Just as the SH Ervin Gallery in Sydney surprised me earlier this year by celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Papunya Tula Art movement a year early, so the PTA gallery in Alice Springs has popped up a Golden Anniversary show this month without any warning. For, while painting as art certainly started in Papunya in 1971, the Papunya Tula Artists organisation only emerged a year later in November 1972.
And I don’t sense any shame about jumping the gun by a year. As Paul Sweeney, manager of the Aboriginal-owned company wryly admitted to me, “The way it’s going it looks like it will be a two year birthday!”.
Which may well be deserved.
They’re slightly clearer online: “To mark the 50th anniversary of the Western Desert Art Movement, and on the eve of the Company’s 50th birthday in 2022, the Papunya Tula Artists Board of Directors, Shareholders and Artists are delighted to welcome everyone back for our favourite night of the year.
“The show will not only feature new works from the last two years (and some surprise collaboratives), but also a selection of older works from our reserved stock by former greats.
“‘Martupura Tjukurrpa’ acknowledges the significance and vital importance of Papunya Tula Artists and its fifty year history working with the Western Desert Communities. The Company has been instrumental in the creation and ongoing support of major projects and infrastructure, including the Purple House (for treating the all-too-prevalent diabetes) and the Kintore Swimming Pool.
“Papunya Tula Artists continues to be a major funding source and support base for ceremonies, Aged Care, funerals, music equipment and festivals.
“It’s important business!” – which is what ‘Martupura Tjukurrpa’ means.
I guess the use of he word Tjukurrpa also suggests an on-going sacred aspect. For, if you recall, when the 25 male artists who’d been painting in Papunya from the beginning came together quite remarkably to establish their marketing cooperative, they were under considerable pressure from other Desert men not to reveal the secret/sacred aspects that formed the subject of their earliest boards. Hence the development of a much greater degree of abstraction – dense dotting, op-art lines, etc – that has confused Western art commentators ever since.
It’s so easy to assume a whitefellar mindset when faced with the apparent familiarity of a painted canvas rather than opening your mind to a different, and much more ancient civilisation’s visual parameters. And so hard apparently to make an effort to learn something about that culture.
A recent article in ‘The Australian’ offered up these wise thoughts on really understanding the art of Renaissance Italy: “Of course one cannot expect to understand a mythological picture without knowing the story, or in this case to read an allegorical painting without a knowledge of the ideas being represented, or the iconographic conventions that help to identify those ideas”.
Yet the same writer has commented on First Nations art without making any attempt to ‘know the story’ or understand ‘the iconographic conventions’.
It may be a mistake that there’s no attempt to explain those stories any longer at PTA – though there may be in certificates of authenticity supplied with paintings. It certainly was when I bought my first painting in 1987 – a ‘Witchetty Grub Dreaming‘ work by Sandra Nampitjinpa – in which the women’s ceremony involved is detailed. An oddity, though, is that 15 years into PTA’s existence, my certificate assures me that “The copyright is owned by the artist and his people. He is a member of Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd”.
The women of the Deserts have come a long way since then, realising even more than their husbands, brothers and sons that the economic benefits of art sales were almost as important as the cultural benefits of passing on the stories to future generations and persuading the whitefellars who’d ignored them for almost 200 years that they had a complexity of beliefs that were worth taking seriously.
That’s why I believe that, over 50 years, the art has done even more than Bruce Pascoe’s ‘Dark Emu’ to open hearts and minds to the intrinsic value of sharing this continent with the world’s oldest extant society. And why I look forward so enthusiastically to the opening the Aboriginal Arts and Cultures Centre in Adelaide, which has the potential do so much to open minds to those ‘mythological’ stories and putting flesh on those ‘iconographic conventions’ that were first given form in Papunya 50 years ago.
Talking of the PTA women, it’s good to report that the 49/50th anniversary exhibition features works by Ngoia Napaltjarri Pollard, Tjunkaiya Napaltjarri, Yakultji Napangarti and Makinti Napanagka that stand proud beside the product of men like Bobby West Tjupurrula, George Tjungarryi, Ray James Tjangala, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa and Morris Gibson Tjupurrula.
Mbantua is also repleat with the ‘Desert Mob 30′ Exhibition, which opened on 10 September and runs until 24 October. Spread over three galleries and offering hundreds of new works by established, mid-career and emerging artists that have been selected and curated for inclusion by art centres, the Desert Mob exhibition is a testament to tradition and a testing ground for experimentation and innovation in contemporary Aboriginal art from the Deserts.
Look out for Bessie Pitjara Purvis at the newishs Utopia Art Centre! Operating from the Arlparra store, this is yet another attempt to establish an ‘official’ community art centre on this vast former cattle station, where scattered bore communities have never really come together as one. This scatter has allowed the CAAMA shop, Don Holt and Sonja Chalmers on neighbouring stations, Fred Torres, Mbantua gallery in Alice and sundry drive in/drive out carpetbaggers to develop various degrees of relationship over the past 35 years.
And then there are a variety of associated events in Alice: the Talapi Gallery seems to have set up as an on-going Desert Mob, showing community art exclusively since 2018; Raft does that job commercially; the Vincent Lingiari and Desart Photography prize shows are on; and Maruku, Yarrenyty Arltere Artists and Bindi art centres all have exhibitions.
If only we could all get there!
Artist: Sandra Nampitjinpa, Ngoia Napaltjarri Pollard, Tjunkaiya Napaltjarri, Yakultji Napangarti, Makinti Napanagka, Bobby West Tjupurrula, George Tjungarryi, Ray James Tjangala, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Morris Gibson Tjupurrula, Bessie Pitjara Purvis, Emily Kngwarreye,
Tags: Bessie Pitjara Purvis , bobby west tjupurrula , Desert Mob 30 , George Tjungarryi , Makinti Napanagka , Morris Gibson Tjupurrula , ngoia napaltjarri pollard , Papunya Tula Artists , Paul Sweeney , ray james tjangala , ronnie tjampitjinpa , Sandra Nampitjinpa , Tjunkaiya Napaltjarri , Utopia Art Centre , Yakultji Napangarti ,
Gallery: Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd ,