Mutukayi: Motor cars and Papunya painting, with Vivien Johnson, John Kean, Jeremy Long and Dr Peter Thorley
Recorded at the National Museum of Australia, 2 December 2007
PETER THORLEY: Good afternoon and welcome to today’s public conversation on the role of the motor vehicle in the Western Desert art movement, being held in conjunction with the Papunya Painting: Out of the Desert exhibition on show at the National Museum of Australia from 14 December 2007 until 3 February 2008.
Why motor cars? In putting this exhibition together we tried as much as possible to ground the paintings in a broader cultural context to try to get people to look through the paintings to the culture behind them. The role that vehicles have played in the painting movement has been and is a central one, as you will hear from today’s speakers, all of whom have worked at one time or another with the artists featured in the exhibition.
Jeremy Long has had a very distinguished career in Aboriginal administration as well as in writing and research. He was a field and research officer with the Northern Territory administration in the 1950s and 1960s and, for many of the artists in the exhibition, he was the first white man that they ever met.
Vivien Johnson has been researching the history of the Western Desert art for almost 30 years; and, as well as her many academic achievements, she is the curator of the Papunya Painting exhibition.
John Kean currently works for Museum Victoria as a producer. He was an art adviser for Papunya Tula from 1977 to 1979 and then later worked as a health administrator at Kintore, when that community was established in the early 1980s, where he worked until 1985.
I entered the scene just after that and was a resident of Kintore for four years where I worked with the Northern Territory Education Department.
We are going to start off today with a film that was shot by Ian Dunlop. The time is 1974. The place is Yayayi, a small Pintupi community about 30 kilometres from Papunya. It was a break-away community that was established for Pintupi people. This was before the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 was passed. It was actually a stage for Pintupi in their subsequent movement after the Land Rights Act was passed to establish communities in their own homelands at places like Kintore and Kiwirrkura.
PETER THORLEY: What we see in this film is local politics at work. Papunya is getting all the vehicles, Yayayi gets none. In particular, this film shows how, from very early on in the painting movement, paintings are being used to fund vehicles - a pattern that is repeated and continues to the present day.
The order of speakers will be that Vivien Johnson will introduce Jeremy Long, followed by Vivien again, and then we will have John Kean speaking. If you could hold your questions until after the three speakers have each spoken, we will then open it up for discussion.
VIVIEN JOHNSON: Good afternoon and thank you for coming. I would like to pay my respects to the traditional owners of this land.
I once asked Clifford Possum [Tjapaltjarri] to tell me an Aboriginal joke. The only one that he told me was the story of the wild Pintupi and a Volkswagen. It went something like this: a group of wild Pintupi bought themselves a Volkswagen from one of those used car dealers who specialise in unloading defective motor cars on unsuspecting Aboriginal purchasers. They all piled into their new car and headed off back down the road to Papunya. About half way there the car broke down. Everyone piled out and the driver opened the bonnet at the front of the car to see what the problem was - no engine. At this point in the story Clifford would exaggeratedly feign the terror of the wild Pintupi gathered around the empty boot and then laugh like crazy. Mamu meaning ‘devil car’, they said. In a lather of fear they pushed the car off the road and out into the middle of a nearby clay pan where they set fire to it and burnt it to the ground. He recounted this tale with great hilarity on a number of occasions, although whether it was the story itself or my discomfiture at not knowing whether or not to laugh with him that amused him, I was never sure. It was okay for Clifford to laugh. He was not only laughing at the unsophisticated Pintupi who didn’t know enough about cars to know that Volkswagens have the engine in the back, he was also laughing at himself, perhaps at the memory of his own moments of terror and vertigo when first faced with the white man’s world - the experience his country men and women have called the ‘running trees’.
This is an appropriate point to hand over to Jeremy whose contribution to this afternoon’s exploration of the relationship between cars, art and the desert is not so much about the cars or trucks as the roads on which they travelled, and the men who made them and first used them. Neither the Indigenous car culture nor the art movement nor much else in the recent history of central Australia would have been possible without them.
