The telling and re-telling of the Papunya Tula story ought to become more scientific and less mythical as time passes and more research is done. So it’s disappointing to read that a film called Honey Ant Dreamers – co-produced by US comedian (and serious Aboriginal art collector) Steve Martin and Warumpi-bandsman Sammy Butcher – is under way in the NT which “portrays the story of Geoffrey Bardon, a Sydney teacher who taught at the Papunya primary school in 1971, where he encouraged adults in the community to paint a mural of their honey ant dreaming. The mural’s principal artist, the entrepreneur and traditional elder Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, became instrumental in spawning an art movement that saw sacred stories that had been painted in the sand and on bodies move to canvases”.

I could have sworn that Luke Scholes in his 2017 Tjungungutja catalogue quietly debunked that Bardon myth, pointing out that painting was dynamic before Bardon even arrived in Papunya and that the Warlpiri Men’s Museum in Yundumu had opened before the school mural was ever mentioned, so its murals were undoubtedly an inspiration for both Bardon and Kaapa.

More recently, John Kean’s book, Dot, Circle and Frame goes into even more detail of the cultural thinking and artists’ agency that preceded the Papunya’s Mens Painting Room. So it was surprising to find an old hand like gallerist Christopher Hodges writing: “Suddenly, in 1971, at Warumpi (Papunya) a group of men made their first paintings on board….produced an astonishing body of work in what seemed like an instant”.

At least he didn’t suggest the art went straight on to canvas!

Perhaps Hodges was being just a little dramatic to promote the serious curatorial efforts in his current exhibition at the Drill Hall Gallery in Canberra – Pintupi Magic. And that’s a perfectly decent motive for a man who’s now made two attempts to celebrate the 50+ years since that breakthrough at Papunya while no major institution has bothered. The only other serious show tackling this task is in America – the Kluge Ruhe’s Irrititja Kuwarri Tjungu (Past & Present Together), currently to be seen at the new Australian Embassy in Washington DC.

And boy do they sell it well: “Irrititja Kuwarri Tjungu celebrates the 50th anniversary of Papunya Tula Artists, from the very first experiments of painting on scraps of board through to the epic, abstract paintings that travel the world today. It tells a story of constant artistic rejuvenation. Inspired by the sweeping ancestral landscape of the Australian desert, it is one of the world’s greatest stories of resilience, self-determination and the power of art”.

And they’ve got a great catalogue online – 70- or so paintings illustrated and very full histories and artist CVs when you click through. How else would I have learnt that Mick Namarari told Bardon a porky about his Muruntji painting in 1972. Rather than being a bush tucker ritual as the whitefellar claimed, it’s actually a nightmare in which boys rape the sleeping Snake Woman, who naturally then wreaks her revenge!

Oddly, next door in the catalogue is an Anatjari No III Tjakamarra work from 1988 also called Muruntji. It looks like a classic Tingarri Tjukurrpa mosaic painting of interlinked waterholes rather than images of violence. For either side of this core are the travels of two different ancestral women, neither of whom was raped. Mysterious – but perhaps a lesson in intercultural communications issues.

While the Kluge Ruhe show covers all the tribal groups at Papunya, Hodges concentrates only on the Pintupi. Opening the show in Canberra, one got the impression that this was less because they were the dominant art group, but because they became his friends. Indeed, the normally ironic gallerist couldn’t quite hold back the tears as he spoke of these now mostly dead friends. A moving moment.

“The Pintupi roamed the vast desert for millennia, and to survive needed to hold everything about their Country in their mind,” he explained. “Their paintings capture this holistic view of their precious land,” which required them to head west from Papunya to Country straddling the NT and WA border as soon as they had the wherewithal. Hodges claims Pintupi Way is the “most significant” exhibition Papunya Tula – the self-governing company set up by the artists in 1972 – has ever staged, providing the developmental steps in styles, from earliest to latest, even including some emerging artists.

Quite rightly dominating the entrance is Uta Uta Tjangala’s monumental Yumari (1981), which pictures Tjuntamurtu an ancestral incarnation of Tjangala, along with the Tjukurrpa tracks that he crossed and a mighty penis. This was from an era when story was everything. But the 80s would also see a trend to reducing the iconic elements lead by Ronnie Tjampitjinpa who developed a stongly linear style where dots joined into contiguous lines. Turkey Tolson took it further with his Straightening Spears works, his close dotting suggesting the shimmering heat of the fires needed to forge the spears in a desert landscape.

This could lead nowhere but the major op-art works of George Tjungurrayi, Mantua Nangala, Yakultji Napangati and Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri. Standing out for me, a Kim Napurrulla work makes her dotted lines zing with subtle colour changes. However, I am also reminded of John Carty’s put down in his recent book on the very different work of Spinifex People – “who have refused to follow other Desert artists in aestheticising their work, allowing for “cultural amnesia” in viewers”.

But Chris Hodges clearly loves this more recent Pintupi work – which dominates the catalogue; whereas my ‘steals’ would probably be the much earlier works of Charlie Tawara (his Water Snake Dreaming (1973) painted without a single snake showing), or an almost perfect Johnny Warangkula Water Dreaming where he’s clearly in the process of inventing all-over dotting.

But, talking about process, Wally Caruana’s catalogue article quotes an amazed English commentator, Timothy Morton experiencing a Yakultji artwork:
“As you come closer and begin to face the image, it begins to play, to scintillate, to disturb the field of vision. You begin to see interobjective space in which your optic nerve is entangled with objects in the painting. The painting begins to paint right in front of you, paint the space between your eyes and the canvas”.

But Caruana begins his essay recalling the elder and artist Paddy Tjangala picking up a stone in the desert, running a finger loaded with red ochre across it, and declaiming: “Make ‘im flash poor bugger”. That single aestheticising stroke had transformed the humble rock into an object laden with ancestral essence, Caruana concludes.

Hence the title of these thoughts.

It may not be Pintupi Magic, but Chris Hodges is opening another PTA exhibition in Sydney – at the SH Ervin Gallery from Saturday 9th March to Sunday 14th April. It’s called Field of Vision : Contemporary Indigenous Art and focusses on paintings by Papunya Tula Artists that have that op-art effect noted above.