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Between locals: Interpersonal histories and the Papunya art movement

Peter Thorley and Andy Greenslade, National Museum of Australia, 9 November 2009

PETER THORLEY: This kind of follows on from what Mike [Pickering] was talking about, about the sort of stories that attach to objects and how we develop collections. Acrylic paintings from the Western Desert have risen to prominence internationally from their humble origins at Papunya in 1971. Papunya holds a special place in the history of the contemporary Indigenous art movement as the first acrylic painting community and the company which started the movement, Papunya Tula, has remained one of the market leaders.

In this paper we want to take you back to the heady days when the acrylic painting market was still in its infancy. The market then was far smaller and much more geographically restricted than today. There was no real secondary market as there is now, with its multitude of dealers, auction houses, internet suppliers and so on, all cashing in on the trade. Buyers were not investors, and the paintings could be bought for prices very much below what they bring today. You might detect a hint of nostalgia here for the 1970s but, let’s face it, if you weren’t alive in the 1970s you haven’t lived. [laughter] Something else which appeals about the early market is that its history can be told – and I apologise to any Gen-X people who might be in the audience –

MAN IN AUDIENCE: Who cares about them? [laughter]

PETER THORLEY: Something else which appeals about the early market is that its history can be told inter-subjectively; that is, in terms of relationships between actual people. Geoff Bardon, for example, records in some detail his own relationships with a number of men who were founders of the movement, and these documents give us great insight into how the movement started. Bardin also documented the iconography of the paintings, a practice which continued and became part of the standard market packaging. This has allowed people who otherwise have no relationship with the artist to gain an appreciation, although a very superficial one, of the artist’s dreaming and connection to country.

But there’s another important story to tell which doesn’t usually come with a painting when it’s bought through a commercial vendor. This is the behind-the-scenes story about the circumstances under which the paintings were bought and sold. These are stories of power and agency, but also of close friendships and trusted relationships.

As a history museum, we are particularly interested in the way paintings embody social processes. But this kind of information is often difficult to access when paintings are bought through the usual market outlets. And when seeking this information, we can also find ourselves at odds with the way paintings are marketed as fine art, which for example values individual talent over collaboration. But from the very beginning, collaboration has been very much central to the whole process, and not just collaborations between artists but also between artists and buyers, which is what we’re particularly interested in here.

The act of acquisition is a key moment in the history of an object. But as paintings pass through long and increasingly complex chains, we often lose sight of these important formative moments. Here we want to show the potential of what we’re calling interpersonal histories for elucidating art market dynamics. In particular, we want to show how artists were active in establishing and maintaining valued relationships through which they were able to exchange paintings for cash and other desirable items. The sale of paintings cemented relationships with whitefellas who became, in a sense, owned. The relationships were investments and were quarantined from others, and later on Andy [Greenslade] will give an example of this.

Our emphasis on inter-subjectivity sits well with this Museum’s approach to history through personal stories and experiences. You can see this in all the Museum’s galleries, such as the Eternity Gallery, which is very much about people’s lives and emotions. So we try to bring a similar kind of emphasis to our Indigenous collections.

Yet Indigenous collections represent a special kind of challenge. For most buyers of Indigenous art, the purchase of objects is a mediated contact or a substitute for an actual experience. They rarely get to meet an artist, let alone develop any sort of relationship.

In a similar way, people who come to the Museum can have an encounter with Indigenous culture through its collections. And so one of the challenges for us as a museum, in a world where communication is increasingly mediated, is incorporating a sense of the personal and interpersonal into our exhibitions. So in developing our collections of early Papunya painting material, the NMA has been actively seeking works which illustrate these kinds of stories.

The market for Aboriginal products in Central Australia developed after the completion of the railway from Oodnadatta [in South Australia] to Alice Springs [in the Northern Territory] in 1929. The trade was built initially around woodcarvings, with the watercolour painting movement emerging at Hermannsburg in the late 1930s, both of which had an influence on the 1970s Papunya painting movement.