JEREMY LONG: Thank you, Vivien, and good afternoon all. I am talking about roads - principally one road. Motor cars do like roads. [shows slide of map of Beadell road] The road about which I will be primarily speaking is the road which leads to the land where the wild Pintupi dwelt and now dwell again. To the east is largely the settled area of central Australia and the rest of the map is areas unsettled by white people and rarely visited by white people until this road system was put in for the purposes of the Weapons Research Establishment at Woomera. The area to the right is a settled area inhabited by many Aboriginal people who were living on government settlements or in town with very little money and where virtually nobody, except Albert Namatjira, was the owner of a motor vehicle. Motor vehicles were fairly rare in the white population, except the public servants who had government cars to drive around in. Several Aboriginal people working on the settlements had driving licences and were driving government trucks and four-wheel drives.
To return to the trucks and the people who made the road, there is a picture of a burnt-out food truck that had been supplying Len Beadell and his road building team from the Weapons Research Establishment based at Woomera. In 1960 his team had built a road up north from the Giles weather station in the south, past the Kintore Range and then east to Mount Liebig and west well into the desert to a place later known as Jupiter Well. On the way back, after their grader broke down, their truck caught fire, burnt all their food supplies and was left there. It has since been moved to stand as a memorial in the nearby Aboriginal community of Kiwirrkura, but for some 40 years it was there to record the work of the road builders. It marked the end of the first stage of the northern road system built by Len Beadell, who is shown surveying ahead his next line of road.
Later, in 1963, he connected these roads to the Western Australian road system. This greatly enlarged the scope of the patrol officers who were based at Woomera and whose job was to ensure that the activities of the Weapons Research Establishment didn’t interfere with Aboriginal life. Of course, this road making project had a profound influence on Aboriginal life.
Before the road was made a notional system of roads, human tracks and camel tracks had existed between the uninhabited country and the inhabited areas. The people from the west had been moving gradually in towards the settled areas out of curiosity and interest, sometimes where their relatives had already gone, and occasional white people visiting with camel trains or trucks had penetrated at least to the margins of the area. They were either looking for better country or for gold – [Harold] Lasseter’s search party included.
Several parties came out in 1930. It was possible to see occasionally some of these tracks in 1957 when I first went out with a Welfare Branch patrol from the Northern Territory administration, guided by two men who had been away from their country for at least 20 years. We moved out from Haasts Bluff through Ilpili to Kintore and beyond. This took about four days for a journey that today takes a few hours. In part this was in response to a visit of about 30 people from the west who arrived at Haasts Bluff from the Kintore Range. These people had come in response to a visit by a party, including Charlie Tarawa, who had gone out with camels to hunt for dingo puppies, because you could get a pound for every dingo scalp you traded in to the police. This party met their relations out across the Western Australian border and spoke highly of the attractions of the Haasts Bluff settlement where rations were available to people who would work, and everyone could get a job. The response was that they were quite keen, and a fairly large party set off. At a point near Ilpili in the Ehrenberg Ranges some of them decided it was all too far and too difficult in hot November; they turned back and lodged some of their unwanted belongings at that point, while the rest of the party of some 30-plus people moved on to Haasts Bluff.
Three years after my visit, when we encountered one small family just over the Western Australian border, another party from the Welfare Branch went out in 1960 to see if there was anyone living in the area. While they found nobody, they were surprised to find a road which had been built that year. Nobody in the Northern Territory knew that this road was being constructed. They used it to drive south to Giles and on the way met what was perhaps one of the first parties making use of the road, a mineral exploration team from the Bureau of Mineral Resources.
Beadell’s party had not actually met any Aboriginal people - not surprisingly, because they would have made a great deal of noise and presented a fairly frightening spectacle with their bulldozer and grader. The year after the road was completed, the purpose for which it had been built was pursued by a party of surveyors who were improving the map of Australia so that the Weapons Research Establishment would know where they were firing their rockets towards the north-west from Woomera. They erected trig points on all the small hills and features like Winparrku (Mount Webb), which Beadell had been at pains to drive his road past.
