Visions Theatre, National Museum of Australia, 3 February 2008
ELISE MURPHY: Welcome to the Collecting Papunya art public program which accompanies the Papunya Painting: Out of the Desert exhibition that closes today. I would like to introduce Margo Neale, the chair for today. Margo is Principal Adviser (Indigenous) to the Director at the National Museum of Australia and a senior curator. She is also a senior research fellow at the Museum’s Centre for Historical Research and adjunct professor in the history program at the Australian Centre for Indigenous History at the Australian National University. Margo was the former Director of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program responsible for managing the opening of the Gallery of First Australians in 2001. She is co-editor of the Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture (2001) and recently curated a major international Aboriginal art exhibition, which will open on 28 February 2008 in Osaka, Japan, called Utopia: The Genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye. Over to you, Margo.
MARGO NEALE: This is the final program for the Papunya Painting: Out of the Desert exhibition which has been extremely successful. Before I proceed I would like to acknowledge that we are standing on the lands of the Ngunnawal Ngambri peoples of this region and also welcome all of you people here today. I would especially like to welcome Mr and Mrs Behan, Canberra identities who until recently ran the Chapman Gallery for some 30 years.
Today is about collecting, which also assumes marketplaces, and will focus on the Papunya Painting exhibition. I will give you a rundown on some of the responses to the exhibition. They are all positive, and even though some respondents ask a few questions, they can be answered today. We have had people, including art lecturers, flying in from Perth just to see the show. There were two couples from Sydney who came in recently and who had also heard that the Emily exhibition was opening in Japan this month. They said to their husbands, ‘Well I guess we have to go to Tokyo next,’ and the husbands said, ‘That sounds like a good idea.’
There have been other comments such as: ‘The best Aboriginal art show I have ever seen. The National Gallery of Australia could probably learn something’, or ‘Inspirational, been back five times.’ A well-known artist came here every day at 9 o’clock for inspiration. There have been heaps of comments about it being ‘well hung’ and with ‘great ambient sounds’. However some people had a bit of an issue about the sounds interfering with their contemplative moods. That is fair enough for some. Other comments have included: ‘mesmerising’, ‘breathtakingly impressive’, and so on. I congratulate all those involved, which includes our guest curator Vivien Johnson.
In the exhibition, one visitor said, ‘Professor Elkin, whose field work with Aborigines covered this period in the 1920s to the time he lectured me at the Australian School of Pacific Administration in 1966, informed me that religion was the prerogative of Aboriginal men and accordingly only the men would be aware of the secret life of the group. However, this interpretation was avoided in the section on the women’s part of the exhibition, when it was stated that ‘women were not included because of the lack of resources’, and this person thought that lessened the credibility of the show and the publication. Vivien will be able to respond to that in a moment.
Another comment was: ‘Geoffrey Bardon was not given adequate recognition for his role in creating the inspiration to paint. Without him there would not have been any art,’ which is quite a controversial statement. What it assumes is there is no Indigenous agency in it at all.
Another person who was a friend of Geoffrey Bardon talked about Geoff’s attributes and then said, ‘I was disappointed in the lack of information on Geoff Bardon. Without his work with the Aboriginal people the art movement would almost certainly not have taken place. Yet this was almost entirely overlooked in the exhibition and in the Museum book. There was only one painting from the crucial period under Geoff, and I am sure he would be hurt by this.’ These may be reasonable observations if you are not deeply involved or if you haven’t read the book very well.
This exhibition has only been open for 65 days, which is very short for a museum, particularly because it is not the average museum show. To date we have had some 700 to 1000 visitors a day, with about 50,000 visitors to date. The Museum is really pleased with that. I am particularly pleased because I have always had an issue with this border between museums of the twenty-first century and art galleries, particularly in relation to the perceived divide especially when it comes to Indigenous material that one must fit into a gallery but not into a museum environment. A blurring of the boundaries is what has happened. Museums can often give extra dimensions to the story that may not occur in a more traditional art gallery. Art galleries tend to focus on aesthetics primarily with minimal information. I think this exhibition clearly does both very well.
The National Museum of Australia collection that this exhibition draws on is unique among the many holdings of Papunya works in the country in that it covers the period from 1974 to 1981. There was no market for the Papunya works at the time when these were commissioned. What is really significant, and I hope its import has hit home, is that most of these works have not been seen by an Australian audience in the three decades since they were produced. Originally we were going to call it, ‘The lost chapter of Papunya’, or ‘The buried treasures’. That is all part of the whole story.