Papunya was established as a welfare settlement in the late 1950s. When Geoff Bardon arrived there in 1971, there were already established artists and carvers who were familiar with the market and the sale of artefacts to non-Indigenous residents of the settlements and towns and also to passersby. As a result of Bardon’s collaboration, though, a new product emerged.

By the 1980s acrylic paintings had replaced wooden artefacts as the primary source of income for Aboriginal artists in Papunya. In 1986 when I came to work at Kintore, which was set up as an outstation from Papunya, paintings were pretty much out of my price range. In the four years that I lived in that community I bought a single painting. On the other hand, people in the community were very keen to sell me wooden artefacts and I ended up acquiring quite a collection of these, which I didn’t particularly set out to acquire. In a way, the Pintupi settlement made me a collector. This local economy based around wooden artefacts, I might add, has been a significant income-spinner for women artists, who at that time were not represented by Papunya Tula.

During the 1970s, before Kintore existed as a community, while Papunya Tula and the Aboriginal Arts Board bought and commissioned canvases another economy operated at Papunya, between locals, where artists sold to non-Indigenous residents with whom they worked and interacted on a daily basis. This was in addition to the tourist market, when people brought works into town to sell, or painted while they were in town and sold basically to whoever would buy them. This would generate encounters between painters and buyers, though generally these encounters were quite brief. Although not wanting to dismiss the significance of the tourist sales, today we want to focus on exchanges ‘between locals’, as we have put it. I’ll now pass to Andy, who will give an example of one of these exchanges between Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, an important artist in the early history of the painting movement, and the relationship he developed with a non-Indigenous buyer, Gwen Daniels, who worked at Papunya from 1976.

ANDY GREENSLADE: Thanks, Peter. Perhaps before we talk about Gwen Daniels, you might just like to have a look very briefly at some of the works by Kaapa Tjamptijinpa that are in our collection [shows images]. Firstly, here’s Kaapa working in the backyard of Gwen Daniels, working on a painting that we actually turned down, when offered. Goanna, a carving that he made; although it looks like poker work, it is in fact painted. One of his watercolours, and I think we’ve probably seen better examples of watercolours than this during the afternoon, were all painted well before Bardon came into Papunya.

We’ve recently acquired Goanna Dreaming at Mirkantji, which is an interesting one. It’s one of three paintings by Kaapa that was entered into the 1971 Caltex Art Prize. One of the other paintings that he did shared the first prize with a non-Indigenous artist. This one, however, was bought by Joe Caddy, the judge of the competition and it came to us a couple of months ago. Some sort of watercolour poster paint on board.

This is Storm Camps on the Rain Dreaming Trail which came to us through the Aboriginal Arts Board collection. Although it was collected in the 1970s, the Aboriginal Arts Board Collection came to us in 1989 or 1990, somewhere around there.

This is an untitled painting, or at least we don’t know the title. It was bought by Dr Don McMichael, the first director of the Museum in 1984. It was on exhibition at MAGNT [Museum and Gallery of the Northern Territory] at the time, and here structures were already in place by then, that McMichael, in an internal minute that we have in one of the files, I quote him, requested that George Julip seek out ‘the maximum amount of information about the provenance of the items, including information which you will, as opportunity permits, obtain from the artists themselves.’ So the link between producer, subject and buyer has been broken by this stage. And this is the painting that we’ve acquired from Gwen Daniels, Kalipinpa Storm or Rain Dreaming, and it’s the same site that a lot of those other pieces relate to.

Gwen and Owen Daniels, now both in their 80s, had gone to Papunya in one of those serendipitous combinations of events that some take as meaning that they were meant to get there. Owen had suffered a number of heart attacks and expected that he had very little time left, so they decided to use what time they did have travelling around Australia, visiting outback communities and especially Aboriginal communities. During their nomadic though not terribly grey travels, Owen’s health returned to such a degree that they decided they would re-enter the workforce. So having spent a year travelling, a job offered by the YMCA [Young Men’s Christian Association] looked appealing and Owen applied. He was accepted for the position of recreation officer for one of the Tiwi Island settlements. Owen’s role there was to provide options and activities for the youth of the community that could be an alternative to the fast-growing use of alcohol.