The following year I persuaded the administration that I should go out again and see if there were any signs of people along the road and if there had been any consequences from the surveyors having been out there, because it was clear that the survey parties had had some contact with the people out there. We weren’t far over the border before these small boys stopped the Land Rover in our party by running onto the road. Their father and uncle joined them and guided us into their camp nearby. We continued to visit these people over the next three years.
One feature of our journeys was to always make a point of visiting an area well to the west where we found a curious species of acacia, which was almost a ready-made spear. Our vehicles were always laden with heaps of spears which could be taken back to Papunya as a useful trade item.
Without going into detail of all the following visits, the consequence of all these friendly encounters between the people still living in the desert and their relatives from the east who had moved earlier was that the drift in, which had halted because of the great distance that had to be covered, was resumed. Immediately after our 1962 visit, three or four of the men who walked in were taken back to rejoin their families, but they then again walked in with their families. After two years of this sort of process it was decided that there weren’t enough people living out there to provide a viable community for themselves and they all wanted to be given a lift in. This duly happened in 1964 when we went out with a truck equipped to carry people and we brought more people into Papunya.
In the following years there was not a great deal of contact with the western areas, but people longed to restore their connection with the area. From time to time the Institute of Aboriginal Studies as it was then called [now the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies], neighbour to the National Museum, provided money for researchers studying various subjects such as music and the use of stone tools. The Institute ultimately funded trips by their film unit to film ceremonies at sacred sites in the Pintupi country. The first of these was in 1969 at Yumari, which features in many important paintings; another in 1970 at Yaruyaru, a little further west; and a third at Mitukatjirri, south-east of Kintore. This was done by hiring a Pioneer bus, loading 30 eager male people onto the bus and ferrying them out 300 miles to the site where their ceremonies were performed. It was probably a great revelation to the people concerned that the government, Canberra, white people of importance, were interested in their culture and were spending apparently vast sums of money on hiring buses to travel enormous distances. Somehow it is no coincidence that the sites that were featured in these films figure largely in the paintings that began to be painted in this period shortly after the 1969 and 1970 visits. That is probably enough from me, and I will hand over to Vivien.
VIVIEN JOHNSON: That is a perfect point of entry to this next part of my talk as I was intending to show you a few short excerpts from the film Mr Patterns to illustrate a different, but in some ways more light-hearted, point about the origins of the painting movement than the one that Jeremy just made. Namely, the painting movement had its origins in the relationship between a group of men and a car based on Geoffrey Bardon’s account in Mr Patterns.
Geoffrey Bardon arrives in this blue Kombi van with his worldly possessions on board and talks about how he used to use it to take the children to the swimming pool, to take people out to get firewood, to take the men hunting and to take them down to the airstrip to teach them how to drive, which was a very important part. These exchanges centred around this car of his. The access he gave the men - many of them weren’t artists then - to this car with the way the bond formed between them in many ways was just as important to them as the art materials he then soon began to supply them with. It was also this Kombi that he loaded up with all the paintings and took them into Alice Springs where he made those first sales which had such an impact on the artists.
Back to Clifford Possum for the moment, like the accomplished storyteller he was, Clifford told the tale of the wild Pintupi and the Volkswagen as if it had already happened. The question for us today is: how would the wild Pintupi have got the money to buy themselves a car? The only possible answer is from the sale of paintings. It is unlikely they excelled at card playing, which was another popular way for people to amass enough money, through winning at cards, to be able to afford a vehicle. Of course, everyone who lost money in the card game was entitled to ride in your car, too, which may explain why Aboriginal cars plying the back roads of central Australia have their tail gates scraping the dirt, so laden are they with passengers.
