Daphne Williams: The Solid Core

It is the 3rd October, 2006, and Daphne and I have arranged to meet at the Araluen Centre in Alice Springs for a cup of tea and an interview. Although I arrive on time by my watch, she is already there, neatly dressed and groomed, and punctual and reliable as she always is. I am privileged to have known Daphne for nearly thirty-six years now, first as a wife to her late husband Kevin, and mother to their sons Gary and Paul. Thereafter we came to know one another better, and to become friends, when she worked at the newly opened Aboriginal Artists and Craftsmen's Centre in Todd Street, Alice Springs from 1974-80, in the Papunya Council office from 1980-1981, and at Papunya Tula Artists Company Pty Ltd office in Todd Street from 1981-93 and, after a brief retirement, again from 1995-2003. She now lives an active retired life in Alice Springs.

In 1991 she was awarded the Order of Australia for her contributions to the development of the Aboriginal arts in Central Australia, and more generally for her support to Aboriginal people and their cultures. Now in her late 70s, she remains a friend to all of the Indigenous families she has known and assisted for three generations; a mentor and friendly help to the present generation of Papunya Tula workers; a much sought-after person for information about the early years of Papunya Tula art; and a respected friend to many in both Alice Springs and the wider art world.

As is customary whenever we met, we catch up on one another's news first. Much of our discussion is about meetings with Pintupi, Anmatyerre, Luritja and Warlpiri families. They are Daphne's friends. Many of them had met and visited her during the recent 'Desert Mob' exhibition of Aboriginal art, and we catch up about them as well as reflecting on the present-day artists' works. We both remember the time to 1971 when thousands of Namatjira style water-colour works depicting the natural scenery of the MacDonnell Ranges were the only Aboriginal works of art to be seen in the tourist shops in the Alice.

Now, while there is an Australia-wide development of interest in adapted forms of traditional Aboriginal art, primarily due to the work of the late Geoff Bardon in fostering the Papunya art works in 1971, we agree that a slow change is taking place in central Australian Aboriginal art. Although the 'dot paintings', with links to the mythological characters and events that shaped the landscape, still predominate in the many shops, there is an increasing interest again in a return to aspects of naturalistic depictions of specifically identifiable landscapes. The artists often have some historical event in mind, so that ancestor family members of the 1920s - 1950s, or present-day family members and friends, are quite often depicted in them. 'Not Captain Cook time', as a senior artist recently stated to me, indicating in her story that the era about which she was talking was late twentieth century, and that she had been involved in the dancing.

I mention the recent death of the most senior man at Haasts Bluff community, which I had visited three weeks ago, and the sadness in the community. Daphne has heard of it, and we are sorry at the passing of a leader and a friend. We have both been pleased to hear that the use of Opal petrol has dramatically reduced petrol-sniffing in numbers of communities, (so much so that Sid Anderson's coaching of the Papunya Aussie Rules football team has resulted in a recent Premiership in the Country Competition). Daphne comments on how nice it was to see Michael Nelson Jagamara and Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, respectively two of the most senior and highly regarded Warlpiri and Pintupi artists, when they were visiting the Alice from their home communities last week. And so it goes, for an hour or so.

During the course of the formal part of the interview I think it is fair to say that much of what we discuss requires but a word or two to bring to mind mutually shared memories of people and country. Each question, after the first, is informed by my understandings of the route west of Alice Springs that she has so often travelled – hundreds of thousands of kilometres in all – and of the Indigenous people who live there.

Dick Kimber > '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?'

Daphne Williams > '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 Gap area was so-called because it was closest to Heavitree Gap, the southern entrance to the town. Daphne names many of the families who lived there at the time, all of whose descendants remain well-known townspeople, then continues.

'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.'

We recall travels we did together, and with others, and Daphne recalls a time when she was invited to a women only ceremony west of Amata. It had been a moving experience for her.

I ask her, 'Daphne, can you tell me which parts of the country that you have most appreciated, please?'

Each of us, in our mind's eye, travels the road north on the Stuart Highway, 'the bitumen' , for some twenty kilometres, before turning west and north-west on the Tanami Beef Road, as it was called when first we travelled it. Now it is the Tanami Highway, a somewhat elevated name for a road that is far more than half dirt, and impassable after heavy rains. Mulga scrub predominates early, and then comes the open Mitchell grass of the Burt Plain on Milton Park, Amburla and Narwietooma cattle stations. Daphne does not initially answer my question as I had expected. 'I used to feel nervous out on that plain', she says.

We discuss this, 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'. Indeed, as a friend discovered when his vehicle broke down, he had to wait two days for another vehicle to come by. 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.

Even though I had been in three vehicle roll-overs on the Tanami road, I had not thought of it as had Daphne. However out on the Burt Plain, such a lovely gold in the late afternoon light of the setting sun, it would have been easy to perish if trapped in a vehicle in the height of summer, with the temperature 45-50 degrees in the shade, and not a bit of shade to be had. 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.'