Before their departure north, they were contacted by the Y [YMCA] and asked to get ready to go not to Tiwi, but to Papunya, where someone had let them down for this post. They arrived at Papunya to find no facilities for them other than a house in less than perfect condition. Owen and Gwen, ever resourceful, fixed the house, then set about finding a building from which to start their recreational activities. Gwen was given some part-time work at the local women’s centre; presumably because she was a woman, because she had no training or expertise in the production of fibre or the fabric work in which the women were engaged, nor was her specialty in aesthetics.

However, at the women’s centre she met Kaapa. He often tried to gain entry to the centre, perhaps to access the resources for craft of one sort or another, so Gwen found that, by spending time with him, chatting outside the centre on the steps, Kaapa would be satisfied and leave off trying to gain access. The women inside found this rather amusing and instantly started teasing Kaapa as Gwen’s boyfriend, perhaps due to Kaapa’s well-recognised succession of wives.

Gwen’s lack of expertise in the arts and craft arenas had implications in the transactions that would take place between herself and Kaapa. She would become a collector of his work and a supporter of the wider Papunya movement, although perhaps, like my colleague Peter, she had little intention to gather examples of his paintings. What she did have that was of value, however, was faith in him and in their relationship. She found, as many before had found, that Kaapa had a magnetic personality. In trying to explore this with her, Gwen could only tell me that he charmed her and everyone else who came in contact with him. His nature shone out beyond any other men of Papunya at the time. But she also recognised that he could be a bit of a rogue, but that his character had a redeeming quality that kept Owen and Gwen true to him.

Gwen had time on her hands and she and Kaapa gradually developed a relationship of mutual advantage. Gwen recounts the moment where she understood the part of the nature of that relationship, though not as obviously as a colleague of mine who overheard her mother angrily telling an interloper to ‘Clear off, this is my whitefella.’ Johnny Warangkula had come around asking Gwen if she would buy some of his paintings, only to end up in a fight with Kaapa, who was asserting his right to have her as his, exclusively. She became aware that part of her role with Kaapa was as his broker, his ready source of purchasing power and his sponsor. He was able to use her to shield himself against other white residents of the community, who from time to time would want him to paint for them, but would want also to bargain on the price that they paid for his work.

In return, Gwen was afforded a place in the community. She was accepted in some more formal role within the structure of Papunya, and she was also expected to fulfill the duties of that role. She gained some understanding of his work and some insight into the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ he painted. And she faithfully recorded the things that Kaapa spoke of in relation to specific paintings. She also received his friendship, which she valued highly.

This period coincided with a low level of presence of Papunya Tula at Papunya. So, to all intents and purposes, in Gwen’s own understanding the Papunya Tula was not operating. There was no one representing the white organisational arm of the company in the community. She saw no one coming in to buy work, apart from the occasional traveller, and no materials were being provided for the men to paint. Apart from helping Kaapa fill in his forms to keep him in government money – tricky, as he had three wives currently, and could only state that he had one on the form – there was little that Kaapa could do within the community to raise money.

So Gwen would buy from the store in Alice [Springs] whatever materials she could that matched Kaapa’s requirements. Often, they would have fallen short of later Papunya standards, but at this period in time, she bought what she could, and this included the Frederix board here on which this painting’s been made. The background to this painting allows us to take a different view of it. It relates to a number of things. It relates to other paintings and objects related to that site, and to that Dreaming. It relates to the relationships with the Daniels, and it relates to the carving that the National Museum acquired, that you saw just a moment ago. The carvings, while essentially well regarded as secular pieces, may relate to specific sites, and to events that took place there.

