The woman who almost single-handedly transformed the Aboriginal Desert painting movement from a cultural phenomenon into a thriving business has died.

Daphne Napanangka Williams AM, who managed the Aboriginal-owned Papunya Tula Artists company (PTA) for more than 20 years, was 92 when she died in Horsham, western Victoria, where she’d moved to be close to one of her two sons. On Friday, she was buried in Dimboola Cemetery.

The Sydney Morning Herald will be publishing an obituary in the near future. But the AAD would be delighted to receive the memories of many who worked with or merely encountered this formidable lady, so important to the development of both Desert art and, indeed, the whole First Nations art business.

Please send your suggestions to the email address below.

John Kean has already penned this tribute:

‘Vale Daphne Williams: Daphne was my mentor as a 22 year old. She managed the Centre for Aboriginal Artists and Craftsmen in Alice Springs. She helped me out big time when Papunya Tula Artists was struggling to survive. She later became the Manager making the company profitable, setting in place agreements that continue to provide regular dividends and royalties to the families of the founding artists.

As a girl Daphne went to school on horse and cart on the Yorke Peninsular (SA) and travelled up the dusty Stuart Highway to Alice Springs as a young mother. She became the bookkeeper at the local Datsun dealership. Daphne was employed as manager of CAAAC in about 1975 when it was going down the gurgler financially. She turned that business around quick smart!

Daphne had a huge heart and was enormously brave. Her affection for the the Papunya painters attracted her to the position of PTA manager.

When the Pintupi returned to their Country at Walangurru, Daphne was there within a couple of weeks, supplying canvas and helping out in innumerable ways. She continued to drive those roads, commissioning masterpieces of Australian Art for more than two decades, making Papunya Tula an international success. More at home in a Toyota tray-back ute than in the city Daphne Williams worked with Gabrielle Pizzi to establish the European and USA market for Aboriginal Art.

Many Anangu will be very sorry to hear the sad news of her passing, she helped so many people.

Daphne was living at Horsham close to her son when she passed away. A remarkable woman, who avoided any public attention, Napanangka will be missed by many. She was an inspiration and there will never be anyone quite like her again. I suspect that she surprised herself with the scale of her achievement, she certainly exceeded the expectations of the men who occupied key positions.

Compassion, modesty, insight and toughness. Daphne, you were wonderful! Thank you.’

And it’s tempting to add a 2006 interview she did with another Papunya pioneer, Dick Kimber for ‘Artlink‘ magazine:

D.K. ‘Daphne, can you tell me, please, when you first arrived in Alice Springs, what the population was then, and in a brief comment, indicate how you came to know Aboriginal people at that time?’
D.W. ‘I arrived in February 1960 with my husband Kevin and one year old son Gary, and Paul was born a year later. We lived in ‘the Gap’ area of Alice Springs. All of our neighbours, with one exception, were Aborigines. We got on well with all of them. The boys went to school with Aborigines and other Australian students.’

‘The population was about five thousand to six thousand. I always wanted to work with the Aborigines, and when the job came up in 1974 for someone to do the books at the Government gallery, the Aboriginal Artists and Craftsmen’s Gallery in Todd Street, I was able to. Initially I was doing the books and the correspondence, but it was in 1976, when I became manager, that I had to go on buying trips. These were down into the ‘Pit’ lands’, the Yankantjatjarra and Pitjantjatjarra country of northern South Australia. The main places were Ernabella and Amata in those days. Hermannsburg Mission artists used to bring their own art and crafts in.’

D.K. ‘Daphne, can you tell me which parts of the country that you have most appreciated, please?’
Daphne does not initially answer my question as I had expected. ‘I used to feel nervous out on that plain’, she says, and she explains that, particularly in the hot summer weather, and when she was travelling alone, she sometimes feared the possibility of a breakdown or an accident. As Daphne said, in the 1970s and early 1980s ‘it was all dirt then’ (not bitumenised out to the Papunya turn-off as it is now), and ‘there were very few travellers in those days’. In addition, as there was almost no fencing, there was always the possibility of a suddenly galloping bullock or feral horse, hopping kangaroo or slow-flying Wedge-tailed Eagle to cause an accident.
As she observed: ‘It was a bit frightening if you broke down. I was in my fifties, then, and if I had to completely change a Toyota tyre on my own it was a hard job.’
Daphne answers my question. ‘The ranges at Papunya, they’re really beautiful’. ‘And Winbarrku and Mount Liebig’ she continues.
Winbarrku stands tall, a striking red turret of rock visible to the south where the range suddenly drops low, marking the route of Yarapirri, the great travelling snake. And there to the west are the slopes of Mount Liebig, the heavily seed-laden mulga tree branches, stacked there by the Tjukurpa Dreamtime ancestors. There can be no more beautiful mountain as one approaches from the east in the early morning light, when all is pink. And from the west, towards sunset, it is as though the heat of the day, and of aeons past, have been trapped inside. It glows like an immense amethyst.
‘I felt safe along that stretch from Papunya to those outstations, Yayayi, Yinilingi, Warruwiya, New Bore, Mount Liebig and Warren Creek.’ Daphne specifically mentions visiting Billy Stockman when he lived at Yinilingi. Several other outstations also once existed short distances off the main track, but all except Mount Liebig have been abandoned now. It is easy for a traveller to pass through the Yayayi Creek crossing without noticing any signs to tell of the hundreds of Pintupi who camped there in the mid-1970s.
‘And Ilpilli’, she continues. ‘It was a long way to Ilpilli from Warren Creek, and there was that slippery place where the mulga grows’ .
She smiles, and her eyes sparkle as she recalls that Rob Wenske, who used to drive the ration truck out west to Kintore, had once told her that, with care, they would get through despite the rain. Conditions were very greasy on the road, and Daphne was thinking about requesting Paul to slow down a bit when they reached the mulga patch, but she was too late and the vehicle instantly went into a slide and rolled over. ‘Are you alright, Daphne?’ came Paul’s concerned voice. ‘Yes, I’m alright’ responded Daphne, who was hanging upside down, held in place by her seat-belt. She laughs as she remembers how difficult it was to unbuckle the belt with her weight hanging upon it, and then laughs again at Paul’s happy memory of her next action. Daphne had made a thermos of tea, and miraculously it had remained intact. ‘Would you like a cup of tea, Paul?’, she had asked.
It has always taken a fair bit to disturb Daphne’s sense of equilibrium in the world of the Centre!
‘We used to stop at Wiyinpiri’ , she remarks. ‘And Ilpilli’ she mentions. ‘that was another place I liked. There was that little spring there.’ Daphne had visited when the main Pintupi community had shifted there in 1978-1980, and all was thriving. However, it had been largely abandoned within five years, when the majority of people moved to Kintore.