The interesting thing for Vivien to present in a museum context was how to avoid the old ethnographic paradigms and show Papunya art as contemporary art by giving information as well. There is this interesting dichotomy that really shouldn’t exist but does: it is more than just art; it is beyond just art.
John McDonald, an art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald, recently wrote, ‘If you ever want to see the masters of Aboriginal art then this is the exhibition to see them.’ So while over the road at the National Gallery of Australia you can see all the contemporary, young emerging artists from right across the country in the exhibition Cultural Warriors, in this exhibition you see the masters, according to McDonald.
We will talk about the nature of collecting and collections first and then we will talk about the particular collection and the history of Papunya Tula. I will introduce Vivien Johnson and Christopher Hodges to you for those who don’t know them. As far as I am concerned, they have both been colleagues for a good 15 years although they have both been committed to the Aboriginal art area for much longer than that. What is interesting about today’s conversation is that Vivien works more on the professional curatorial academic side of Aboriginal art and Christopher deals more with the industry, and he is also an artist. They are both very concerned about authenticity, ethics, appropriate protocols and treating Aboriginal artists properly.
Vivien Johnson is the co-curator of the Papunya Painting: Out of the Desert exhibition and she is the NewSouth Global Professor New Media Narratives, Indigenous Art and Culture at the University of New South Wales. She has been researching the history of Western Desert art for almost 30 years. Her monumental book, Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists, will be published by IAD Press (Alice Springs) early this year. She has also published the Dictionary of the Western Desert Artists (1994), a monograph on Michael Jagamara Nelson (1997) and The Art of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri (1994). She is editor in chief of the Dictionary of Australian Artists online project and is currently working to establish an online dictionary of urban Indigenous artists. I think there are some 5,000 urban Indigenous artists - what is the latest count?
VIVIEN JOHNSON: Those biographies are part of the Dictionary of Australian Artists as well. There are over 7,000 biographies in the Dictionary of Australian Artists at this point but that is only a beginning really.
MARGO NEALE: Vivien, if you would like to kick off with a little chat about collecting and collectors.
VIVIEN JOHNSON: I am actually a sociologist by trade. Unless anybody indicates their desire to go into why people collect things at the end of this discussion, we will move straight on to the exhibition. I would point out that the selection of works in this exhibition was determined by what was already in a collection which the Museum acquired from the Aboriginal Arts Board in 1991.
When people ask questions like, ‘why aren’t there more paintings from 1971 and 1972?’ or ‘why aren’t there more Clifford Possums?’ the answer depends on what was in the collection. The focus of this exhibition was the very large canvases, because my research on the history of Papunya Tula artists has disclosed that over this period there were very limited markets for this type of art. It was only because of the financial support of the Aboriginal Arts Board (AAB) that artworks by Papunya Tula artists were purchased during this decade. The AAB was established by the Whitlam government in 1974. The AAB commissioned really large canvases for their exhibitions program. It was a very special moment for each artist when they got their turn at the big canvas. It was called the Mutukayi, because you could get enough from the proceeds which was between $500 and $1000 depending on the quality of the canvas, to buy yourself a rundown, secondhand car. That might be the only one you got in the whole decade, unless you were lucky like Clifford Possum who got several goes at it. That is the answer to the question of why these paintings are in the exhibition.
The Aboriginal Arts Board collected paintings for the same reason I did when I first became a collector of Papunya paintings and that is because no-one else wanted them. The artists Tim Leura [Tjapaltjarri] and Billy Stockman [Tjapaltjarri] who were initially on the Aboriginal Arts Board said, ‘Don’t give us grants, buy our paintings. No-one wants them. We don’t want handouts.’ So the AAB, it being the 1970s, said, ‘Okay, if that’s what you want, that’s what we will do.’ There was none of the bureaucracy that we experience in this day and age.
In my research on how people used to hang paintings in the 1970s, I thought initially there would be a contrast between the old ethnographic model because Aboriginal art was thought to belong in museums for the most part in that era. However, they were still saying that when I went to the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1980 and said, ‘I need to talk to the director about Aboriginal art,’ meaning that they should go and buy them and they said, ‘The museum is down the road, wrong place.’ Interestingly, when I did my research I found that many of these Aboriginal Arts Board exhibitions showed an extraordinary amount of imagination and daring, because it was the 1970s.