Gwen and Owen loved Kaapa, and they were happy to give Kaapa the $30 to $50 he asked for each of the paintings that they bought. They didn’t question the figure. They trusted the value that Kaapa said he placed on them. And from my conversations with the couple, they didn’t really seem to relish the paintings aesthetically as much as the experience that underpinned the painting, and the transaction between themselves and Kaapa. They also seemed to value the opportunity to give him assistance, and as confirmation of this, many of the paintings she acquired are still owned by her family.

Kaapa, in return, sold them what he called ‘proper good ones story paintings,’ whereas supplying paintings through his broker for other people who he regarded with less relish, he might be really happy to sell them the other sort of painting, the ones that he termed, ‘proper shit one’. Those might, perhaps, be produced for the tourist market.

Gwen and Kaapa gave him physical care, too. They were happy to keep their freezer well stocked with meat from the local abattoir, and happy to provide him with a variety of clothes, which Kaapa was well known to enjoy.

However, there was clearly a line that Kaapa once crossed, and which still gave Gwen enormous cause to laugh as she recounted the act that counted, as far as Owen was concerned, as a bridge too far. Kaapa was going to town, so they found amongst some clothing a friend had sent them a black suit, a white shirt and a dark tie. They bought him a black hat from the store, and Owen donated a pair of Italian-made winkle pickers [pointed-toe shoes] for him. They also loaned him the use of the bathroom for him to clean himself up and get dressed in his new outfit. What Owen hadn’t intended to share with Kaapa was his last sharp razor blade, but when Kaapa emerged resplendent from the bathroom sporting a pencil-thin moustache, Owen knew that that blade had bitten the dust.

Kaapa showed consummate knowledge in the use of economic controls and mechanisms that ensured that he was involved in sophisticated commerce. The arrangement he made with Gwen and, to a lesser degree, with Owen supplied them with a ready supplementary income, and all of the benefits offered by a contemporary art centre.

Kaapa took up residence in their back yard for use as his painting studio. It afforded him space and comfort in which to concentrate on his art production. There was grass to sit on. There was shade. There was a ready source of food. There were no children or dogs to provide those additional accretions that many of the paintings bear, and there was a supply of materials, and a specific customer. Fortunately for the Museum, there was someone at home to hear the story of the painting, and to record it; to appreciate the painting, and to care for it until it could come into this collection. That the relationship was more than economics was proved some 12 or 13 years following Gwen and Owen’s eventual move to Tiwi. In 1989, when Kaapa died, his family requested that news of his death was sent to them; and the joy with which Gwen and Owen recall the man also indicates a lasting regard for him, and an emotional connection between them all. Thank you. [applause]

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Do you know how many works Gwen acquired, and were they all canvas boards, or did they also collect large works? Also, did they ever sell the works?

ANDY GREENSLADE: I couldn’t give you an actual number, but they collected many. They collected many. A lot they gave to family, and a couple they sold to friends, including the one I mentioned that you saw, the Kaapa painting. They sold that to a friend. They have sold some, and this is one that came to us. Their agent saw that we bought the Goanna Dreaming at Mirkantji, and he contacted us to see if we were interested in this one. But, yes.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: The entire collection hasn’t been photographically documented?

ANDY GREENSLADE: No, and they’re a little bit guarded about what they’ve sold, and about what they still have. They certainly have sold three or four pieces through Sotheby’s 10 or 15 years ago.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: My question’s just come out of an interest in parallel relationships that I’ve seen with people that have collected watercolours. When you actually look at the entire collection, there’s sometimes, in that instance, a story in relation to the times, the dates, the relationships, the subjects. It becomes like a collective statement rather than … obviously, you wouldn’t be able to collect all of the physical objects, but it would have been fantastic if they could have been photographed.

ANDY GREENSLADE: Yes. I think family members have the remaining pieces, and we certainly have got some information about the pieces they did sell, but yes, you’re right. It would be very interesting to see what sort of patterns emerged from them. But certainly, there was a mixture of things – large canvases, medium sized canvases, and these lower quality materials. [applause]

Date published: 29 July 2010