Twenty Five Years and Beyond: Papunya Tula Painting

Curated by Doreen Mellor and Vincent Megaw Flinders University Art Museum City Gallery, Adelaide 4 September - 17 October 1999 Flinders Art Museum Campus Gallery 6 September - 22 December 1999.

Papunya Tula Artists was established in 1972 as a cooperative owned and controlled by artists and members of the predominantly Pintupi community at Papunya in the Northern Territory. And, as the saying goes, the rest is history.

Now, 27 years down the track, it is possible to view this collective model in a historical perspective and to applaud the vision that brought it into existence. Today Papunya Tula continues to prosper where other more individualistic, ad hoc enterprises folded long ago. Significantly, 'carpetbaggers', those more-often-than-not unscrupulous individual dealers who buy directly from the artists, sometimes purchasing major works for a pittance, then reselling them for a small fortune, have, by and large, been cut out of the action.

Profits from Papunya Tula are returned on a regular basis to those community members who make the art so that they can produce more work. The few non-Indigenous workers involved don't work on commission (as do the majority of commercial gallery owners), but are salaried. These non-Indigenous employees are responsible to the artists and to the communities involved (now that Papunya Tula has expanded beyond Papunya), a policy which has resulted in high levels of commitment and a modest level of grassroots, community-based economic development. In turn, the long-term successful collaboration between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians involved in Papunya Tula ought to be considered as a template for genuine reconciliation, especially because of its dual focus on relationships and economic development, that is, on both social and economic capital.

These and related issues are canvassed in a well-researched and eminently readable catalogue which accompanies this exhibition. Flinders University's Professor Vincent and Dr Ruth Megaw, who have forged long-term relationships with the Papunya Tula artists, provide us with detailed accounts of this significant history, as does Dick Kimber in his reminiscences of the period 1985-1999. Doreen Mellor focuses predominantly on the pivotal role played by non-Indigenous workers in the organization, while Geoffrey Bardon discusses the critically important contribution of the late Obed Raggett, not only to the formation of Papunya Tula, but to education more generally. The curatorial assistants, Maggie Fletcher, Allison Russell, Janis Stanton and Daphne Williams have excelled in their detailed, accurate and scholarly exegeses of the individual works on display in this timely exhibition, and Doreen Mellor and Maggie Fletcher have compiled useful biographical data on all the exhibiting artists.

Flinders University's Art Museum, in staging this exhibition across its campus and city galleries, shows works from the cooperative's earliest days alongside contemporary Papunya Tula works. As a curatorial concept this is meaningful and it works. What immediately becomes apparent is that contrary to some recent, ill-informed and poorly-researched media hyperbole suggesting a downturn in the quality of contemporary Indigenous art, today's Papunya Tula works are as well-executed, truthful and in some cases, as dazzlingly brilliant as they were when the painting movement began in the early 70s. While sadly, many of the 'Old Masters' have now passed away, a confident younger generation of artists, both women and men, has sprung up and they are breathing new life into the movement.

Singling out individual works for special consideration isn't easy. The works of the deservedly legendary Charlie Tjaruru Tjungarrayi (Watuma), who figured so prominently in the 'first generation' of Papunya Tula's acrylic artists, offer an enduring testimony to his artistic vigour and brilliance. Watuma's Pangkarlangu (1980), despite the irregularity of the hardboard on which it is painted, and moreover, despite the fact that time has faded it, remains a master work. The central subject of Watuma's work, a pangkarlangu, a supernatural creature, a big hairy ogre, with large, ungainly hands, feet and head, who feeds on human flesh, and typically has red eyes and long fang-like front teeth, is a truly grotesque creation. The pangkarlangu comes equipped with a standard third leg long, hanging genitalia that act as code for sexual excess and generally malevolent intentions, which include the stealing and even the eating of children. Under Tjungarrayi's skilled brush the pangkarlangu, who is located on a particular tract of his country, is an entirely plausible bogeyman, perhaps even having morphed from earlier meanings into a kind of metaphor for the predatory incursions of the colonizers.
Given the adaptiveness of Indigenous Australian artists and their capacity for innovation within a framework of cultural continuity, perhaps the more recent interpretations of this category pangkarlungu - such as that depicted by Watuma here - can be read as representations of this new and frightening presence, wherein old structures become infused with disturbing new meanings.

Among the contemporary works, Ray James Tjangala's restrained, stark, not-quite white and slightly asymmetrical Yunala (1999) which schematically documents the initiation journeys of the ancestral Tingari men is a compelling work. In Yunala Tjangala, son of Anatjari Tjampijinpa, one of the first painters in the Papunya Tula painting movement, uses a visual language in which he is totally fluent, to declare the continuing hegemony of the old order. That old order may have been stripped down to the most essential of its components by processes of colonization, but nevertheless it has survived, its contours are still in place. The triumphal quality in Tjangala's work reflects this.

Walangkura Napanangka's works, like that of many of Papunya's contemporary women artists, is freer in terms of composition and colour, and her 1999 renditions of Kutungka Napanangka, documenting the travels of an ancient ancestral heroine of that name, in which she deploys warm shades of orange, are exuberant odes to her 'country' situated to the far west of Alice Springs.
Narputta Nangala's Karrkurutintja (1996), a depiction of the salt lake of the same name, located on her country south of Kintore, unselfconsciously captures the three- dimensionality and fluidity of body painting. Wintjiya Napaltjarri's Watanuma, representing a ceremonial gathering of women at a claypan at Watanuma, in the extreme north west of the Northern Territory, is a work which inspires. Napaltjarri's use of muted colour, her fine sense of boundaries and 'owned' space, and her regard for the sensitivities of how significant elements of the work relate to one another, particularly the placement of the sacred ceremonial hairstring belts, make hers a germinal work.

It is clear from this exhibition that this distinguished group of artists, who in many respects have been pioneers in terms of gaining recognition for Indigenous Australian artists, both nationally and internationally, have been active and generous in transmitting their knowledge and skills to the younger generation. This augurs well for the future of Australian art. It is also one of the many good reasons why you should go and see this exhibition.