I do not think anyone would or would want to diminish Geoffrey Bardon’s contribution to the Papunya Tula art movement. His name is virtually synonymous with this movement in the way that people like Kaapa Tjampitjinpa - who started painting in Papunya before Geoff even got there and won the art competition in Alice Springs before Geoff even knew him - was just as important. If people go away from this exhibition knowing the name of Kaapa Tjampitjinpa that would be nice. We have organised the exhibition chronologically and it is named after the people who carried this struggling enterprise throughout the 1970s, without which there wouldn’t be an art movement either - so more power to them too.
I will leave it at that – no, I must have a segue which is indicative of the way things were going with Aboriginal art at the end of the 1980s. When Christopher Hodges became involved in this movement he was a struggling artist. It wasn’t one of the topline galleries such as the Rudy Komon Art Gallery - as it would be today - who picked up the Papunya Tula Artists and said, ‘I will be the local agent.’ It wasn’t a Sydney agent for the Papunya Tula Artists. It was this artist Chris Hodges who, partly through coming to see the collection that we had amassed at our place, became inspired by and engaged with the movement. Papunya Tula is ongoing and seems as though it has always been like that, but things were very different within living memory.
MARGO NEALE: Our other famed guest is Christopher Hodges who is the Director of Utopia Art Sydney, a contemporary art gallery that exhibits Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists. The gallery has represented Papunya Tula Artists in Sydney since 1988, and the Utopia Community from 1988 to 1992 during a period of enormous development and change.
Christopher is the chair of the Melbourne Art Fair Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to the development of visual arts in Australia, and a member of the Australian Commercial Galleries Association which is dedicated to the ethical representation of artists. Christopher is also an artist who has exhibited in solo and group shows since the late 1970s, and his work is included in a number of public, private and corporate collections.
CHRISTOPHER HODGES: The first time I encountered Aboriginal art was in a museum, the Australian Museum in Sydney, and the first time I became confronted with contemporary Australian Aboriginal art was once again in the Australian Museum. I can still remember these four little paintings by Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula that were sitting in the middle of an exhibition of spears, shields and a great range of other things that were all fabulously exciting to me. I saw this funny group of paintings and thought they are something I have never seen before, they are exciting and they caught me. It was that little bit where you suddenly think, ‘Hey, this is really terrific.’
Years went by and I bumped into contemporary Aboriginal art again at the National Gallery of Australia when I saw some batiks from the Utopia community, but in Sydney there was no real place that you could see a lot of it. It was by chance, right at the beginning of 1988, that I became involved by accident with the Utopia community and from there with the Papunya community. As soon as I became involved, the first person who showed me a collection was Vivien Johnson. Vivien’s house was a treasure trove of paintings, many acquired out of loving care and concern for the artists that had made the work, many acquired because they were absolutely fantastic paintings and many acquired out of a passion for collecting. What has always interested me are collections that are made from passion. They are the ones that give me the tingle up the spine where you can walk into a house and there will be some very minor paintings, lovely works, that could hang side by side with major paintings in the National Gallery of Australia. It is that sort of collection that I am drawn to; it is the sort of collection that Vivien had.
Vivien did her work in the early 1980s. She managed to get one of the paintings that is in this exhibition, Charlie Tjapangarti’s picture, hung in a contemporary exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Perspecta, which was a breakthrough. There is also a wonderful painting by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri called Warlugulong in the Art Gallery of New South Wales collection, which wouldn’t have got there without Vivien’s passion of saying to them, ‘You have to get this picture.’ Also, if I am not incorrect, Vivien’s partner Tim priced it very low at the time it was sold to the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
VIVIEN JOHNSON: Do you want to know how much? It was for $2500. So multiply that by 1000 and you get the price of the next one he painted that went to the National Gallery of Australia in 2007 - it sold for $2.4 million.
