Alice Springs is in party mode this weekend as Papunya Tula Artists (PTA) celebrates the 40th anniversary of its founding in 1972, just one year after Aboriginal Desert painting had started at the ‘prison camp’ that was the government settlement of Papunya.
At last the tribal leaders had given their assent for men to reveal some of the complexity of the Indigenous culture that had remained hidden from the white invaders who’d now set in train their project to assimilate remote Aborigines into the dominant society. Difference was what the newly-freed artists offered “ differences of perspective, of culture, of colour sense, of mythology and of priorities. They also offered differences of painting ground, since many of those early artworks were on any scrap of flat, transportable surface that could be found at Papunya.
Combined with the remoteness of the place, it all made the products hard to sell “ as various essays by the white pioneers of the Aboriginal art market make clear in the Araluen Art Centre catalogue for the historical show, Unique Perspectives : Papunya Tula Artists and the Alice Springs Community, which opens today. Parallel with it, the PTA’s own gallery in Todd Mall is showing off the current crop of art and artists. Next weekend, the Utopia Gallery will transport some flavours of the party down to Sydney with its own contribution to the birthday in Danks Street.
At Araluen, curator Stephen Williamson wanted to point up the connection between the art movement and its local white community in Alice Springs. So he advertised for contributions to his show “ and was overwhelmed by 300 or more offers, all of them linked to a story of its purchase, often directly from an artist. He reckons that his final selection of 80 works by 48 artists adds up to a story for this place. And Williamson mentions that he’s managed to obtain three decades of work by Timmy Payungka, and two each from Yala Yala Gibbs and Pinta Pinta Tjapaltjarri “ key men in the PTA movement. He’s also got on show Alice and Caltex Prize winners such as Kaapa Mbitjana’s Ceremony at Waru and Mick Wallangkarri’s 1972 winner.
The women “ now so prolific “ only officially came on the scene after 1996 “ and are well represented at Araluen by such familiar names as Makinti, Naata, Walangkura and Wintjiya. Intriguingly, the legendary Daphne Williams “ the name that first springs to mind when thinking of the white facilitators who helped the PTA artists to reach the world between the mid-70s and the Noughties “ reveals that both the male artist shareholders and their early male coordinators at PTA were as one in holding the women back, lest they take over!
And my own experience can add that when I bought my first Sondra Nampitjinpa painting in 1987 “ she was a pushy rebel out at Mt Leibig “ the PTA certificate was full of he’s and his’s, printed as though only men would ever paint for PTA!
Earlier, sales were almost non-existent “ with John Kean reporting that in 1978 he offered some top works including Clifford Possum’s big, complex Warluglong at the Alice Agricultural Show and failed to sell a single canvas. The Possum later auctioned for $2.4m!
But tribute is paid to Bob Edwards particularly, who moved from the SA Museum to the new Aboriginal Arts Board at the Australia Council in 1975 and set up a national sales system. He also persuaded many a government instrumentality to buy art “ DFAT donated much to bemused overseas countries! And Colin Jack-Hinton at the NT Museum was the only institution to buy anything in the 70s.
Dick Kimber “ long-involved, but only actually with PTA for a couple of years in the late 70s “ reports a key moment when Johnny Warangkula pioneered a move West out of Papunya to Ilpili and produced such joyous work reflecting his own country that all the other artists were soon following him. Daphne Williams reports on the price she paid for this, forced to tackle long journeys out to Kintore to camp, lost canvases in the fierce winds, fighting off snakes and even having the flat-bed truck she was sleeping on stolen in the night with her aboard! Demand by now was picking up for the colourful works of Clifford Possum and other Anmatyerr artists; the Pintupi, however struggled with their earthier colours and emphasis on their more public Tingari mythology.
1984 is hailed as break-through year. The new Araluen Arts Centre initiated a survey of the work of PTA artists by then living across a vast swathe of country, Papunya and Beyond, curated by Daphne Williams. Surprisingly this was the first exhibition focusing exclusively on Papunya Tula painting to be presented in Alice Springs. Also the Adelaide Arts Festival belatedly acknowledged the new movement with a major show from which paintings by Uta Uta Tjangala and Clifford Possum were acquired for state collections.
As John Kean puts it in the catalogue, 1984 marked the point at which the demand for Papunya Tula paintings came to match the artists’ formidable urge to paint.
Since then, PTA art has travelled the world despite becoming just a tad formulaic in the face of more dynamic styles hailing from the Anangu lands and Arnhemland. And the founding organisation’s Ruby anniversary is being celebrated as far away as Paris, where the Musee du quai Branly is showing the NGV’s Origins/Tjukurrtjanu exhibition.
Artist: Uta Uta Tjangala, Clifford Possum, Johnny Warangkula Tjapaltjarri, Sondra Nampitjinpa, Makinti Napanangka, Naata Nungurryi, Walangkura Napanangka, Wintjiya Napaltjarri, Timmy Payungka Tjapangati, Yala Yala Gibbs Tjungarrayi, Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa, Mick Wallangkarri,
Gallery: Araluen Centre for Arts and Entertainment ,