Apart from winning at cards there were other ways in the 1970s to get your hands on enough money to buy a car, but they were mostly illegal. For instance, it was rumoured among the white settlement staff that Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, the first chairman of Papunya Tula Artists, used to fund car purchases from money made with grog running. Certainly, Kaapa became the prime mover when the painting movement came along, offering a less risky and potentially far more lucrative income stream. Remember that he took out the 1971 Caltex Art Award right at the beginning of the movement while the Papunya school mural was being painted. The prize money in itself was enough to buy a set of wheels. For the purposes of this analysis we might take the liberty of extrapolating from Geoffrey Bardon’s testimonial to Kaapa and say, ‘The painting movement was built around this man’s incredible ability to paint and his indomitable will to car ownership.’
Jeremy has already mentioned Albert Namatjira. I wanted to balance out the emphasis that is often placed in discussions about the beginnings of Papunya Tula on the Pintupi, by talking about the connection between Kaapa and Namatjira and his school of water colourists. It was Namatjira who introduced the vocation of artist to Aboriginal central Australia and in particular to men like Kaapa and his cousins Tim Leura, Clifford Possum and Billy Stockman. Clifford Possum once told me that he, Kaapa and Tim Leura had been painting before Geoffrey Bardon arrived in Papunya at the beginning of the 1971 school year.
One very significant thing about Namatjira, as Jeremy observed, is that he owned a car, which in itself was testimony to the value of this vocation of artist. Images show the famous Namatjira car given to Albert in the 1940s by Ampol, and other cars he was able to buy as time went on. The movement involved the coming together of people like Kaapa and his cousins, who had come from this experience of observing the Hermannsburg school of water colourists, their activities as artists and the respect and income it had brought them along with the motor cars, and of course the wild Pintupi – though we should stop calling them that. That was a way that people, who were themselves Indigenous and who had been wild Anmatyerr or wild Warlpiri or something, felt able to refer to people who had recently come in with all the strength of lived experience of country and the traditional way of life of the Western Desert peoples. Perhaps what united them, for argument sake, was the dream of car ownership.
Car fever was behind the pressure on Peter Fannin, who followed Geoffrey Bardon as inaugural manager of Papunya Tula Artists, to increase the scale of the paintings. For one thing, you had to get all the money to buy the car in one hit. If you only got small amounts they were quickly expended on consumables. So it was very important to have a large painting so that you could get a lot of money at once and then you would be able to expend it immediately on a car. John will tell you about that in a moment.
Back in early 1973 the painters were demanding ever larger boards on which to paint, so large that in the end they were a nightmare for Fannin to package and ship interstate to what meagre markets there then were for the paintings. Fannin had the idea of introducing cotton duck as a solution to his difficulties. He once told me that he had read an article about the tombs of the pharaohs in Egypt and the durability of cotton duck. He later told me some art world people had come up and suggested this solution to him. But however it came about it produced an artistic revolution in Papunya, the results of which you can see in the Papunya Painting exhibition.
I will move quickly over the role that the Aboriginal Arts Board played in making the finance available to create these very large canvases, which equated to a motor car. However, without the support of the Aboriginal Arts Board they would never have been able to put so much of the company’s meagre resources in what were at that time virtually unsaleable objects. But in retrospect these very large canvases - these mutukayi ones, as they used to refer to them - were one of the great artistic and cultural achievements of the first decade of Papunya painting.
They also had political ramifications. I will stop at this point and let John describe this era that followed the passing of the 1976 land rights legislation. I will conclude with a quotation, again from Charlie Tarawa who seems to be quite vocal in this discussion and who said of these very large paintings and of the importance of the painting movement in general, ‘If I don’t paint this story, some white fella might come and steal my country.’ This was a dimension of at least Charlie Tarawa’s understanding of the social and political context in which the paintings of the late 1970s were created.
JOHN KEAN: I would like to pay my respects to the Indigenous people of the Canberra area and also to the artists that I was fortunate enough to work with at Papunya. It was the formative experience of my working life and, as a result of that, I am invited to opportunities like the exhibition here. It’s been a fantastic experience for me, though tinged with sadness and comic events as life in the desert always is.
