The Story of Contemporary First Nations’ Art: Part One

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that the following article may contain images of deceased persons.

First Nations art is one of the newest movements in the world of contemporary art, which has given impetus to the lives of their peoples. According to gallery director and art historian Rebbecca Hossack (who specialises in Indigenous Australian art) it is only since the 1930s that First Nations people have allowed the world to view their sacred art in permanent form. Hossack (2020) stated that this was an extraordinary act of generosity on their part:

“When I was born in Australia in 1955, Aboriginals were not citizens of their own country. They were wards of the state...and they were unable to travel without permission which seemed so ironic for the greatest nomadic people in the world...They were not able to own property or houses. They were not even legally responsible for their own children. There was very little understanding of their culture, and even less interest.” 

Up until the 1970s, First Nations artists mainly used watercolours. One of these artists was Albert Namatjira. Albert Namatjira was born at the Hermannsburg mission 200 kilometres north of Alice Springs. It wasn’t until Albert’s early thirties that he actually began to paint. This occurred when he began work accompanying the British watercolour painter Rex Battarbee throughout the central Australian desert. As Albert guided Rex around his beloved country, he would watch Rex as he painted the landscapes, and eventually took up watercolours himself (Rebecca Hossack, 2020).  

Albert Namatjira and Rex Battarbee. Courtesy of SBS (Gayle Quarmby), 2017.

Albert Namatjira’s “Mount Sonder, MacDonnell Ranges” 1957-59 is a watercolour painting that depicts the sacred site of Mount Sonder, which is regarded as an ancestral being. Albert’s works “usually features a beautiful white Eucalyptus gum tree against a blue background and wonderful purples and blues of the desert landscape” (Rebecca Hossack, 2020). Despite the fact that Albert wasn't granted citizenship until 1957, he achieved immense success in his lifetime. This is evident where, in 1937, he became the first Indigenous Australian to have an art exhibition in a gallery (Andrew E McNamara, 2005). He was also the first Indigenous person to be featured on a postage stamp, and had the honour of meeting the Queen during her coronation tour. Additionally, the royal family obtained a large collection of his watercolour paintings (Rebecca Hossack, 2020).

“The country in which Albert knew and painted, and the sacred sites he recorded in his watercolours was the setting of the next step in the story of contemporary Aboriginal art," Hossack (2020) told The Arts Society.

Albert Namatjira’s “Mount Sonder, MacDonnell Ranges” 1957-59. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia, 2020.

In 1967, a referendum was held to question whether First Nations people should be counted in the census as Australian citizens. The result was ‘yes,’ and thus an assimilation policy was put in place as an attempt to merge one of the world’s oldest cultures into mainstream Australian society. The government rounded up Indigenous clans from the Central and Western Deserts, and forced them into what were essentially barbed-wire encampments. This included the nomadic clans (which had different language groups and traditions) of the Pintupi, Anmatyerr, Walpiri, Arrernte, and Luritja people; all of whom felt deracinated and had to abandon their cultural traditions under threat. Papunya is one of these settlements, which is located approximately 240 kilometres northwest of Alice Springs. It was established with mainly Pintupi people from the central Australian desert.  

This was a time of turmoil and social upheaval for the First Nations people as they struggled to connect with their cultural identities in the hostile society surrounding them. It was in January 1971 that this hostile environment began to change with the arrival of Geoffrey Bardon, a Sydney based art-teacher. Rebecca Hossack (2020) recalled to The Arts Society in an interview:

“He (Geoffrey) used to ask the old men to tell him the stories of the countryside and they would sit cross-legged in the sand and they would draw with their fingers in the sand the tracks of their ancestors as they roamed the countryside, and created the world around Papunya."

The more Geoffrey learnt from the community, the more he realised that there was this rich culture that wasn’t being celebrated or acknowledged; it was being ‘replaced’ with the teachings of the European history and culture. Geoffrey was determined to make a change, and so he asked the young school children to paint a mural that related to their world. The old men of the community who spoke English approached Geoffrey and said “Why are you asking the young people? It’s the old people who know” (David Wroth, 2014). This project resulted in a great outpouring of cultural and artistic expression, and the old men from at least half a dozen different language groups worked together to create the mural. The old men established how they could express their significant stories without revealing to the public eye and non-initiated men their sacred meanings. This involved the old men carefully monitoring ancestral designs and judiciously removing sacred symbols. It was decided that the ‘Honey Ant Dreaming’ story would be appropriate to paint, seeing as it is the creator of the land around Papunya (David Wroth, 2014).

Geoffrey Bardon in front of the ‘Honey Ant Dreaming’ mural in Papunya, 1971. Courtesy of Robert Bardon and Papunya Tula Arts Pty Ltd, 2011.

This mural became the first-ever public expression of Aboriginal cultural pride. You can imagine the excitement of these proud desert men, who were once rounded up, forced to sit down and forbidden from roaming their ancestral lands (Rebecca Hossack, 2020). 

“The old men were so excited that someone was interested in their stories that they started picking up bits of builders’ debris, old bits of board, shelves; anything they could lay their hands on...and they started to paint these extraordinary paintings; these powerful images of the ancestral journeys," Hossack (2020) told The Arts Society.

The Mens' Painting Room, Papunya, 1971. Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula (middle left) painting a 'Kalinypa Water Dreaming,' with his two boomerangs in front of the board. The boomerangs are ready to be used as percussion instruments to accompany the verses of the 'Water Dreaming' song. This song is sung at intervals during the painting process. Courtesy of Michael Jensen and the National Gallery of Victoria, 2011.

Thus, we can see that the desert community of Papunya holds a special place in the story of First Nations’ contemporary art. This marked the beginnings of the Papunya Tula Desert Painting movement, which spread to other desert communities, and “awoke the world to the richness and vitality of Aboriginal artistic tradition” (Rebecca Hossack, 2020).

Check out part two of the fascinating story of the evolution of contemporary First Nations' art here.