The route to Papunya from Alice Springs, via Glen Helen Gorge and the Western MacDonnell Ranges, takes you through colour-saturated country fractured with geological upheavals, sculpted by wind and water, scored and scoured by time. A crenellated horizontal strip of dark red dolomite, in places barely a metre thick, stalks along the foothills of the ranges like a horde of migrating stegosaurs. In the distance is the dark blue bulk of Mount Sonder: the Sleeping Woman lies prone and splayed, a vast fertility goddess with breasts and flanks cleft with indigo shadows.
It’s a tableau of arrested movement, as if the creation beings have paused for the seconds it takes you to pass, and will resume the lively and inventive business of making the country as soon as you are gone.
This is also the landscape made famous by the Namatjira school of painters, and while Albert Namatjira is the name associated with the glowing watercolours that white Australians recognise and admire, painters such as Wenten Rubuntja and Otto Pareroultja capture more forcefully the pattern of these ancient hills.
Past the gorge the country flattens and opens to reveal patches of mulga and the suggestion of grassy plains. At the turn-off to Papunya a red four-wheel-drive wagon is pulled over, bonnet up, two Aboriginal men pondering its innards. When one of them flags me down I stop and roll down the passenger window.
“You got a towrope?” he says.
“You need a pull start?”
“No. Need a tow to Papunya.”
Papunya is 80 kilometres away, on an unsealed road I haven’t driven before.
“I can’t tow you that far,” I say. “Can I tell someone in Papunya you’re broken down?”
“Already,” he says, meaning that the message has been sent.
“You got plenty of water?”
“Yuwa, we got water.” He assesses me. “You got any sandwiches?”
“Sorry.” I offer the bag of nuts and seeds I’ve been nibbling, which he accepts without enthusiasm. Since I’ve eaten the larger nuts, it’s mostly pepitas and sunflower seeds.
The southern aspect of Haasts Bluff, simplified by light and distance into the purplish-blue tones replicated and made famous by Namatjira, dominates the approach to Papunya. When I drive through the ranges the shift in light changes the colour and texture of the rock, turning it fleshy pink and seamed, like flayed muscle marbled with fat. Namatjira painted this view of the range, known as Alumbaura, in the final months of his life, which he spent in Papunya under house arrest for supplying his cousin Henoch Raberaba with alcohol.
Papunya appears to be a random scatter of buildings punctuated with bougainvillea and eucalypts. In fact, the township’s layout, comprising a central circle with a concentric semicircle radiating from each quadrant, is based on representations of the Honey Ant Dreaming: the tjupi (honey ant) travelled through here and then headed east where it manifested as the Tjupi hills.
It was in the early 1970s at Papunya that the fortuitous conjunction of a highly strung young schoolteacher, some senior Aboriginal lawmen, and a plan to paint a school mural gave rise to what became the Western Desert painting movement. The story of Geoffrey Bardon and the canon of first-generation desert painters is part of our Indigenous art history. What is less well known is that Papunya did not have a dedicated painting space, an art centre as we understand it today, until 2009.
Papunya Tula, the organisation that has become synonymous with the emergence of the Western Desert art movement, is a cooperative that for many years operated out of Papunya, servicing artists in camps and communities that extended hundreds of kilometres in all directions. The homelands movement of the 1970s and ’80s saw many of the artists, especially the Pintupi, return to their own country. Papunya Tula relocated its fieldwork base to the Pintupi communities of Kintore and Kiwirrikurra, and established a retail outlet in Alice Springs. While it continued to service the senior Papunya-base painters, notably Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra, Tim Leura Tjapaltjarr and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, and second-generation painter Michael Nelson Tjakamarra, its focus was on the Pintupi.
The 1990s saw the marketplace for Indigenous art spinning into the stratosphere. Carpetbaggers thrived in a landscape where codes of practice were still being thrashed out. Art centres proliferated, and by the mid ’90s the Papunya Tula brand was just one of many strands of the desert-painting movement. In Papunya, the artists continued to agitate for an art centre of their own. The byzantine processes it took to achieve this are documented in Vivien Johnson’s excellent book Streets of Papunya.
