A bridge between two worlds: the art of Papunya Tula and the Alice Springs community

“This is an exhibition about my home, Papunya, and my law and culture, and about my youthful years, when I sat with all my dear fathers and uncles and grandfathers, and watched them as they painted the first boards and early canvases in Papunya and its camps … But it is also an exhibition about Alice Springs, the town that first saw and appreciated and loved western desert art … This exhibition is a bridge between these two worlds: a precious bridge.”

 

Alison Anderson, Papunya’s most famous daughter and now NT Minister for Indigenous Advancement and Regional Development, today added her own “unique perspective” to the exhibition of that name, mostly drawn from local private collections, that she opened at the Araluen Arts Centre. She spoke first, as always, in Pintupi-Luritja before turning to English for a moving and eloquent account of the art movement that burst forth from the western desert forty years ago and that has since had such a remarkable impact on the town, the region, the nation and beyond. (She is pictured above speaking with visitors to the show.)

 

She called on those who love the art to be happy with its “beautiful surface”, to not try “to see behind the veil”, to not delve into its “inner secrets”.

 

The Alice Springs News Online presents below the full text of her speech:-

 

This is an exhibition about my home, Papunya, and my law and culture, and about my youthful years, when I sat with all my dear fathers and uncles and grandfathers, and watched them as they painted the first boards and early canvases in Papunya and its camps. There are works here from recent years, by artists who are still among us, artists from Kintore and Kiwirrkurra.

 

But it is also an exhibition about Alice Springs, the town that first saw and appreciated and loved western desert art. These paintings you see all around you are the collections of the town, its councils and its men and women. This exhibition is a bridge between these two worlds: a precious bridge.

 

It is also a window into the past – a past I see very clearly, with the eyes of childhood. I see once more the painters from the early days, and you can walk around and see their works here on the walls, and feel something of their character, their wisdom and their grace.

 

These are the people who taught me how to live, they taught me my culture. The heart and core of every western desert man and woman is on view in these galleries. I see the first painters in my mind’s eye so clearly: Old Mick Wallangkari Tjakamarra, and Johnny Warrangkula Tjupurrula, and old Shorty Lungkata Tjungurrayi.

 

At right: Bobby West Tjurpurrula who also spoke at today’s launch, seen here with chairman  of Papunya Tula Artists, Matthew Tjapangati, at last night’s opening of the annual Pintupi show. Mr West today emphasised how the art had brought people together – Pintupi, Luritja, Anmatjere and Arrernte.

 

And I see the women artists who came later, and became famous in their turn, and have also passed away. Some of you here may have known them too, and remember them, and be able to picture them when you see their paintings here: I think of Makinti Napanangka, and Tjunkuya Napaltjarri, and Nangi Nungurrayi. How noble and elegant they were! I see them still as they were in life.

So I am filled with happiness, being here, among them, among their works, in the shadow of their memory. I am filled with joy at having known them: they were steeped in culture, they lived their culture, they were everything about it that was clean, and clear, and intelligent, and strong.

 

But I am filled with sadness, too, at the way time gathers us all up, and takes our lives, and leaves nothing but memory behind. These paintings are a supplement to memory. They turn sadness and mourning back into happiness, or they mix the two together.

 

And they would not exist without you all, without the people of Alice Springs, whose lives are bound up with the lives of western desert people. We know that, and have it in our minds.

 

These paintings were made to show you something of our world – and they would hardly exist in the tradition that now stands before us, if not for one woman. I remember Daphne Williams too, driving out on the rough, broken road to Papunya and to Kintore in her canary-yellow Toyota Hi-Lux. How much she loved the Pintupi artists! We loved her too. We still do. We thank her for all her kindness over the years.

 

This exhibition has deep meaning, it goes beyond what you see. It is the exhibition that was truly necessary to mark the 40th anniversary of Papunya Tula Artists.

 

It is a memorial, and a reminder as well.

The artists who began painting at Papunya were men of high culture. They were men with power. We young people in the settlement respected them, and feared them. We held them in awe.

 

These were the men who decided to paint the emblems of their religion. They wanted to show something of themselves to the world. But only something. The paintings were a portal, but they were also a veil, a screen. I know this, because I was there, and I remember that time very well. The men at Papunya wanted to show their culture. They wanted to show they had their culture, and it was hard, and strong, and beautiful. But they never wanted to show what lay behind the paintings.

 

For every desert man or woman with strong law and culture, each of these paintings is like a magic key. It unlocks the landscape. It unlocks song-cycles, and stories, and history, and family connections – to place, and through time. Those links are the things we are. They keep us strong. But they keep us strong because they are powerful, and secret, and hard-won. They give us our backbone.

 

The old painters only wanted to show you the beauty of their culture: not its inner depths. It is as if a western religion had a beautiful temple, and you were free to go inside it, but not to look into the secret holy books. That’s what the old artists wanted.

 

And it is what I hope for too.

 

I want to keep desert culture alive and strong, and that’s why I always say to people: don’t try to see behind the veil. Don’t try to learn what the inner secrets of the paintings are: the ceremonial secrets, the hidden meanings behind the surface stories. Don’t try, because with every single thing you discover, you weaken us, and weaken our culture. Don’t record us as if we were dying out. Just be happy with the beautiful surface. That’s what the old artists living at Papunya wanted to show, and it’s the way many of the men of the Pitjantjatjara lands think to this day.

 

And Papunya Tula has always known this. Papunya Tula has always been careful to limit the details it makes public about the stories behind the paintings that it sells. I thank them for that, from the bottom of my heart. It has always respected the wishes of the desert artists. It is my wish that art scholars and anthropologists would do the same today, and be content with the look of the art, and leave its higher meanings for us, as our strength and hope.

 

At right: Curator Stephen Williamson with visitor to the show, artist Mike Gillam. The painting between them is Children’s Necklace Story by Charlie Wartuma Tjungurrayi, 1972.

 

I would like to close by thanking the curator, Stephen [Williamson], and director, Tim [Rollason]. And all of you, for coming, and for listening to these words. And I pay my tribute to the artists who made these paintings, and to the people of Alice Springs who cared for their work.

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