The Power of Papunya Painting

By Fred Myers
September 1, 2009
Mick Namararri Tjapaltjarri (c. 1927-1998). Pintupi, Big Cave Dreaming with Ceremonial Object, late 1972, synthetic polymer powder paint on composition board, 36 x 25.25 in. Cat. 32
Mick Namararri Tjapaltjarri (c. 1927-1998). Pintupi, Big Cave Dreaming with Ceremonial Object, late 1972, synthetic polymer powder paint on composition board, 36 x 25.25 in. Cat. 32

The landmark exhibition Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia, on view at the Asia Society Galleries in New York in 1988, attracted 27,000 visitors and much critical attention for Indigenous Australians’ diverse and flourishing practices of visual expression. Included in that show was a small group of early Aboriginal acrylic paintings. Twenty-one years later, Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya is the first New York exhibition to focus primarily on the early works, which mark the founding moment of the Western Desert movement. Assembled from the collection of John and Barbara Wilkerson, Icons of the Desert presents paintings by artists at the remote Aboriginal community of Papunya, 160 miles west of Alice Springs in the heart of Australia. It comprises an exquisite set of the small works, on a variety of supports, regarded by many as the jewels of the acrylic painting movement. Many of these works involve the fine detail that Central Australian historian Dick Kimber has seen as characteristic of the early Papunya Tula style. Unpredictable, quirky, innovative, and quite varied, early Papunya boards constitute their makers’ first attempts to inscribe the imaginings of ceremony, story, and song onto more permanent surfaces. In bringing these pieces together on public view for the first time, the exhibition calls attention to their breadth and variety, in important examples by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, and Mick Namararri Tjapaltjarri, among many others.


Why focus on the early works? In 1971–72 a new practice of painting and new forms emerged at Papunya. Previously, Aboriginal artists had rendered in traditional body decoration, ceremonial objects, and temporary ground paintings—which are still being made today—the iconography, ritual practices, and forms of their ceremonial life, and the mythological traditions invested in the sacred places they knew as their “country.” Now, working in acrylic paint on rectangular boards, they attempted to transfer this wide array of knowledge, imagination, and embodied experience—musical, performative, decorative, multi-dimensional, and restricted—onto two-dimensional painted surfaces. The fact that these works are somewhat mysterious, and have reappeared with only shreds of what they meant to the painters, is part of their fascination. What did the artists think they were doing when they began this work? We do not know as much as we would like to.



Geoffrey Bardon, the now-famous schoolteacher with whose collaboration Papunya Tula painting emerged, was there with them. So too, at times, was Pat Hogan—the gallery owner at the Stuart Art Centre in Alice Springs—who documented some of the paintings in Bardon’s absence. But the early documentation is more tantalizing than definitive: Bardon and Hogan’s limited language and cultural knowledge render it a puzzle. Is Mick Namararri’s brilliant Big Cave Dreaming with Ceremonial Object (1972, ill. p. 3) indeed concerned with a key men’s ceremony once held by Pintupi people at the cave of Mitukatjirri, as I believe it is? Sometimes the mysteries are solvable, sometimes not.


Australians have had many opportunities to see substantial collections of early Papunya works: they are on view in public galleries and included in retrospective exhibitions. As with any collection, the Wilkersons’ Papunya paintings do not encompass all the possibilities and relationships posed in work of the period. Yet it does so better than any exhibition previously circulated in the United States. It allows viewers to appreciate the originality, range, and vitality of early Papunya Tula boards. In the words of the exhibition’s guest curator, Roger Benjamin, “Beauty has many forms, but it is not every day that a new kind of beauty is born to the world. Such is the achievement of the painters of Papunya from Central Australia.”1

For me, these paintings carry the historical power of enunciation. They project the conviction I heard firsthand from pioneering members of Papunya Tula Artists, the cooperative founded in 1972 at a remote government settlement at the end of an assimilation-oriented period in Australia’s Indigenous policy: Their culture is valuable, an anchor for them, worthy of respect and recognition. At various times during the 1970s and ’80s, when I lived and conducted research with Aboriginal people—first as an anthropologist at the outstation Yayayi (26 miles west of Papunya), and later in other communities—they told me that their paintings were “from the Dreaming” (Tjukkurrtjanu) and not something “made up,” or just “pretty pictures.” They were powerful—“like gold,” “dangerous,” or “dear”—and were connected with the men’s ngurra, the country they held as part of their ancestral estates.