As Vivien indicates, I have called this canvas ‘Mutukayi’ [shows image] because there is a direct equivalence between canvas and motor cars. I will tell you a few stories that amplify and explore that relationship. This is a motor car one: a 12 feet by 10 feet canvas by Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi; another motor car, again a 12 feet by 10 feet painting by Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula. These were standard stretches painted in turn as we had a limited number of stretchers assembled at the artists’ camp.
This is a story about the cars that were purchased for these paintings. I will go into specific detail about which cars were purchased for which paintings later on. The other cars in the story are the cars of the art advisers. When I arrived in Papunya first in January 1977, the Papunya car was an incredibly muscular and tough looking Ford F100. It had rugged good looks, kind of like a Mustang but with much better load carrying capacity. It could carry either a whole lot of rolled-up canvas or up to about 12 people with the tail gate dragging along the dirt.
When I arrived at Papunya I was 22 years old at the time and didn’t have a driver’s licence and to take on the job as art adviser I had to get my licence. Soon after I took on the job I made the same mistake that seemed part of the tradition of art advisers at Papunya of rolling the vehicle. Unlike other advisers like Peter Fannin and Dick Kimber who have had the same kind of upside down experience in the desert, there is no excuse for my mistake other than my youth, inexperience and stupidity. After that I drove that F100 much more carefully.
When that car got taken in to Alice Springs to be panel beaten, Dick Kimber, a white fella who spans the whole history of Papunya Tula and who is referred to in films, loaned me his Holden HK so that I was still able to get around and fulfil the business. That was a really reliable car. Everyone had seen Dick go out to Papunya and drive around Alice Springs for years, making his morning trip to the post office in his car. Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri so admired the reliability of this car that, when I returned it to Dick, he insisted that he would purchase it for a very reasonable price. I couldn’t resist putting this painting in [shows image] because I think it is absolutely sublime. It has characteristics of Tim’s personality, his subtlety and his capacity to engage with all the European art advisers and other European people involved with the art movement at that time and to charm them to an extent that they would sell their car to them at a very low price.
The next person I will talk about is Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi, who in many ways was the most powerful person in Papunya at that time. He was the most feared by the eastern dwellers, the non-Pintupi. He was a ngangkari, a traditional healer, and his paintings convey this extraordinary expanding power. They start with little oval circles and expand out in amazing ways to fill the canvas and go beyond into what’s an infinite space really. He produced a large painting as one of a series of five motor car size canvases on commission for the Paris embassy. Shorty Lungkarta produced the painting at Waruwiya, which is even further west out towards the end of the MacDonnell Ranges, and hopped into the F100 with some of his sons and other young men. They went into Alice Springs and went to the car yards just to the north of town. By this stage Lungkarta was getting quite anxious because he was unfamiliar with Alice Springs. He just wanted to get a car and get out of town. He saw this one and said, ‘It’s got a lot of room for the family,’ and it also fitted his other criterion of being under $1000, which is what he got for the painting. John Tjapaltjarri got in the driver’s seat, Lungkarta was in the passenger seat, and they took off out of the car yard. If any of you have been to Alice Springs you may know those curvy roads going north out of town. The car didn’t even make it out of those hills before it broke down. So everyone waited there on the side of the road until they could get a lift back into Alice Springs. Then they got the used car dealer to take them back to try to fix up this car so it could move again. By the time they got back up there someone had stripped all the wheels off the car and it was just sitting there. So Lungkarta for all his power gave up and went back out to Warrawea with nothing but regret.