I now ask my third question:
D.K. ‘Daphne, who of the early artists do you particularly recall, please?’
Daphne’s eyes sparkle and she smiles, and mostly just names them, fondly recalling the individuality of each artist’s nature.
D.W. ‘Yala Yala, he was so quiet’, she says.
Yala Yala Gibson Tjungurayi was, as Daphne observed, one of the quietest of all of the Pintupi men, and had a distinctive style in his paintings. He was a tall, powerful man in his middle-age, and I can see him now, an entire dead mulga held high over his head, standing giant-like in among the scattered mulga as he heaved it into the back of the tray-top Toyota.
‘Shorty Lungkata.’ She pauses and thinks about him, and does the same as she names each early artist. ‘Mick Namarari, he was quiet too. Uta Uta Tjangala, he was impish. And Charlie Wutuma.’
‘And Kaapa.’ She means Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, one of the absolutely key early artists, with whom Geoff Bardon first worked. Daphne continues: ‘Kaapa was special. He used to come into the Government gallery when I was there. He had mixed with white people a lot. He was a real joker, and enjoyed a good laugh. He knew when things were hard. He came to me one time, I remember. ‘Don’t you worry, Daphne’, he said. I was very grateful for his support. He could act, make a joke of things, and make you laugh.’
She names more – Freddy West and Billy Stockman – and I know that she would name them all if she thought about it long enough. She thinks about them as happy family men, men with rights to certain country, Aboriginal Law-men, laughing friends, and sometimes, but not always, artists. And she thinks about their widows and children and, when they visit town, often cares for them.

I ask my fourth and final question, ‘What do you think are the main changes that have occurred in the art, please Daphne?’
Daphne answers the question succinctly:
D.W. ‘There are more paintings on a larger scale now. The women started painting, and the Company is self-sufficient.’
We both know that initially the art went virtually unrecognised in the 1970s, with small art board paintings the normal size. It was not until 1977, after a large commissioned canvas had been painted by Anatjari No. Three Tjakamarra, that buyer demand for large canvases became more constant. Now there would not be a gallery in Alice Springs that did not have a large canvas on display, and several more available for purchase.
Although the women had been the key artists at Ernabella from the late 1930s, it had been different at Papunya and Haasts Bluff. At these two communities, although the women had very occasionally assisted the men with some of the minor elements of the early paintings, they had first started to paint in their own right in any numbers in about 1980. I recalled the women-folk of Uta Uta Tjangala’s family assisting with the back-ground in about 1978, and Daphne and I both remembered the first very small individual paintings by Kaapa’s and Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula’s wives.
Times have certainly changed, and in some communities the women are now the key artists.
In discussing the matter of the Papunya Tula Artists Company becoming self-sufficient, Daphne mentions that the Company had required Aboriginal Arts Board support for the decade from 1971. Much as the situation had very gradually improved, it was only when Daphne took over management in 1984 that the Company became self-sufficient for the first time. There is no conceit at all in this observation, for throughout our discussion she has recalled other people with whom she has worked with regard for their abilities. However I have no doubt that her practical and good book-keeping skills, not always a strong-point with some of the previous managers, assisted her to make wise decisions.

Christopher Hodges, founding owner of Utopia Art Sydney, which continues to represent Papunya Tula, has the following assessment of Daphne:
So much to say about that lovely woman. The job she took on on 1981 and the company she handed over in 2003 were two different beasts.

The growth and stability she brought to every aspect of PTA was a result of her sensible, diligent and intelligent organisation and patience. She was respected by the artists because she respected them, encouraging them to follow their own artistic direction.

Daphne was a groundbreaking woman and her story deserves to be told. Not many women struck out into the desert on their own, camped beside their Toyota Ute, stretched canvasses at the side of the track, dealt with the artists, red-neck whitefellas, big city collectors and museum directors, did the books, ran a company, distributed funds and forged connections across the country and across the world.

When she asked me to represent PTA in 1988 I had no idea I would still be doing the job today! Daphne was a dear friend, the last time I spoke with her she was as sharp and interested as ever. Remembered well.