Responding to growing disquiet in central Australia, where Aboriginal artists are angry that secret cultural material contained in paintings is being exhibited internationally, NT Arts and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Alison Anderson has intervened to overturn government policy of researching and displaying several Papunya board paintings that contain sacred Aboriginal material.

The Museum and Art Gallery Northern Territory holds a number of Papunya boards that show secret cultural ceremonies. The boards, painted in the early 1970s, are some of the first works of the Western Desert art movement. They have never been on public display in the museum.

Ms Anderson told The Australian senior artists from Papunya, her home community west of Alice Springs, which is regarded as the birthplace of the Aboriginal art movement, were angry at the prospect of the paintings being shown in international galleries.

Ms Anderson – who is soon to make new appointments to the museum’s board from a shortlist that includes Aboriginal professor Marcia Langton and Darwin businesswoman Kathy Brown – lashed out at “culture vultures” intent on exploiting sensitive aspects of Aboriginal culture.

“Soon we’ll just become people without identity and people without law and culture because everybody else knows about our law and culture,” she said.

“These people (who study the sacred elements of Aboriginal art) are vultures – culture vultures,” she said. “They’re people who like to research other people’s culture because they don’t have one of their own.

“We are many clans in this nation, not all of one law, but many laws,” she said. “Some have lost that law but you cannot then take another clan’s law just so you can identify yourself as an Aboriginal. Nor can you gain Aboriginal knowledge and become indigenous through study.

“These laws we hold must be followed but kept secret. To those who want to unravel that mystery, that secretness, just for your own gain, I say – leave it alone.”