Uta Uta Tjangala was another man of extraordinary power. He is the owner of the site Yumari, which is the feature of the first big painting in the Papunya Painting exhibition. Yumari is the site that Jeremy talked about where people went out to make the film. Uta Uta made a couple of big canvases and somehow kept hold of that money to go into town. He bought a car from the same sharks just north of town and again he took off full of optimism back to the outstation. He got a bit further but didn’t get quite to the turnoff to the dirt road that runs to Papunya and Yuendumu. He went back into town to try to get assistance with this car. He then stayed with his family who was living close by. Although he was never a drinking man, on this particular night he got really drunk. He ended up going into town and knocking on the door of an apartment. Inside the apartment there was a group of young cadet policemen who had been drinking for hours in their apartment. They opened the door and there was this drunken old Aboriginal fellow there. They couldn’t understand a word he was saying. Uta Uta was a most insistent man. The policemen started to manhandle him out, and he resisted. They started punching him, so he picked up his knife and slashed out at them and cut into one or two of these young policemen. He ended up getting taken to the police station and then carted off to the ‘monkey house’ where he was locked up for a few days until he went to court. A couple of years ago I ran into the judge of that case who recalled the events really clearly and told me that he ended up dismissing the case as it was a classic case of cultural misunderstanding.
Another more optimistic story is one of Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula who bought a fantastic car, a fawn colour Holden HR, with the money from another large canvas. He used that car reliably over quite a few months to go back to Kungkayunti, which was maybe 100 kilometres west in sandhill country. That is the perfect story of what secondhand cars should do in the desert. It rarely works out like that. The company car, a Toyota Land Cruiser, was big, powerful and very reliable. It could go anywhere. As we all know, Toyotas have become the car of choice in the desert. You could get yourself out of any tricky situation and it had a big load carrying capacity, so it could do everything that was required of a car out there. It took Johnny Warangkula and a party of people out to Tjikarri, his ancestral place, visiting a place near Tjunti on the way. We were going to see paintings at Warangkula’s cave site at Tjikarri. Warangkula went back after about 40 years and made his outstation at Ilpili on the edge of his traditional country. Eventually he got a car similar to this panel van. In a way having a car broke up that harmony that he had got at Ilpili because it meant he could run backwards and forwards into town. Warangkula did like a drink and, after sitting out there for a couple of weeks, he felt like going into town.
Those are the stories. It’s a story of equivalence where paintings and the cars have this capacity to go back to country to provide independence but also to lead to entanglement. Later on the stories became conflated with a car that starred in the Bush Mechanics TV show, where the painting has become the car and the car is the painting.
VIVIEN JOHNSON: I wanted to wrap up by book-ending my contribution with that extraordinary car from somewhere between 1899 and 1928 in Arnhem Land, which is even before the commercial bark painting movement developed. It is quite an enigma which I found by accident and which I intend to explore further. It came up on Google when I typed in ‘Aboriginal art car’ looking for Michael Nelson Tjakamarra’s original BMW art car.
I would take a little bit out of what John said to say that this access to motor vehicles, which the success of the art movement has made possible, moving from the kind of vehicles that John was talking about to nowadays, the word on everyone’s lips is not ‘mutukayi one’ but ‘Toyota’. It is the same kind of thing, except that people now get further than the hills outside Alice Springs or the Tanami Road turnoff. They go all over the place. They go to all the inter-related communities that ties of kinship require and permit. People have done studies on the mobility of people in desert communities. It is a factor of two or three for people who are well-known artists that people are in constant motion, perhaps even as much as they were in pre-contact times. This has its downsides in community breakdown and all the problems of which we are all too familiar.
But on the brighter side perhaps we might say this is also a form of Aboriginal self-determination, a kind of re-invention of the old peripatetic lifestyle funded by the proceeds of painting sales. The art car of Michael Nelson’s is a way of making this point. He Aboriginalised this icon of European motor sport by inscribing it with his title deeds under the laws of Western Desert art and culture – and note the raised fist. Charlie Tarawa would surely have approved. Thank you.
PETER THORLEY: That was a wonderful series of presentations. We have about 10 minutes for questions.
QUESTION: This is addressed to the panel. Were there other items of consumption that became not quite a source of equivalence about paintings but were highly sought as well, or did the motor car stand so much in relief in terms of ambition and economic benefits?
JOHN KEAN: The car stood out totally in relief. It was only large paintings that could get anywhere near purchasing a car. The other smaller paintings, three feet by four feet or small boards, just went into the weekly budget. Cars were way up there. Later on other consumer items of equivalent importance in that outstation movement and with people getting back to Kintore were two-way radios, though they weren’t purchased from the proceeds of cars. The Pintupi painting movement and the outstation movement were really intertwined. The paintings were one way in which the Pintupi got leverage within government to push that aspiration. Another thing they needed when they got there was a means of ready communication and two-way radios were key to that. I don’t know, maybe you could buy a cowboy hat for a small board.
QUESTION: Vivien, you mentioned the notion of ‘running trees’. I was wondering if you could tell me if there is any more direct link between the visual and experiential experience of auto mobility and its relationship to the production of art? Aside from just the size of the canvas, the purchase and the production, what are the actual visual ramifications?
VIVIEN JOHNSON: I might give John a go at answering this, too. The thing that we always say about the paintings is that they are topographical and there is an aerial perspective to them. Going back to the earlier question, even though the cars that John talked about were magnificent if you are into that sort of thing, I think it is actually about mobility. It wouldn’t matter what kind of vehicle it was in the end if it went. In the same way people do enjoy travelling further afield. I have spoken to people after their first long trip to Sydney, and they do talk about seeing the landscape like that from the air has enhanced their own painting experience. But for the moment I am drawing a blank on the motor car and the paintings. I don’t know if you have any thoughts on that, John?
JOHN KEAN: Not in the way that an experience of sitting in a motor car affects how you see the paintings. Those stripy paintings of sandhills are probably not things zooming past your eye at 100 kilometres an hour. When Pintupi people moved back to Kintore and away from the political influences of Arrernte and Luritja people in Papunya, that put them back in the social orbit that Jeremy Long was more familiar with, where some of their relatives had gone to Balgo, some had gone to Warrapunya and others had gone to Well 33 out on the Canning Stock Route. When they got back into that orbit with the artistic expressions that were emerging in Balgo, there started to be a distinctive Pintupi way of application of paint different from that very careful single dot thing that was happening at Papunya.
QUESTION: Vivien, you started to mention at one point the political aspect of the paintings in terms of title deeds. Would you like to elaborate on that?
VIVIEN JOHNSON: John didn’t really pick that up in his talk. The reference to outstations is actually a way of picking that up, although I didn’t make that connection. That passage of Charlie Tarawa is quite a well-known one - it occurs anonymously in the Charlie Tarawa retrospective catalogue, so one assumes it is him although perhaps it was someone else. It is put there as an encapsulation of a politicised view of what the Land Rights Act might have meant, where the idea of what it actually meant to people there was more about going back to country. Peter also mentioned the idea that people responded to that by saying, ‘Now that our ownership of that country is acknowledged, which we have never doubted anyway, now we want to go and live there.’ I think they always wanted to go and live there, but they felt as though there was some kind of recognition of ownership and even support from the government for that. In terms of the paintings, the other dimension was the way in which the anthropologists from the Central Land Council came out with maps and pieces of paper and were drawing up the sites for which people were responsible. That was actually a European title deed, so perhaps they drew that analogy. John, you might want to talk more about Clifford’s title deeds, for example, or anyone else’s?
JOHN KEAN: The paintings at their most essential level are a representation of country. What is great about Papunya painting in the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s is that the symbolic elements that represent the country are very explicitly painted. That is why this Papunya Painting exhibition is quite revolutionary because it will put focus back on that period where you could see the dreaming. The paintings look very much like the ceremonial stuff that was made that informed the paintings, whereas now they are all very much abstract or held back or more detailed - that kind of explicit representation isn’t there. You have the symbols. That is the country. There is an equivalence between what the painting is representing and people’s relationship to a particular site or constellation of sites.