This early period of painting, which is at the heart of Icons of the Desert, testifies to an extraordinary intensity of feeling, attachment, and vital creativity. The paintings represent the power of Tjukurrpa (the Dreaming), as both stories of ancestral activity and visible signs of those ancestors. Like other representations familiar to these men, the paintings simultaneously offer and conceal. In their depictions, the artists share knowledge of their country with viewers but also withhold facts, information, and features. This is a standard aesthetic dimension of ritual performance; in painting—and even sometimes in ritual—too much can be shown.


Some of the early paintings—joyous in their depiction of the Dreaming’s power and its objects of power—were later thought to be showing too much.

This has influenced the exhibition’s development. Indigenous peoples’ very survival demonstrates their ability to bring their way of seeing and their own image protocols into contemporary spaces. They view attention to their work as the expected recognition of the power and the truth of Tjukurrpa, but their movement into this contact zone has not been straightforward. Aboriginal people in other communities expressed concern about revealing certain iconography. By 1973, when I arrived, the painters of Papunya Tula Artists had already agreed to restrict themselves to those portions of the mythological cycle that were acceptable for uninitiated people to see. What, then, of those works from the earlier period that have entered the world of commodification, bought, sold, and exhibited as “art”?


Early Papunya paintings remain in the marketplace, bringing high prices at auction and becoming much-prized objects for the public galleries and museums of Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, and Canberra. As objects for sale, and in spite of their capacity to objectify Indigenous points of view as cultural heritage, they have escaped local control in belonging to others. This is not a settled business; their power is not contain- able in commodity form. Many of the early paintings have been exhibited and published, even reproduced as postcards and on calendars. Yet, as this exhibition was taking shape, the con temporary artists of Papunya Tula began to say that some of these works should not be shown in public. Since these very paintings had been made and sold as commodities, and their earlier sales greeted jubilantly, how are collectors to approach pro- posed restrictions on the right to see and exhibit what they have purchased at high prices?


The organizers of this exhibition agreed to my suggestion of developing a protocol of consultation: All the images were shown to the original painters’ descendants and relatives. This seemed only appropriate for a heritage that has one foot in each of two distinctive worlds of art and culture.

In the end, the painters’ descendants agreed that the work could be displayed in the U.S. with the proviso that nine images be withheld from exhibition in Australia and reproduction in catalogues sold there.



Freddy West Tjakamarra painting Lurlunya (1981, private collection) at Papunya in the West camp. Photo: Fred Myers


Seeing these paintings firsthand makes quite evident the wide range in the artists’ sensibilities. One constant is the power of the Dreaming, which is manifested everywhere in these works. The only painting in the exhibition by my friend Freddy West Tjakamarra, Old Man’s Ceremony (1971–72, cat. 13), has a wonderfully balanced composition. Is it related to one of the main sites in his country, Ngunyarrmanya, where a fire threatened the store of sacred objects? Or is it an image of the ancestral Rain Beings whom he understood to have come down from the north? He would have told me, I believe, but now we don’t know what ceremony this might be or what place of ancestral activity. For us, it has to be enough that the sacred objects depicted are pure indices of their power, and the few notes to accompany it simply tease us new initiates, who lack the knowledge and have little experience of the revelation.


The paintings of Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa, the Anmatyerre artist, may be a different matter. Kaapa always claimed he was not revealing anything inappropriate. In the painting Mikanji (1971, cat. 5), we see a variation on his earlier depictions of ceremonies: He maintains a representational focus on aspects of ceremonial practice but drops the literal rendering of performers in favor of the common iconic U-shape of a sitting person. For Kaapa, the power of the Dreaming is invested in the formal, symmetrical organization of the composition, which echoes ceremonial practice. This is, very nearly, the ceremony itself, but I do not think that it is meant as ethnography. The image bears the ancestor’s imprint and expresses the ancestor’s power to impose form on the world. While Kaapa was confident of his power to expose this to audiences, his descendants are less certain of its appropriateness for public viewing in Australia.


