October 2018

The Nation Reviewed

The artistic revival at Papunya Tjupi Arts

By Kim Mahood
Women painters are bringing the focus back to the birthplace of the Western Desert movement

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.

Kim Mahood

Kim Mahood is the author of Craft for a Dry Lake, Position Doubtful and the essay ‘Kartiya Are Like Toyotas: White Workers on Australia’s Cultural Frontier’.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue

Grace Tame running in the 2023 Bruny Island Ultra Marathon

Running out of trouble

How long-distance running changed the life of the former Australian of the Year (and earnt her a record win in an ultramarathon)

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Might as well face it

Lively discussions take place around the country every week on ethical non-monogamy, love addiction and how much sex is too much

In This Issue

Cover of ‘The End’

‘The End’ by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The ‘My Struggle’ series arrives at a typically exhausting conclusion

Still from Christopher Robin

A man and his bear: Marc Forster’s ‘Christopher Robin’

Adults will find this new tale of Winnie the Pooh surprisingly moving

Image of Cher in 1979

Eternally Cher

The queen of reinvention turns her attention to the works of ABBA

Cover of ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’

‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ by Olga Tokarczuk

Offbeat intrigue from a Booker Prize winner

More in The Nation Reviewed

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Serving time (after time)

Australian citizens are being held in supervised facilities after they have served their prison sentence, amounting to indefinite detention

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Might as well face it

Lively discussions take place around the country every week on ethical non-monogamy, love addiction and how much sex is too much

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

The curtain falls

Vale Michael Blakemore, whose rivalry with the National Theatre’s Peter Hall led them both to become giants of the stage

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Mars attracts

Reviving the Viking mission’s experiments may yet find life as we know it on Mars, but the best outcome would be something truly alien

Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality