The Story of Contemporary First Nations’ Art: Part Two

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

As talked about in The Story of Contemporary First Nations' Art: Part One, First Nations’ art only really began in the second half of the twentieth century. To the western audience, Aboriginal paintings often appear as intricate, abstract patterns; yet to the artist they represent “something between an Ordnance Survey map, the book of Genesis, and the Good Food Guide.” Dots, stripes, circles, squiggles and blobs that seem purely decorative are in fact symbols and signs rich in meaning (Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery, 2015). 

The Papunya Tula style of painting derives from the artist’s knowledge of the traditional sand and body painting associated with ceremony (Papunya Tula Artists, 2014). The First Nation artists within this central and western desert region record every feature of their country’s landscape - both physical and mythological aspects. Although certain elements of these Dreamtime stories are common to all Aboriginals, their culture is not homogenous, and neither is the art it produces (Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery, 2015). 

Billy Stockman with his painting at Papunya. Courtesy of the Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery, 2000.

Dr Philip Batty (2011), curator for Museum Victoria speaks of Geoffrey Bardon’s passion and drive to understand Indigenous art and culture:

“he was after the big picture, what connected the painters to the land and a desire for them to express themselves through an intimate connection with men’s ritual, hallowed sites and culturally relevant art...he did not want them to paint what was secret.”

Unfortunately, Bardon’s encouragement of the visual recording of Indigenous art and stories was met with hostility and disagreement from the town administrators of Papunya. Resultantly, they did not want to provide infrastructure that supported any activities relating to the promotion of traditional Indigenous values. At this point in time, there was no interest or support in the involvement of the Indigenous people and their artworks in the commercial art world. This was due to the bureaucratic and political sensibility of the time. (Japingka Aboriginal Art, 2014). 

However, in the 1970s, the Papunya Tula Desert Art Movement coincided with the rise in the use of acrylic paints amongst artists worldwide. This meant that Bardon could supply the artists of the Papunya community with readily accessible mediums. Through Bardon’s support, he became a catalyst for unleashing a great wave of creative talent (Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery, 2000). The National Gallery of Victoria’s resident authority on Indigenous art, Judith Ryan (2011) spoke of Bardon’s contribution to this movement: 

“A catalyst is needed for all the big developments in art, and Bardon was the right person at the right time. He was not an anthropologist, but he understood art, had the right temperament and was selfless."

In 1972, the first generation of painters from Papunya successfully established their own art company, called the Papunya Tula Artists. These painters included the likes of Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra, Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa and Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula. The highly detailed and symbolically-rich style of the Papunya Tula Artists’ works have resulted in the representation of their works in major museums, public galleries, institutions and many large private collections within Australia, as well as overseas. The organisation promotes Indigenous artists, provides economic development for the communities, in which they belong, and assists them in maintaining a rich cultural heritage (Papunya Tula Artists, 2014).  

Papunya Tula Artists’ Bobby West Tjupurrula (far left), Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa and Mike Tjakamarra (far right) at the National Gallery of Victoria (2011) with curator Judith Ryan. The Papunya artists stand in front of Ronnie Tjampitjinpa’s ‘Wartunuma’ (1991). 

One of the most prolific and important artists from the Papunya Desert Painting Movement was Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri. Clifford Possum, from Anmatyerr country, painted using his traditional symbols and the journeys of the Tingari Men - revering the land for which he was responsible and a custodian. Vivien Johnson (2005) Australian sociologist, writer on Indigenous Australian art and former editor-in-chief of the Dictionary of Australian Artists Online, asserted Clifford Possum’s significance in this movement: 

“He held fast to the original vision of the Papunya Tula painters of communicating to the world the custodianship of the Western Desert people over their Dreaming narratives and places.” 

Rebecca Hossack, gallery director and art historian, recalls a memory of Clifford in 2000 creating an artwork for her private gallery. Hossack says Clifford began by painting perfect looking concentric circles, with such assuredness to his strokes, and a male and female serpent with her eggs in the centre of the canvas. The dots represent clouds drifting across the landscape, creating the illusion of a bird’s eye view, and making it look as  though you are peering through the clouds from the heavens at the Dreaming site below (Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery, 2000). Hossack (2020) highlighted:

“The true power of this painting, as with all Aboriginal paintings, is this song and the spirit that is sung into it as it is created, which makes it such a powerful force." 

Clifford Possum painting on tondo canvas in Rebecca Hossack’s living room above her gallery in Central London. Courtesy of Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery, 2000. 

As the Papunya art movement spread and prospered, it was taken up in other Indigenous communities across Australia such as at Yuendumu, Utopia, Balgo Hills, Turkey Creek, Ngukurr, Fitzroy Crossing and Haast’s Bluff. Here, art advisers started realising the cultural significance of the paintings and wanted to see aboriginal values and stories expressed in the commercial art world. In 1980, Clifford Possum’s artwork ‘Man’s Love Story’ (1978) was the Art Gallery of South Australia’s first major purchase of a Papunya Tula painting. The institution set a trend by displaying Clifford’s work alongside contemporary Australian High Art. Johnson (2005) stated:

 “By this simple act of imaginative curating…the ethnocentrism which had allowed Australian art experts to operate as though High Art and Aboriginal Art are mutually exclusive categories was exposed."

Clifford Possum’s ‘Man’s Love Story’ 1978, synthetic polymer paint on canvas. Courtesy of Art Gallery of South Australia, 1980. 

At last, after two centuries of marginalization the First Nations peoples had something that placed them at the centre of Australian life. Thus, the story of the pioneering artists of Papunya and Geoffrey Bardon was not only the start of an art movement, but it is the evidence that actions of individuals can have great impact. The Papunya art movement was a catalyst in bringing Indigenous art from being an expression of their culture, language and landscape to being a statement about the uniqueness of Australia. To the wider Australian audience, First Nations art has brought upon the idea that the Australian landscape can be experienced as something sacred and spiritual.

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