Other painters seek to communicate the mystery to us in other ways. A number of works by various artists contain evidence of shared ritual responsibilities and knowledge. Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra, for example, created two paintings in the exhibition—one of which, Big Family Kangaroo Ceremonial Dreaming (1971, cat. 6), is now regarded as unacceptable for display in Australia. The other work, which is illustrated in the catalogue, employs the iconography of an erect penis. Painted in late 1971, it is titled Medicine Story (ill. p. 5), which connects it to a series of works by other well-known Pintupi artists, including Uta Uta Tjangala, whose painting of the same title and year (ill. p. 5) is also on view in the exhibition.


In Long Jack’s country, we can find the first ancestral travels of the figure known as the “Old Man,” who plays a central role in the “medicine story” told by all the artists. Uta Uta’s far more schematic painting probably shows a different portion of the same ancestor’s voyage, emphasizing a similar motif of testicles traveling on their own. In all these stories—the shared responsibility of which is evidence that the men are all “from one country”—the phallic properties are visible and invariably humorous indicators of excessive sexuality. The term “medicine” refers to the sorcery power carried by this ancestral figure as he crossed the country, east to west. The two paintings surely do not represent exactly the same parts of the story, but much information has obviously been lost in translation, and we cannot really know how the individual artists arrived at their own iconographies.

Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula is best known for his intense representation of particular places in his country, rendered in his extraordinary style of over-dotting and shaded colors. He often painted the story of one place, Kalipinypa, with its caves and watercourses. His varied texturing—with circles representing caves connected by the different lines of water paths, and various bush tucker (edible flora and fauna) from the area—communicates a profound sense or memory of place. Of course, rain and lightning are forms of ancestral power, emanating from Warangkula’s country and informing his own identity. In Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa (1972, ill. p. 7), Warangkula depicts the forms of the country and both reveals and conceals associated sacred objects. The focus of this work, as historian Dick Kimber remarked, may well be the “prolific growth of locally occurring plants after good rains.” The painting is an image of nurturance: the bounty that the country provides for its people.


Icons of the Desert has particular resonance for me in the sublime works of Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi, one of the masters of early Papunya Tula painting. While Geoff Bardon greatly appreciated Shorty’s work, he confessed to being more or less unable to communicate with him. The paintings he refers to as “water” depict locations of actual water sources in Shorty’s country; places south of Lake Macdonald that he knew and visited as part of the foraging cycle. Like the places themselves, the paintings conjure up memories and ancestral stories.


Children’s Water Dreaming (1972, ill. p. 8) was originally purchased by Bardon’s friend Tim Guthrie and, along with the rest of Guthrie’s amazing collection, later sold at auction. The painting is simple, almost without decorative adornment. Dick Kimber has identified it with Lampintjanya, a clay pan known for its abundant supply of the seed plant mungilpa, which attracted substantial seasonal gatherings of people. “In this painting,” Kimber wrote, “the central roundel represents a big water hole with small creeks running into the central water hole.”4 However, in my recent conversations with surviving Papunya Tula painters, they identified the design as “hair-string” (puturru), perhaps a spinning of human hair on a spindle (to make a fiber used in belts, etc.), as suggested by the circular lines. Of course, the underlying black cross motif could be a sacred object, and in this case the country would be more or less identified with its sacred ancestral form. The image calls on us to ponder the concepts of revelation and concealment along with the familiarity of a place identified with gathering relatives.


Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi

Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi (1920-197), Pintupi Tingarri Ceremony at Ilingawurngawurrnga, June 1974, Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 66 3/8 x 40 1/8 in. Cat. 40


Although it shares certain formal characteristics with Shorty’s Water Dreamings, this work derives from the Tingarri Dreaming, a collection of mythic stories about Ancestral traveling men. Tingarri Ceremony was initially documented by anthropologist Fred Myers during his stay at Yayayi, west of Papunya.


