Like warriors of old

The Western Desert Movement had its beginnings in the use of rubbish materials on which to paint; the human agents, the painters were people rejected from a society in its esteem for its values and they were very much aware that the white authorities considered them rubbish too.

Geoffrey Bardon

Geoffrey Bardon’s Papunya: A Place Made After the Story captures a pivotal moment in the history of Australian Aboriginal art: the beginnings of the Western Desert painting movement. This movement altered the course of Australian contemporary art and changed the way Australia and the rest of the world viewed Aboriginal art and culture. James Bardon in his eulogy for his brother Geoffrey in May 2003 described this book as ‘a vast and benign planet approaching us even as I speak, so as to change the lives of all Australians forever’.

Geoffrey Bardon was a young and naïve schoolteacher who came to Papunya in 1971. Papunya was a government ration station in which indigenous people from Pintupi, Walpiri, Anmatjira Aranda and Loritja language groups had been coerced to live together. He was shocked by the despondency of the Aboriginal people and the hostility and vindictiveness of white authorities.

Bardon encouraged the children to create images based on their own culture rather than Western-style drawing, and earned the nickname Mr Patterns. His activities inspired the trust and interest of senior men, which led to a remarkable outpouring of their cultural knowledge through painting. These men were employed at Papunya to do menial tasks such as chopping wood and sweeping yards. Some had previously worked in the pastoral industry; others, such as the Pintupi, had made contact with white society only in 1960. Many of these men spoke no English. On masonite and building scraps they began to paint designs derived from ceremonial practices that revealed knowledge of their law and country.

Some 25 artists began working with Bardon, and this publication is a tribute to their achievements. Paul Carter in his introductory essay considers the publication of the documentation of these early paintings of the Papunya Tula movement as equivalent to recovering the frescoes painted by Giorgione and Titian that once graced the Grand Canal. There is no question of the cultural significance of these paintings. They were not art for art’s sake, in a Western sense, but a resolute assertion of Aboriginality.

Geoffrey Bardon has two previous publications on his time at Papunya: Aboriginal Art of the Western Desert (1979) and Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desert (1991). His latest book is distinguished by its detailed documentation of these formative years of the art movement. It includes Bardon’s field notes, annotations and analysis of the early works produced, and his commentary. It is an extraordinarily intimate account, full of the emotional energy and spiritual empathy of Bardon and the desperation and determination of these artists to express their culture.

The book shares Geoffrey Bardon’s personal archives of images of more than 500 paintings, drawings and photographs. Many of these have not been published before. The book has numerous remarkable photographs of the artists, their families and the community. There are previously unseen photographs of the painting of the murals of the Honey Ant Dreaming on the wall of the school at Papunya that reveal groups of senior men working collaboratively. This was the first major public display by the senior men for the children in the school and a great affirmation of Aboriginal cultural identity. It was a turning point in the lives of these senior men and artists.

Bardon’s personal reflections reveal that these early works were created in a harsh and desolate place. The Welfare Branch of the Federal Department of the Interior in the early 1970s considered that Aboriginal people and their culture were dying. The white administration showed little respect and often contempt for the people in the settlement. Bardon recalls senseless acts such as white people feeding kangaroo to their dogs when Aboriginal people were starving for kuka (meat). These memoirs are poignant reminders of assimilation policies.

During 18 months in the community Bardon formed a special relationship with the artists. He provided them with paints in traditional earth colours of red and yellow ochre. He systematically documented the production of the art works. This is particularly important because there was initially a lack of interest by public galleries and major collectors in the 1970s in these early works. Consequently the whereabouts of many of these works is unknown.

The recording of the stories of these paintings by Bardon was a complicated process due to language barriers and restrictions on the content of the work. The artists had to resolve issues concerning the depiction of ceremonial objects and rituals. Bardon worked through an interpreter in many instances and recorded only the aspects of the stories that the artists were willing to share. For example, Bardon commented: ‘The representation of the Wallaby and Kangaroo Dreamings are significant because of their treatment of “dangerous” material and the way the men deflected the gravity of the subject matter by joke telling and ribaldry.’ Bardon’s commentary provides insights into the debates surrounding the sharing of this cultural material.

Significantly Bardon grouped the paintings of the same dreaming together. There are images depicting Water, Fire, Spirit, Myth, Medicine, Ritual Dance, and My Country (Homeland Dreaming). The senior men also painted women’s, children’s and Bush Tucker stories. Under these categories each painting is accompanied by an explanation of its style and meaning. There is a colour image of most works as well as diagrams that indicate the meaning of the elemental forms of circle, dot and circle. In the section on the Water Dreaming there are eight versions of images of the water dreaming by Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra reproduced from Bardon’s field notes. In all there are 115 illustrated versions of the Water Dreaming. The cataloguing of the paintings emphasises the cultural significance and the collective ownership of these stories.

Initially the art market was not a catalyst for painting. The first group of paintings was taken to Alice Springs in September 1971. An intriguing aspect of this account are the details of the formation of the company Papunya Tula which was established to support and sell the artists’ work. Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri was spokesperson for the men and it was at the artists’ request that an Aboriginal organisation separate from the white administration of Papunya was established. Geoffrey Bardon ensured their wishes were followed.
Papunya Tula in Pintupi means Honey Ant Meeting Place, the name given to the company formed to support and market the art from the community. This was to be the inspiration for the establishment of many Aboriginal art centres that exist today throughout remote area Australia.

For anyone interested in Australian Aboriginal art, Papunya: A Place Made After the Story is essential reading because it brings to life the period when this art movement was born. But the book has wider application because it shares with us the resilience of Aboriginal culture. The sobering part of Geoffrey Bardon’s account is that this culture flowering occurred despite government policy. It took the courage of a young art teacher and the tenacity of senior men to empower a community that had lost hope. In the words of Bardon: ‘The rising of the painters’ spirits in 1972 was to make the painters new men, like warriors of old, and in many ways they were quite fearless about the stories they painted in the great painting room.’ This is the legacy of Papunya Tula. 

Papunya: A Place Made After the Story, Geoffrey Bardon and James Bardon.
The Miegunyah Press, 2004. isbn 0 522 85110 X, rrp $120

Jacqueline Healy is director of Bundoora Homestead Art Centre. She is undertaking a doctorate at the University of Melbourne in the marketing of Australian indigenous art from remote area communities.




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