacred topics should not be painted for sale’. Judith Ryan of the National Gallery of Victoria has suggested that Bardon actively ‘attempted to steer the artists away from secret-sacred elements’. Dick Kimber has dubbed Bardon ‘innocent’. But Christopher Anderson and Francoise Dussart have linked Bardon to the disclosure of this material, suggesting that the Papunya artists possibly depicted it due to Bardon asking them “to do ‘special’ paintings for him”.

A more common explanation is that the first Papunya paintings were not produced for public sale. The sociologist Vivien Johnson has suggested that the artists painted them ‘primarily for themselves’. Kimber has suggested that they were produced more for Bardon who not only was treated by the Aborigines as ‘a first-stage initiate’, which entitled him to see what other whitefellas could not, but also was forming his own collection of paintings.

Either way, as more than one writer has put it, ‘as soon as the works began to be sold the art began to change’. Rather than reveal their secrets to the marketplace, the artists developed ways of avoiding or hiding the sacred. The dots, which became markedly more prominent in Papunya painting from 1973, are typically thought to have been crucial. Kimber identified them in 1981 as a prime means of ‘eliminating some elements used on some sacred objects’. Ryan characterized them in 1989 as ‘masking’, even ‘camouflage’.

Yet Bardon was quick to try to sell the first Papunya paintings. Acting as the artists’ ‘agent’, although without ever receiving a commission, he took some to Iris Harvey’s Arunta Art Gallery and Bookshop in Alice Springs. His main outlet was another Alice Springs gallery, Pat Hogan’s Stuart Art Centre. Bardon took 29 paintings there in about July 1971. A year later, he had brought in 18 more consignments – a total of 620 pictures.

These paintings also won prizes and sold fast. In August 1971 Kaapa Tjampitjinpa was one of the joint winners of the inaugural Caltex Art Award in Alice Springs. In October 1971 the new Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory bought a remarkable 78 of the 130 paintings in the first 3 consignments taken by Bardon to the Stuart Art Centre – a degree of immediate public recognition enjoyed by no other new Australian art movement, Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal.

This early success – often overlooked as part of crude generalizations that the artists’ work was ignored and neglected throughout the 1970s – confounds the claim that Papunya painting was not initially in the public domain. It also makes sense of the Papunya men’s appetite for painting with European materials. As Bardon records in the AGNSW catalogue, the Aborigines were ‘amazed’ by this new source of income and promptly began painting with unprecedented enthusiasm. Without these sales, the movement could well have fizzled as the Aborigines came to dismiss Bardon’s claim that ‘painting was a way of making money’.

A stronger explanation – most clearly developed by Kimber in a 1995 essay ‘The Politics of the Secret’ – turns on whether the paintings were seen by other ‘tradition-oriented Aborigines’, not whether they were for sale. Kimber suggests that no other senior Aborigines saw Kaapa Tjampitjinpa’s prize-wining picture at the Alice Springs show or the paintings at the Stuart Art Centre, which were never visible from the street. Instead, they first saw one of the new paintings at an Aboriginal arts and crafts display at Yuendumu in August 1972. Then, in late 1973, a senior Walpiri man saw a large group of Papunya paintings stored in Alice Springs.

The response, on these and later occasions, was intense. In 1972 there was an ‘angry uproar’ from senior Pitjantjatjara men who considered the painting a ‘serious transgression’. In 1973 the Walpiri man was so shocked both by the number of pictures and by their content that he ‘spoke in whispers, telling of a man he believed to have been murdered because of the secret-sacred aspects depicted in one painting’. When an exhibition of Papunya painting was held at the Residency Museum and Art Gallery in Alice Springs in 1974, a bout of stone throwing led to several of the paintings being removed from public display.

Whether dots were the artists’ means of hiding this sacred content is another matter. Johnson first queried this argument in 1991 in the exhibition catalogue, The Painted Dream,on the basis of one of John Tjakamarra’s first paintings. She argued that the very detailed dotted background of this Ground Picturefrom 1971 ‘brought into doubt the view that this element entered the style several years into the movement, when secularisation … became part of the artists’ concerns’.

Kimber added to these doubts in 1995 when he attributed the artists’ embrace of dotting at least partly to the arrival at Papunya of Peter Fannin, a new arts adviser who was otherwise a botanist with a keen interest in the vegetation of central Australia. As explained by Kimber, the Papunya artists responded to Fannin’s particular interests (as they had earlier to those of Bardon) by depicting more plants and bush foods in their work. Dots were a conventional means of doing so in the Aborigines’ ground paintings, hence ‘not surprisingly’ they became ‘more prominent in much of the new acrylic art’.

The anthropologist Fred Myers further undermined the ‘camouflage’ argument in the most interesting essay in Howard Morphy’s and Margo Smith Boles’s Art from the Land(1999). Myers, who began studying Papunya painting already in 1973 while working in the central desert, accepts that ‘the politics of secrecy’ may have been ‘a factor’ in dotting becoming one of its hallmarks. But he implies it was probably not of great consequence as it ‘was not a dominant theme of discussions’ he had with Pintupi artists between 1973 and 1975.

When Hetti Perkins and Hannah Fink recently reflected on this Papunya literature in Art and Australia,they suggested that these discrepancies were partly due to most of the writers being ‘protagonists’ who took ‘refuge in the partiality of personal reminiscence’. They also emphasized the complexity of writing anything like a definitive account of Papunya painting. ‘It is a story that cannot be told in any one way’, they observed, ‘Anthropological, political, historical, art critical: it is all of these things at once, and none of them entirely’.

Yet these problems are far from unique to Papunya. Most writers about particular regional forms of Aboriginal art are or have been entwined in the development of these movements whether through long stints of fieldwork (in the manner of Howard Morphy and Luke Taylor) or through years as art advisers (in the manner of Djon Mundine). Most, if not all, other Aboriginal art forms would similarly benefit from writing which draws on anthropology and politics, history and art criticism.

One possibility, still, is for the original artists to have more of a public voice. As Dick Kimber recognized in 1995 in ‘The Politics of the Secret’, his account could ‘undoubtedly be refined by the surviving artists if they so desire’. Since then, many have died, but eight of the original 30 are still alive. While they might not want to discuss the secret, they might illuminate many other, less sensitive aspects of Papunya painting’s first years.

Yet the inconsistencies and gaps in the Papunya story are a spur for more writing not just about Papunya but also the many Aboriginal art forms which have been subject to interpretative monopolies. If these movements sustained more writers, there sometimes would be radical revision of existing accounts. In other cases, the new writing would simply confirm and embellish the old. Yet even this corroboration would be valuable. Even the best writers need competition, if only to show how good they are.


Tim Bonyhady’s latest book is The Colonial Earth, just published by Melbourne University Press. This article first appeared as ‘Sacred Sights’ in theSydney Morning Herald, 9 December 2000, Spectrum pp. 4-5.


  • Sylvia Kleinert & Margo Neale (eds),The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture,Oxford University Press, 758 pp.
  • Hetti Perkins & Hannah Fink (eds), Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius,Art Gallery of New South Wales, 320 pp.
  • Bernice Murphy (ed), The Native Born: Objects and Representations from Ramingining,Museum of Contemporary Art, 242 pp.

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