We travel further on in our minds, by the country of the Red Kangaroo Dreaming to the mountain known to our deceased old friend, Wenten Rubuntja, as Urubuntja, 'the mount of fire' – Mount Hay on the maps. Next comes the dip of Charley Creek, and via the turn-off along another red road past Narwietooma and the Derwent station homestead turn-offs, and Old Mick Waco's outstation. There are nearly always red kangaroos to be seen nearby in the light mulga country, and green or yellow paddy-melons by the roadside.

We pass over the red sandhill where people like to camp to drink alcohol, and pass by the Euro (Hill Kangaroo) Dreaming hills and the sign welcoming us to Papunya, and there before us is the Honey-Ant Dreaming Hill. From the west it truly does look just like an enormous Honey Ant.

Papunya settlement, as the small town was called when first she visited it, is 240 kilometres by road west of the Alice, a steady four hour drive.

Daphne answers my question.

'The ranges at Papunya, they're really beautiful'.

Pink and mauve and shadow blue, they form a back-drop of such splendour to Papunya community, that I simply nod my head in agreement.

'And Winbarrku and Mount Liebig' she continues.

Daphne, having heard the story of such as Old Mick Tjakamarra's paintings of the ancestral travelling route, knows well the story of the Snake ancestor of Winbarrku. She tells of the time when, after the great rains of the late 1970s and a later earth tremor, one of the rock-spires of Winbarrku fractured off. The Mount Liebig people had interpreted it, Daphne explained, as occurring because, at the same time, a man of direct totemic association had died.

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, has 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.'

In our minds we have followed the dirt road west from Papunya, beside the ranges, visiting the artists at their homeland communities and outstations. Daphne specifically mentions visiting Billy Stockman when he lived at Yinilingi, and I recall the first day that people moved there, before even bush wiltjas (traditional small huts made of leafy boughs) had been built.

Several other communities 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' .

I instantly know where she means. After leaving Warren Creek, where many bean-trees grow, there is quite dense mulga scrub for a time, then the road almost imperceptibly passes from the vicinity of sizeable mounts to a red ribbon running west, and west again, between low red spinifex-covered sandhills. In the 'old days' of the late 1970s-early 1980s it was a half day's drive west of Papunya before one reached Ilpilli.

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 Paul Walsh (co-worker and driver on one run) and 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. 'It was always nice to have a break there. 'Wiyinpiri is the eastern-most granite outlier outcrop of the Ehrenberg Range complex, taking its name from the small rock-holes that are to be found there. When I tell her that I recalled visiting it with the Pintupi ceremonial leader, Tjunkata 'Nosepeg' Tjupurrula, and had visited it again only three months ago, she is interested to hear how it looks now. 'The rockholes were dry', I tell her, 'and I felt a bit sad to see some recent rubbish left there.'

'Ilpilli' she mentions. 'that was another place I liked. There was that little spring there.'

'Ilpilli' is a relatively short drive west of Wiyinpiri, and the place-name means tea-tree; all about the little spring and along the soakage creek-line that flows from it grow large tea-tree. It is the place of the 'Ice-Cold' Dreaming, where winter frosts are painfully cold in the frost pocket in the range, and for centuries was one of the main 'fall-back' waters that could be relied upon by the Pintupi in times of severe drought. 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, and the few who remained for a time then also moved. Although Pintupi and others who ask permission still occasionally visit it, feral camels are now the main inhabitants of the area.

I now ask my third question:

'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.

Some image comes into her mind, and I also remember my travels with him, including collecting firewood one dusk. 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 large 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.'

She smiles at the memory, and we discuss the four men for a time. What remarkable individuals they were! We both agree that we were privileged to know them.

'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, for I have used up much of her time now, having yarned too long before beginning my questions.
'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 discuss this a little more.

We both know that initially the art went virtually unrecognised in the early 1970s, with small art board paintings the normal size. Although a very small number of sizeable canvasses had been painted in the early 1970s, it was not until 1977, after a large commissioned canvas had been painted by Anatjari Number Three Tjakamarra, that the buyer demand for large canvasses 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 in northern South Australia 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 1981 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.

Daphne also believes that, since her commencement of associations with Aboriginal Artists and Craftsmen, and the Papunya painters, another very great change has been from almost nil to virtual universal ownership of motor vehicles. When first she arrived in the Alice motor vehicle ownership was but moderate in the total population, and the Namatjira family and other Hermannsburg watercolour artists were almost alone among mission and remote settlement Aborigines in owning cars. Indeed, camels and horses were the main forms of Aboriginal transport at Papunya in 1970 - 1972. However, the combination of Federal Government policies about various entitlements, such as pensions, child endowment and unemployment benefits, as well as the increasing sales of paintings, meant that by the late 1970s many Aborigines owned motor vehicles. As with the wider population, there have been mixed blessings as a result of this change. However, at their most positive they have assisted people to hunt and gather traditional foods, attend ceremonial gatherings and visit remote country or, conversely, to be able to drive in to Alice Springs to enjoy the 'bright lights', visit family members in hospital, and do some shopping.

Now both of us, in the main, meet the artists of Papunya, Mount Liebig, Kintore and Kiwirkurra when they visit town. As Daphne says, with a smile, 'It is nice when they stop for a bit of a chat.'

Dick Kimber is a researcher and writer on Aboriginal art and culture in Alice Springs and one of the foremost authorities on Western Desert artists.