CHRISTOPHER HODGES: To fit the exhibition into the context of collecting - the subject of today’s talk - the collection was collected by the Aboriginal Artists Agency trying to do their best in a passionate and caring way for some of their constituents. It’s an accidental collection in many ways: it was an accident that an artist, John Kean, enthusiastically provided bigger canvases to try and get the work; it was an accident that all the work got kept; it was an accident that it all got locked away; it was an accident that somebody found it again and put it back in the public arena. One of the magnificent paintings, the ‘Punkalunka man’ by Uta Uta Tjangala, was a painting that I had seen reproduced in a book but couldn’t find. Nobody knew where this painting was, and here it is.
VIVIEN JOHNSON: Do you know where it was? It was displayed in a Neiman Marcus department store in the United States for about eight years.
CHRISTOPHER HODGES: Who found it?
VIVIEN JOHNSON: The painting went to the Sao Paolo Biennale, Brazil, in 1983 and then I think it was loaned to Neiman Marcus. The representative from the Aboriginal Artists Agency hastened to assure me that it was hanging alongside Monets in suitable company, but it is a department store. Then when the Museum acquired this collection, people who had heard of this painting said, ‘Where is the Uta Uta?’ The call went out and eventually someone remembered that that is where it was.
CHRISTOPHER HODGES: It is a testament to the power of art that the pictures in this exhibition are the reason we are here, and those pictures have survived through their own integrity. That Punkalunka man picture is the jewel in the crown of the Aboriginal Arts Board collection as it conveys passion mixed with integrity.
VIVIEN JOHNSON: If I can add something to that, Chris: you said that John Kean who was an artist came along and gave people big canvases. One of the interesting things about this exhibition is that it takes the timing of when people started painting on that scale back from the late 1970s to 1974. The earliest painting in this exhibition is from March 1974, years and years before the Clifford Possum painting Warlugulong was acquired by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Peter Fannin was not an artist; he was a botanist. The push for big canvases came from the artists. They were the ones who wanted to paint them.
CHRISTOPHER HODGES: You learn something every day.
MARGO NEALE: Everyone assumed that the only things that were being painted in the desert at that time were the small boards that we all know about, but what’s really interesting is that at the same time these huge canvases were being painted - almost moonlighting and being done on the side.
VIVIEN JOHNSON: My understanding is that if you look at the auction houses, all those paintings turning the engine of the auction houses were in private hands. That is why they are being put up for auction. The public collections don’t go up for auction. There were quite a number of them that went out and were sold. But these big, exuberant, loosely-painted artworks - shall we say messy - that these artists were doing were not what people thought Aboriginal art was supposed to look like in those days. Even people from the Aboriginal Arts Board didn’t really think that was what they were supposed to look like. If those paintings had been painted 35 years later, everyone would have said, ‘wow’, but as it was at the time there were even suggestions that they be sold back to the artists.
MARGO NEALE: I bet they wouldn’t be sold back for $2 million. People might have noticed that some of those canvases from 1974 have a lot of very bright colours in them - hot pinks, blues and purples and a whole range of colours that people were not associating with the earthy colours of Aboriginal art. Did that colour selection change? Did art advisers have any sort of input into responding to a market desire for ‘earthiness’?
VIVIEN JOHNSON: There was information that went out after this early period testifying to the thrill of having a much broader palette. It was also the punk era, you know, which reminds me that the first time I ever met Kaapa Tjampitjinpa he looked like a member of the punk movement. He was wearing a suit coat that was held together with about 50 safety pins.
These paintings weren’t selling. Advice went out that people needed to be neater, more refined and use natural colours. Towards the latter part of the 1990s you do notice what is called the ‘Papunya palette’ coming in. People were still using colour but they were mixing greens by putting watery yellow ochre on a black background, which makes it look green.
MARGO NEALE: We will now open it up to questions or comments from the audience.
QUESTION: I am very interested in the nature of the things that were collected from the Australian Aboriginal Arts Board, because in the exhibition no-one talked about some of the other objects which in the past people might have classed as the ethnographic ones, the ones that you should see in the Museum. But of course a lot of those are painted with the same stories that you will see on the paintings. My question is: in this time period what would be the percentage of paintings versus painted wooden objects? Were those wooden objects also difficult to sell? Why did the Aboriginal Arts Board buy those in comparison to paintings? Were there other people collecting those and not the paintings? I am interested in that juxtaposition between what we would now consider a fine art market and more material culture objects which are still struggling to find a place in the fine art market.
