Rumors that Vivien Johnson was writing a history of painting at Papunya have been reaching my ears for a long time now. When the publication of Johnson’s Lives of the Papunya Tula Painters was announced in 2008 by IAD Press, I thought at first that the dream had been realized, but I was mistaken“though not entirely disappointed by that book’s bounty. Early in 2009, I had the privilege of meeting Johnson at opening of the Icons of the Desert exhibition at Cornell University and learned that I would still have a couple of years to wait for her history.

But now, at last, there is Once Upon a Time in Papunya (University of New South Wales Press, 2010). It is art history of the first water, an anthropological and sociological inquiry, a memoir of a research project, an investigation into ethics, and a rip-snorting, edge-of-your-seat good read.

Johnson has an unparalleled record in scholarship on Aboriginal art, and in particular the art of the Western Desert. In addition to the Lives, there was the ground-breaking reference work Aboriginal Artists of the Western Desert: a biographical dictionary (Craftsman House, 1994). Her scholarly works on The Art of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri (1994) and Michael Jagamara Nelson (1997) remain the most exhaustive and authoritative monographs on individual artists of the movement ever published. There have been exhibition catalogs of substance, including Dreamings of the Desert: Aboriginal dot paintings of the Western Desert (AGSA, 1996), Copyrites: Aboriginal art in the age of reproductive technologies (Macquarie University, 1996), and Papunya Painting: out of the desert (NMA, 2007). Earlier there was Koori Art ’84 (Artspace, 1984), groundbreaking in its own way, and The Painted Dream: contemporary Aboriginal paintings from the Tim and Vivien Johnson Collection (Auckland City Art Gallery, 1990). The list goes on.

Once Upon a Time in Papunya now stands beside Fred Myers’ Painting Culture: the making of an Aboriginal high art (Duke University Press, 2003) at the head of the short list of indispensable works on contemporary Aboriginal art, with only Howard Morphy and Luke Taylor and their respective explorations of Yolngu and Kunwinjku painting to keep them company.