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Papunya women’s ground painting

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Papunya women’s ground painting

8 Aug 2016

Public and community view work for first time in two decades

By Peter Thorley and Lily Withycombe

A rare and beautiful example of a women’s ground painting from the Papunya art movement is the stunning centrepiece for the Streets of Papunya exhibition at the Drill Hall Gallery in Canberra until 14 August 2016.

This is the first time the painting by seven Anmatyerre, Luritja, Pintupi and Warlpiri women has been on public display since it was acquired by the National Museum of Australia in 1990.

People standing in a gallery looking at an artwork exhibiton.
The Papunya ground painting at the opening of Streets of Papunya at the Drill Hall Gallery.

Exhibition and reunion

This remarkable work was created by Topsie Napaltjarri, Yawintji (Gladys) Napanangka, Emma Nungarrayi, Wendy Napanangka, Lolene Nungarrayi, Laddi (Lottie) Nangala (Kutungula or supervisor) and Pansy Napangati.

The National Museum’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander department was delighted to help with its inclusion in Streets of Papunya: the re-invention of Papunya painting, following a request from the exhibition’s curator, Vivien Johnson.

The senior Papunya women who attended the exhibition opening, Tilau and Nellie Nangala, were overwhelmed to be reunited with this piece of their communal heritage and to remember the people it evokes. Tilau danced around the ground installation in the gallery and demonstrated the use of the ceremonial boards in various dance moves.

Vivien Johnson writes of Tilau Nangala:

… if there is one person living in Papunya today who warrants recognition as a cultural heroine, it is surely Tilau Nangala. This woman, who never attended ‘whitefella’ school, is the most learned in her community and the wider region in women’s law and culture. In her protection is the ceremonial equipment for the women’s dancing at Papunya …

Vivien Johnson, Streets of Papunya, p98.

The exhibition opening also gave National Museum Senior Curator Peter Thorley, who in a former life worked as a teacher-linguist and is familiar with Pintupi-Luritja and related central Australian dialects, the chance to interview Tilau in her own language.

Watch the film of the Streets of Papunya install and reunion

Two men holding a wooden frame containing an artwork.
The movement of the painting from the Museum’s store at Mitchell to the Drill Hall Gallery in Acton required the production of a purpose-built transport frame. The work put in by the Museum’s Conservation and Registration staff enabled the public and the community to view the ground painting for the first time in over two decades. Photo: Vivien Johnson.

Papunya painting and women artists

Papunya is one of the most famous art producing communities in Australia. In the 1970s, Papunya artists such as Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri revolutionised and redefined contemporary art in Australia producing striking acrylic paintings inspired by men’s ritual. It was not until at least two decades later, however, that women began to be recognised as artists of note producing works celebrating their own corpus of ceremonies and related ritual paraphernalia.

The ceremonial ground painting in the collection of the National Museum was commissioned to commemorate the opening of the National Aboriginal Cultural Institution (Tandanya) in South Australia. The late Kurwingie Kerry Giles facilitated its acquisition by the Museum. It now exists as a unique example of a collective women’s artwork, one of the first produced by women artists from Papunya.

Museum conservator Prue Castles installing the Papunya ground painting
Museum conservator Prue Castles installing the Papunya ground painting in at the Drill Hall Gallery. Photo: Peter Thorley.

Dreamings stories 

This ground painting is made even more special by the fact that it embodies communal ritual that has been captured in a permanent medium. Ground paintings were more normally ephemeral ritual creations, destroyed through the course of performance. In creating the work, the women ‘sang’ it into existence, recalling and celebrating three separate Dreamings at two Western Desert sites close to Papunya.

The collection is accompanied by objects and raw materials associated with the production and performative aspects of the painting, such as ceremonial dance boards and dance sticks, a ceremonial head ring, several pieces of wood, bamboo and yarn, ochres, white ochre and ochre paint, and a grinding stone.

The ground painting embodies these Dreamings stories:

The activities of Kungka Kutjarra (two women) at Kampurarrpa. In the distant past the Kungka Kutjarra were being pursued by an amorous, but for them undesirable old man, named Arrapi. The Kungka Kutjarra paused at Kampurarrpa in the Ehrenberg Ranges, collecting bush fruits and making ngalyipi (bark rope) before continuing their epic journey.

The Kuningka women. The Kuningka (native cat) women gathered at Karrinyarra (Central Mount Wedge) to perform ceremonies. The site for the ceremonies is marked on the drawing board by the kuturu, the ceremonial pole topped with pink cockatoo feathers, and the women are marked by white ‘U’ shapes.

The Kunga Tjuta (Central Mount Wedge). The women dug for Yelka (bush onion), at Karrinyarra.

Tilau Nangala and Senior Curator Peter Thorley sitting at a table which has Aboriginal artworks laid on top of it.
Tilau Nangala and Senior Curator Peter Thorley discussing ceremonial objects in the Museum collection associated with the ground painting.

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