Shorty’s Classic Pintupi Water Dreaming (1972, ill. p. 6) was also owned by Guthrie. In this small painting on masonite, as Bardon’s notes indicate, the central roundel represents a waterhole surrounded by soakages (small sets of concentric circles) with little creeks flowing into  it from the larger surrounding watercourse. According to Bardon, the dark forms at each end represent the hills that promote rainstorm runoff into the clay pan. Again, this site is probably Lampintjanya, as suggested by the identification of a circle with two semicircles in the upper right as two men at the fire. From other accounts of Lampintjanya, a place regularly visited by Shorty as part of his foraging life, I know that these Tjukurrpa men put down their many sacred objects there and then began to dig. The little creek and big creek routes marked in the painting were, as the story tells us, formed by the movements of ancestral snakes and the men’s digging in pursuit of them. Over-dotting in dark areas at the top and bottom may represent mungilpa seed, the important food plant abundant after rains. Familiar to Shorty from his everyday travels and visits, this place has kinship associations as well: the two men at the fire in the story associated with Lampintjanya were ancestral incarnations of Shorty’s brothers-in-law. The painting’s haunting shape is not arbitrary. Is it the circular headdress worn in many men’s rituals? Is it the painting of the clay pan, at once the physical place and the ritual form of that story, worn on the dancers’ heads? In these paintings the landscape dimension is quite tangible, but so is the inseparability of people, places, and objects.

The painters’ switch from composition board to canvas allowed them to work on a much larger scale. Shorty Lungkarta filled this composition with what Geoffrey Bardon described as “overlapping whorl patterns of immense intricacy.” Shorty’s use of three or four colors in each whorl makes them appear to pulsate, while their massing achieves a symphonic effect.

The Wilkersons’ collection also includes a few choice works from later periods. They appear different, but the defining ontology has not shifted. Tingarri Ceremony at Ilingawurngawurrnga (1974, ill. p. 9) Shorty’s fabulous painting on canvas, remains closely tied to ritual presentations of place and under the authority of those with the right to depict them. I saw him painting it in June 1974 and know how it related to the ancestral events being performed in the initiates’ camp in the Yayayi community. Actors decorated for ceremonies could be seen—with white wamulu (bush cotton) body decoration in concentric circles on their stomachs and backs, connected over the shoulders and sides—preparing to re-enact their Tjukurrpa.


The work exemplifies the stylistic evolution of Shorty’s paintings, moving to relatively conventionalized forms, depicting in a relatively abstract way the features of the Dreaming events that he chose to emphasize, and also the effects of employing larger supports. But Ilingawurngawurrnga derives a particular force from the numerous repeated semicircles on semicircles that represent the multiplicity of novices and men applying decorations to each other’s backs. It is this aggregation, the multitudes gathered by ancestral figures, that constitutes the aesthetic of the Dreaming’s power.


These objects continue to work their magic on those who view them. They bring recognition to those who made them and, through them, recognition of the powers they sought to mediate. Let us savor these paintings’ innovations, their new forms of creativity, as representations of the complex phenomenon of Ancestral presence conveyed powerfully and compellingly in two dimensions.


 Long John and Uta Uta

Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra (born 1932)

Pintupi, also recorded as Luritja/Ngaliya/Warlpiri
Medicine Story, December 1971
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 21 7/8 x 17 7/8 in. Cat. 7

Uta Uta Tjangala 9c. (1926-1990), Pintupi
Medicine Story, 1971. Synthetic polymer/
powder paint on composition board, 27 5/8 x 13 7/8 in. Cat. 8


These two works relate to the Old Man (Yina) Dreaming painted most frequently by Uta Uta Tjangala, and also by Long Jack Phillipus and Charlie Tarawa. In one version o f this mythic story, the Old Man, who was a “medicine one,” a powerful sorcerer, had a forbidden sexual liaison with his mother-in-law, a transgression that caused his genitals to become increasingly painful. As he traveled west, his testicles fell off and rolled away, or “went walkabout.” Fred Myers has explained that the landscape features ofvarious sites in the desert along the way to the site of Yumari relate to the old man’s penis and his wayard testicles.


In Long Jack’s painting, a prominent phallus dominates the compostition, prepresenting at once the Old Man’s penis and its cremonial embodiment. Wavy lines in red, yello, and black repersent symbolic sperm, highlighted by white dotting up to the roudels of the Old Man’s testicles –which appear in multiple locations.


In his early Medicine Story, Uta Uta Tjangala creates a striking pattern in brown and dark red over a board prepared with matte black (probably blackboard paint). The painting is notable for its early, extensive use of white dots within the confines of the kuruwarri, or story lines. the horizontal form at the painting’s botton is the Old Man lying down. Geoffrey Bardn’s original drawing identifies the vertical red figures as the Old Man’s testicles and the cirles as showing them “going walkabout.” 




The men’s painting room at papunya


Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurray

Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurray (1920-1987). Pintupi Classic Pintupi Water Dreaming, c. August 1972, Synthetic polymer/powder paint on composition board, 24.5 x 16.375 in. Cat 25


Early in 1972, a number of artists gathered to paint in a 30-x50-foot corrugated-steel military hangar located at the end of Papunya Town Hall. Geoffrey Bardon dubbed this the “Great Painting Room.” Here, the men could paint in relative comfort and avoid the heat, cold, and dust–and, most importantly, they could sequester their activities from women and children, who were not permitted o see their imagery. Bardon recalled the painting room as a safe haven for both camaraderie and creativity, a remarkable crucible for this group of men of different ages, ethnicities, and languages–Pintupi, Anmatyerre, Arrernte, Luritja, Warlpiri–sharing stories, jokes, stylistic influences, and artistic solutions.


This photograph by visiting photojournalist Michael Jensen, taken probably in August or September 1972, presents a pantheon of Papunya artists, including Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, at the left, with his great Water Dreaming (ill. p.7) on a tabletop; Charlie Tarawa Tjungurrayi, holding decorated spears at the center; Mick Namararri Tjapaltjarri at the right; Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, with a yellow Honey Ant Dreaming in his lap; Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi, on the floor with a broad-brimmed hat, also working on a Water Dreaming (ill. p. 6); and Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, who playfully hides behind his big Budgerigar Dreaming at the far right–we see only his fingertips.


Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula

Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula (c. 1918-2001) Luritja, Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa, c. August 1972, Synthetic polymer paint on composition board, 31.75 x 29.75 in., Cat. 27


Johnny Warangkula’s Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa is less an evocation of a rainstorm than an image of country being transformed by the ceremonial activity of the Water Man–the man whose song and words, reverberating in the chambers of his cave, bring forth the rain. Located 400 miles west of Alice Springs, Kalipinypa is an important site for storms, lightning, and rain; Warangkula shared responsibility for it with Old Walter Tjampitjinpa.


The painting includes a claypan over a stony deposit that helped to trap the water after rains. The principal local bush food, kampurarrpa (wild raisin), for which Warangkula held major totemic rights, appears in the black dotted overlay at the right. Also depicted are tjurungas (ceremonial boards) of the water men ancestors, along with soakages, running water, and caves. The Water Dreaming symbol of three roundels connected by waving lines is just visible at the far left edge.


This pictures’s visual fascination lies in the great delicacy of the artist’s veiling of things and his division of the board into dozens of small compartments, each with its own pattern: waving parallel lines, stippling, staccato dots, radiating curves, crosshatches. Each of these patternings is in a lighter color; the darker colors beneath denote important Water Dreaming elements. The result is like a grat patchwork quilt, but one not reined in by regularity, so that the eye constantly shuffles over an immense lacelike veil that both overlays and penetrates the land.

Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi

Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi (1920-1987). Pintupi Children’s Water Dreaming (Version 2), May-July 1972, Synthetic polymer paint on composition board, 24 1/2 x 17 1/2 in. Cat. 24


This delicate composition is the first of several works by Shorty Lunkarta that appear to be linked to the unusually wet winter of mid-1972. The painting most likely depicts Shorty’s birthplace of Lampintjanya, near Lake Macdonald west of Papunya, with the central roundel indicating Lampintjanya’s waterhole, a claypan, and the overlapping pattern of whorls–as fine as cobwebs–depicting water running in the creek. Shorty painted this Children’s Dreaming in response to Geoffrey Bardon’s initiative encouraging the painters to employ imagery that could be viewed by all. It contains no obvious representations of ceremonial objects that would be harmful to children and thus be used in teaching them. The black cross at the upper left, which some commentators see as a sacred object, has been identified for Fred Myers by surviving painters as puturru, or hairstring–merely one ingredient in making a ceremonial object, which makes the work safe; this, notes Myers, “is a common way of disguising in public the presence of a sacred object by presenting its more mundate derivative.”

The delicate roundels superimposed on one another create a hypnotic optical effect. Shorty came to specialize in this overlapping whorl motif, utilizing it in his early painting on canvas Tingarri Ceremony at llingawurngawurrnga (ill. p. 9).

Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayl

Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayl (1920-1987). Pintupi Mystery Sand Mosaic,  November 1974, Synthetic polymer paint on canvas board, 19 15/16 x 17 3/4 in. Cat. 41


Shorty Llungkarta painted this work at an outstation west of Papunya called Yayayi, where most of the Pintupi moved in early 1973. There he befriended Fred Myers, then a graduate student at Bryn Mawr College, who had ust arrived to conduct field research for his dissertation. Myers recalls that Shorty became his adoptive granfather, or tjamu, demonstrating great patience in teaching Myers about Pintupi men’s ceremony and other aspects of the Dreaming. According to Myers, in addition to his skill as a painter, Shorty was a brilliant actor and dancer, and a devoted husband and father, as well as a fearsome fighter. At the painting’s center is one of Shorty’s characteristic split and radiating circles. Its subject remains unidentified.

Old Walter Tjampitjinpa

Old Walter Tjampitjinpa, (c.1912-1981). Pintupi Rainbow and Water Story, c. August 1972, Synthetic polymer paint on composition board, 24 1/4 x 20 1/2 in. Cat. 26

Old Walter Tjampitjinpa was senior custodian of the Water Dreaming at Papunya and possessed vast knowledge of Western Desert water sources and associated ceremonies. Here two great decorated half-circles over a red ground appear to refer simultaneously to rainbows and two Ancestral Water Men painted up for ceremony. Based on comments by the artist’s daughter, Emma Nangala, the site of this work can now be identified as Kalipinypa, which her father inhabited for more than twenty years. Nangala reads the yellow hatched lines as repeated lightning strikes abutting the rainbow, part of a great storm that came from the west to Kalipinypa during the Tjukurrpa, the prehistoric creation time.

Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri

Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri (c.1932-2002). Anmatyerre Women’s Dreaming about Bush Tucker “Yarlga,” late 1972, Synthetic polymer/powder paint on composition board, 25 3/8 x 21 7/8 in. Cat. 37


This painting records a women’s Dreaming about the gathering of a bush food called yarlga, a white desert plant resembling an onion, represented here by ragged patches of white stippling. At the center is a circular fire with firesticks radiating out, while the U-shapes at the four corners denote women seated at opposite ends of their long digging sticks, used for prying up yams and other underground foods. In this work Dreaming motifs flicker in and out of view like celestial objects obscured and revealed by moving clouds. Its layers reflect the artist’s stated goal of representing the penetrability of the earth in Aboriginal belief–the way in which Ancestral beings, in their creation of the landscape, entered the ground and traveled beneath its surface before emerging elsewhere.

Mick Namararri Tjapaltjarri

Mick Namararri Tjapaltjarri, (c.1927-1998). Pintupi Water Dreaming, late 1972, Synthetic polymer/powder paint on composition board, 27 3/8 x 22 1/4 in. Cat. 36


This work was not documented at the time it was made, but Geoffrey Bardon, who knew Namararri’s work well, was able to identify certain features in it. He described the central circle as a waterhole and the four large curved forms surrounding it as cliffs and caves in the mountains. Namararri’s depiction of the water forms (wavy lines) and other patterning recall his Big Cave Dreaming with Ceremonial Object (ill. p. 3).