Indigenous Art and White Supremacy: the Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd

This post includes images and names which may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In addition, it may contain culturally sensitive works which may be considered as inappropriate for viewing. I have done my best to present only images which epitomize a certain style, or which hold an important place in the history of this artistic movement.

In 1960, the Australian government, deciding that Aborigines were not ready to live as “white Australians,” instituted a forced re-education program to hasten their assimilation into white Australian society. To achieve these ends, the government relocated the Walpiri, Aranda, Anmatyerre, Loritja, and Pintupi language groups from their traditional lands and resettled them in the Papunya Settlement, located 250 miles west of Alice Springs in Central Australia. This policy also involved the forced removal of indigenous children from their parents.

Papunya’s precise location. Image courtesy of the New York Times.

The settlement consisted of below standard government housing designed to accommodate between 400 and 500 people; by 1970, over 1,000 indigenous peoples lived in the settlement. Government workers were housed in separate quarters, surrounded by barbed wire.

Aerial photograph of Papunya, Northern Territory, taken in 1968 by Chris Guster. Image courtesy of The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

In 1971, Geoffrey Bardon, a British man, was posted to Papunya as the settlement’s primary school art teacher. He would later describe the settlement as “a community of people in appalling distress, oppressed by a sense of exile from their homelands…it was a place of emotional loss and waste, with an air of casual cruelty. I had come to a community of several tribal groups apparently dispossessed of their lands and…systematically humiliated by the European authorities…they were frustrated to the point of hopelessness.”

One day he noticed some of the school children drawing traditional designs in the sand. He began to encourage his students to represent their traditional visual themes and motifs in his art classes. When the children began work on a mural, the elders felt that the spiritual nature of the symbolism and style of the mural was better suited to adults. Seven aboriginal men in turn began their own mural of the Honey Ant Dreaming.

Old Tom Onion Tjapangati (left) and Nosepeg Tjupurrula (second left) direct the painting of the Honey Ant Dreaming on the wall of the school at the government settlement of Papunya. Image courtesy of Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd.

This mural was painted on the school wall, and its presence inspired others in the settlement to begin paintings of their own. Over 600 paintings and 300 smaller works were created over the next year and a half. The administration of the settlement, in an act which curator Judith Ryan described as “cultural vandalism,” painted over the Honey Ant Dreaming mural in 1974.

In October, 1971, Bardon helped to arrange the Papunya School Painters Cooperative, which, in 1972 was incorporated into Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd. Critics perceive the work produced between 1971 and 1972 to be fresh, evocative, and unrestrained. The early artists, generally older men, worked using whatever materials were on hand, including boxes, car hoods, and tin sheets. This explosion of artistic activity is typically regarded as the origin of Contemporary Indigenous Australian Art.

Kangaroo Rat Dreaming by Anatjari Tjakamarra, 1972. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of Western Australia.

The Australian government, however, was unhappy with the formation of this artistic Papunya Tula Artists. In 1956, the Northern Territory Legislative Council ruled it to be a criminal offense should anyone to buy or sell paintings by Aboriginal artists without the permission of the Native Affairs Branch of the government. The superintendent of Papunya claimed that the paintings were produced by “government Aborigines,” and therefore belonged to the government. Bardon, ignoring these laws, continued to promote the Papunya Tula Artists and took paintings out of the settlement to sell at Alice Springs. Bardon became seriously ill and had to leave Papunya in the middle of 1972.

As the Papunya Tula Artists transitioned from painting for the Papunya community to painting works which would be sold outside of the settlement, tensions began to rise between the artists and outside Aborigine groups. These groups opposed the selling of paintings containing sacred knowledge and images. The tension came to a head in 1974 when an Aborigine group stoned an Alice Springs exhibition of the Papunya art.

In response the Papunya Tula Artists began to adopt a style in which they overlaid their paintings with dots to disguise the parts of their work which included sacred rituals and symbols. One of the early masters of this technique was Johnny Warungula Tjupurrula (1920-2001). His technique of “over-dotting” was taken up and developed by many Papunya artists, and by 1975 this technique became one of the central characteristics of Western Desert Art. Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri was another early master of this technique.

Warlugulong by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, 1977. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia.

Of this period of the movement, Judith Ryan opined that the “openness of the Bardon era was at an end. Dotting and over-dotting, as an ideal means of concealing or painting over dangerous, secret designs, became a fashion at this stage. The art was made public, watered down for general exhibition…the uniqueness of the Geoffrey Bardon years—which like innocence, cannot be rediscovered.”

In 1976, the Northern Territory passed the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. The act provided that Aboriginal peoples in the Northern Territory could claim rights to land based on traditional occupation. The act allowed for a claim of title if claimants were able to provide evidence of their association with land. After the Act’s passing, much of the Papunya settlement departed for their traditional lands. However, the Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd continued to grow.

The art world ignored the work of the Papunya Tula Artists, and the National Gallery of Victoria did not acquire any of their works until 1987. Even then, it was only at the urging of Judith Ryan, who convinced the director to purchase 10 pieces for $100,000, a price which Ryan would describe in 2008 as a “steal.” In 2007, a painting by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri sold for $2.4 million.

Today the work of the Papunya Tula Artists is highly regarded. This work is now represented in major galleries, museums, institutions and many large private collections both in Australia and overseas. The Papunya Tula Artists currently operate out of Alice Springs. They are regarded within the art world as the premier purveyor of Aboriginal art in Central Australia.

The Papunya Tula Artists’ gallery today, Alice Springs, Northern Territory. Image courtesy of Qantas: The Australian Way.