The Story of Papunya Tula

In Australia’s centre, some 250kms west of Alice Springs, Papunya in 1971 was known as a government reserve established to house the Pintupi, Luritja, Walpiri and Anmatyerre people after they had been displaced from their original communities.

A young, enthusiastic school teacher at the Papunya School, Geoffrey Bardon, encouraged his students to paint murals using the techniques and visual symbols they were each familiar with and had witnessed during ceremonies and rituals with their communities. Once the elders realised sacred messages were being painted by the children for all to see, they stepped in, to find Bardon encouraging them to also partake.

§ WILLY TJUNGURRAYI (born c.1930, Pintupi Language Group)
Untitled 2015
synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 91 x 61cm

After much deliberation, each elder one by one approached the wall with paint in hand. Bardon watching on described it as “quite a moment as we all observed the first hieroglyph being put on the wall lovingly and beautifully with a marvellous painting technique. Some of the men went across and touched the wall even before the paint had dried. We all stood back and watched the start of the honey ant mural.” It was here that the arts centre Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd was born; a not-for-profit cooperative fully owned and directed by the community elders.

Symbols and shapes were quickly adopted to conceal sacred messages the artists were depicting, a technique developed so that the works could be viewed by those outside the community. The introduction of dots was brought in by elders, Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, Yal Yala Gibs Tjungurrayi and Mick Namariri Tjapaltjarri, seen as an effective way of overpainting the messages while achieving an aesthetic which inadvertently became the predominant style of Central and Western Desert Art.

The distinctive style of the Papunya Tula artists has developed over the years especially with the introduction of acrylics and canvases. Many artists, after experimenting with the bright array of colours acrylic paints provided, reverted back to the colours of the earth; blacks, browns, reds and whites.

The late 1970s saw the rightful return of the area to the Indigenous people, prompting Papunya residents to move out to places such as nearby Kintore and Kiwirrkura to re-establish their communities and connection to the land. Many artists to this day are from these communities along with Papunya itself and Alice Springs.

Papunya Tula today is formally based in Alice Springs, acting as a studio and a community-established art gallery selling directly to the public and existing in all major public collections in Australia. Papunya Tula is seen by many as the catalyst for bringing indigenous art to the world.

Lucy Foster, Art Specialist

February 2021