Papunya Tjupi Arts was incorporated in late 2006, and operated from a two-bedroom house belonging to the Northern Territory Education Department, before moving in 2009 to the premises it occupies today.
I ask for directions and am pointed to the western edge of town, via Leura Street and Possum Crescent, where I find the centre housed in a vast besser-block and corrugated-iron building that was originally the community store and later the local garage. Abandoned for some years before Papunya Tjupi acquired it, the building was signed over by the community council days before the federal government intervention made such councils redundant.
On the concrete slab outside the centre, several elderly women sit on paint-stained vinyl cushions and work with deep concentration. Inside, the cavernous building supports painting on a grand scale. The artists, all women apart from one old man painting in a corner, work on big canvases, some on tables, others on the floor. The stillness and focus of the artists is a counterpoint to the efflorescent energy of the paintings. I’ve been told that Papunya Tjupi Arts is the exemplar of an artist-driven resurgence. The current artists are the wives, sisters and descendants of the founding artists of the 1970s. There are traces of the formal Papunya style that evolved from the original painting movement – the way Martha McDonald Napaltjarri, daughter of Shorty Lungkata Tjungurrayi, applies dots; the geometric lozenges of Maureen Poulson Napangardi’s Water Dreaming paintings – but the limited colour palette has gone, and “working big” has unleashed a manifest boldness and confidence.
Today Martha McDonald Napaltjarri is painting on a bright red background, using yellows and greens to fill the spaces between a dramatic scaffolding of black. Charlotte Phillipus Napurrula, daughter of Long Jack, sits on one end of a 2-metre canvas and paints fine contour lines of copper on black. “Tali,” she says when I ask what she’s painting. Sandhills. The inferred “stupid question” remains unsaid. A Kalipinypa Water Dreaming painting by Maureen Poulson Napangardi is a shimmer of overlapping diamonds that represent the ripples on water and the lightning that precedes rain. When I photograph it the camera struggles to focus, the image flickering like fish scales under water.
The work of Tilau Nangala combines a calligraphic simplicity with the dots and circles of traditional painting. In 2008, at the age of 75, she undertook a printmaking workshop that triggered a process she grappled with in subsequent years, eventually resulting in the dynamic, pared-back lines of her contemporary work.
On the wall of the art centre’s office a Doris Bush Nungarrayi painting – bronze and turquoise on a black background – writhes with amoeba forms that threaten to spill off the canvas. Like many of the older painters, Doris Bush Nungarrayi has a backstory of loss, reconnection to country, and the discovery through painting of a celebratory means of expression.
The art centre manager, Joanna Byrne, is about to resign for family reasons. One of those indomitable women on whom the remote art centres depend, Byrne is sorry to go, but says she’s confident that the next manager will inherit a flourishing organisation. The centre’s artists, who range in age from 30 to 90, have found a vocabulary with which they continue to experiment and expand, and the Papunya Tjupi trademark is distinguishing itself from Papunya Tula in style, scale and originality.
One question that begs to be asked concerns the absence of men. Byrne tells me it’s to do with timing, the limitations of the building and the gender prohibitions that complicate Indigenous desert culture. At the time of the resurgence of painting in Papunya most of the artists were women. The current building doesn’t lend itself to division, which means there’s no dedicated space for men to work. A growing number of men use the art centre after hours, and the provision of a painting shed for them is a priority.
As if on cue, several men enter the building. It’s time for the weekly money meeting, and time for me to leave.
Just beyond the arts centre I stop to photograph a tableau of desert architecture: an A-frame church sporting a cross and a belltower, an elevated water tank, and a white shed of curved corrugated iron that juts from the earth like a giant half-buried drum. On the horizon, partly obscured by the buildings, the three hummocks of the Tjupi hills jut from the earth like a giant half-buried honey ant.
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