PETER THORLEY: I think concurrently there has been a geographical location in the location of Papunya Tula itself now where the main regional centres are in Kintore and Kiwirrkura as a result of the Pintupi’s movement back into those areas and establishing communities there, and vehicles have obviously played a major role in that movement. But from looking at the exhibition and from listening to Jeremy today you get a sense that there were these distinct periods in the development. Mobility is important in people’s lives, but it played a different role at different times. The 1970s was a distinctive period in the history of the Pintupi people’s move back to their homelands with the passing of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act in 1976 and the establishment of communities further west, which ushered in a new period of painting. But in the period in which the paintings in the exhibition came together, people’s minds were very much focused, particularly those Pintupi people living at Yayayi, on getting back to their own country. Vehicles were essential for them to achieve that goal.
QUESTION: I have always had this romantic idea of artists painting because of some need to express something, and here you have the commodification of the art. I wondered whether the artists themselves saw themselves as artists who could gain a car as a result of their art expression or whether there was a more deliberateness in the purpose of creating the painting, even to the extent of giving it a name, the motor car one. Where do you see the artists on this dynamic? Were they creating this in order to get the car or were they creating art - do you know what I mean? It’s an interesting dynamic.
VIVIEN JOHNSON: Obviously with the kind of paintings we are talking about, it is not just something that someone dashed out to get a car. As I said before, it is not just about having a flash car that is an extension of your ego in the way we might think about car ownership, it is about what one can do with a car. The car is a practical thing that enables you to go to country, to support your family, to be somebody within your community who has resources that then give you a place in that community. People are engaged with the idea of artists but not in our kind of romantic way of thinking about artists. It is very much tied up with their position within the society, their cultural power and responsibilities and all of that. I showed an image of the painting of Yumari in my talk where was a heap of people all sitting around doing that. It was a sociable event but it was also a significant cultural event that was taking place. We can’t really transpose our ideas of what it means to be an artist onto these men.
JOHN KEAN: Within the artists of Papunya Tula in the 1970s there was a real spectrum of relationship to painting where you get Tim Leura experiencing in that whole emotional range that is thought to be central to European painting, but then you have mechanistic reproduction of iconic graphic elements by other artists that have nothing of that aesthetic personal response. You can’t point the needle in any particular place and say that is what it is, because there were 50 men at that time all responding in various ways.
VIVIEN JOHNSON: I don’t think the spectrum goes quite to mechanistic dotting. Each and every person is painting their dreaming and they have a strong relationship to it -
JOHN KEAN: To the meaning of the work but maybe not -
VIVIEN JOHNSON: Not in the execution of it, okay.
QUESTION: Could you just say something about the role of women in the movement at that time?
VIVIEN JOHNSON: They weren’t involved in the movement at that time, except one thing you could say is that the motor car assisted people to have these outstations which kept them away from the surveillance of the art adviser. It was in these circumstances that the apprenticeship system of the Aboriginal art movement, whereby other people assisted their husbands, uncles or grandparents or whatever on their paintings and in that way learnt how to paint. There was a time especially during Andrew Crocker’s management of Papunya Tula Artists - Andrew Crocker came after John Kean - where Andrew was very much against the idea of women even assisting on paintings, but he wasn’t always able to control what was going on at different places.
In my experience of collecting biographies of Papunya Tula artists, every single one of them, men and women, said that they learnt to paint while working alongside more senior artists. That is about the extent of women’s participation in the painting movement at this point. It was a men’s thing. There was no money. John can explain why the women weren’t painting in his time.
JOHN KEAN: There was a greater demand to paint than there was a market for the paintings so that it was hard to draw more artists in to the company. The company was owned by the original artists, and they guarded that quite jealously at that time. As soon as things opened up and there was more demand, women insisted their way in - thank God, because they have been doing a lot of the best paintings over the past two decades.
PETER THORLEY: We might have to wrap it up there. Thanks very much to the panel for sharing those fascinating insights with us.
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Date published: 8 April 2008