VIVIEN JOHNSON: I am glad you mentioned that. The carved wooden artefacts were the bread and butter of the Aboriginal art industry during that time. It is only with the enormous success of the canvases that those objects, instead of being commonplace and more to be seen than canvases, have become a rarity and are practically not to be seen any more, especially ones of a quality that you see in this exhibition.
It is also interesting in talking about the origins of this industry and people saying ‘it wouldn’t have been there without Geoffrey Bardon,’ that the Indigenous art industry actually started a long time ago. A couple of those shields collected by Olive Pink are from 1936. They show that this wholly Indigenous initiative industry had been going for a long time before Papunya Tula started up.
In this exhibition - and from your comments maybe we haven’t quite succeeded - the idea was that these objects are three dimensional artworks even though some of them also have a practical function. I must admit that we are cheating a bit here in that some of them are not from the Aboriginal Arts Board collection. We might have to speak to Bob Edwards or someone who was involved at that time to know how much of that is the kind of material they bought because they were trying to promote the paintings. It was someone who bought a whole lot of blanks in Alice Springs and took them out to Papunya and got people to do paintings on them essentially. You can see from the signage which ones were made by the artists themselves. Even the spears were made by Papunya Tula artists. We have tried to carry that theme through so that they are just an extension of their art-making. They are supposed to be hung in a dynamic way so that you are moved beyond seeing them as material culture and just see them as something that the same artist painted. In the case next to the huge painting from John Kean’s time, there are objects by Yala Yala Tjungurrayi and Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi. You are meant to be able to go from them to the painting and work out who painted what, if you are interested in that sort of thing.
CHRISTOPHER HODGES: The marketplace and the institutions have always had problems with objects, and it is the same in the general art market. You can have a painting on a piece of canvas and another painting on a piece of paper by the same artist using the same materials on both surfaces, but the one on the canvas will sell for more money than the one on the paper. That is just a fact of the marketplace. You can find shields and coolamons which have flattish surfaces with beautiful paintings on them by the major artists, yet the marketplace looks at them as a slightly different commodity, which is nothing to do with their artistic merit. Many of them were done by the artists because they were desperate for a way of doing more art and would find an opportunity to paint anything. Clifford Possum, for example, painted on turtle shells. All sorts of opportunities arose. Many artists used that opportunity to do more. There is a beautiful carved lizard by Tim Leura. Tim and Clifford did some superb carvings at the time. I can only assume that they did them because they wanted to, at a time when they would probably have got more money for a painting - or would they have?
VIVIEN JOHNSON: That is an interesting example. In 1980, on our first visit to Papunya, Tim Leura came up to us just as we were leaving. Tim was carrying this lizard, which we always thought was called Brandy, but its name is actually Perentie. Andrew Crocker was totally dismissive of this sort of thing and said, ‘Carvings for tourists. You buy it if you want it.’ So we did buy it for $100. But it would probably have taken about ten times as long to make as a painting that you would buy for $100.
CHRISTOPHER HODGES: That’s right. It’s interesting that with some of the artists that I have seen make exquisite boomerangs, spears and things like that, the market offers them so little for that work that many of them are discouraged. However, many of the artists kept making them because they actually loved doing it. Another interesting marketplace situation occurred when I was in a shop in Alice Springs and I saw a lovely painted shield there. I asked the lady how much it was and she said it was $80. So I paid $80. Then she said, ‘Tim Leura painted that for me a long time ago.’ He had passed away by that stage and at that time a Tim Leura painting was worth thousands and thousands of dollars. It was a beautiful shield, yet she saw it as worth nothing more than the price of a shield.
QUESTION: If I could make the comment that, from what Chris and Vivien are saying, it seems that the Australian public perhaps needs a bit of educating in seeing value in something other than paint on canvas. That’s all.
QUESTION: Just following up on that, I wondered to what extent the different value placed on wooden artefacts as compared to paintings on canvas is in a sense a reflection on the dichotomy in western art between craft and fine art?
VIVIEN JOHNSON: Yes, quite so.
MARGO NEALE: It is part of the genre of the western hierarchy of value that canvas is more important than paper, which is more important than wood, which is more important than lino cuts, and so on. There is the whole western tradition and imposition of that value system and also the imposition of the idea that something in oil is better than something in water, et cetera. Then there is that whole genre that says that history painting is more important than portrait painting. All that baggage is in the marketplace because they are the people who are buying it, not the blackfellas.
CHRISTOPHER HODGES: In 1988 when I first started to try to convince people that they should look at this ‘stuff’ as art, I included the whole gamut - paintings, batiks, water colours and sculptures. Perhaps not quite all of it - I acknowledge that there are some rubbish carvings. What I mean is those carvings that transcend the craft aspect of it and become aesthetically and spiritually the ones that have that something that we call ‘art’. Trying to convince museum curators in 1988 that Aboriginal art needed to go into a museum context was like pushing the hardest case. You couldn’t do it. Some of the curators would say, ‘That is Aboriginal and it doesn’t fit in a modern art museum’; other people would say to you, ‘That is too modern. That is not Aboriginal.’ You would have this dichotomy of argument going on about whether it was Aboriginal or not Aboriginal. So in the end I used to say, ‘Just treat it as a painting and forget who did it. Let’s just look at the thing,’ which is scary for a lot of people because people like labels and tags. Some curators in museums still have problems with it. Aboriginal art is quite often still in a separate section of the institution. However, more and more institutions are bringing in Aboriginal art as part of today’s living culture of our country, which is a really positive thing.
MARGO NEALE: As the saying goes, it was too ethnographic for art galleries and not ethnographic enough for museums, particularly this desert movement. So it fell into a hole in between. The bark movement was much easier to place because it was on bark. But it wasn’t clear where acrylic on canvas fell. So how do you measure it on the fine art scale I was talking about?
VIVIEN JOHNSON: I think it’s gone a little bit too far on the art scale myself. I see this exhibition as an important corrective for people forgetting that the canvases are also more than art.
QUESTION: Vivien, you made a significant point earlier about the fact that a painting by Kaapa Tjampitjinpa had won the art prize in Alice Springs even before Geoffrey Bardon had appeared on the scene. I know that in your work on Clifford Possum you have researched this question of art that pre-exists Bardon time at Papunya. I would like to hear a little more about that, because obviously there is the tradition of Hermannsburg and Namatjira and so on. I believe some of these artists were part of a crossover from that tradition to this tradition.
VIVIEN JOHNSON: If you read the catalogue of an exhibition called Dot and Circle put on by Flinders University Art Museum in 1986 it contains a contribution from Dick Kimber, who figures in this exhibition as one of the people running Papunya Tula in the mid-1970s. In his essay in that catalogue he talks about the fact that Kaapa’s win in the second Alice Springs Caltex Art Prize in August 1971 had an enormous impact not only in the non-Indigenous art world in Alice Springs - it knocked their socks off that not only was there an Indigenous entrant in the prize but also that it had won - but also on the people back in Papunya. Here, in one go, was enough money to buy a motor car, and Dick Kimber talked about the galvanising effect that had on people who were already working out at Papunya. It is hard to get the chronology exactly right, but my understanding is that Geoffrey Bardon was there and the mural was under way. However it was not Geoff who took those paintings into Alice Springs and entered them in the art award. It was someone else that Kaapa organised – Kaapa was described by Peter Fannin as ‘the greatest wheeler dealer of all time’ – to take them in and put them in that exhibition for him. Then they won. It was probably these two things coming together that caused that explosion of art activity in Papunya at that time.
What did the art at Papunya look like before Geoff’s time? You will see a couple of examples in Geoff’s book Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desert (1991), but generally speaking Geoff was called ‘Mr Patterns’. Some of you may have seen the film about his life, entitled Mr Patterns, that was screened a few weeks ago. His focus was on establishing a wholly Indigenous art. He tried to eliminate paintings that featured small figures in full body regalia with ceremonial layouts, the paths of the dancers and with ceremonial objects all through them because, as he saw it, they had a strong European influence to them. If you read what Geoff says about Kaapa, he wanted him to go back to what he called his ‘real self’, which was to get rid of all these aspects of the style that they had developed before Geoff came along.
MARGO NEALE: The figurative style - understandable to a western audience.
VIVIEN JOHNSON: Yes. The idea of making art based on their own traditions was implicit in those works in the first place, although they were different from what later developed under the impact of Geoff. During this time Geoff gave them feedback and talked to them about their art and indicated that he liked some things and didn’t like others. That was a key element in the development of the art movement there.
CHRISTOPHER HODGES: You have to remember that Geoff was out there basically with no preconceived notion about what he was going to find there. He had befriended these people, but in his own naive way he thought tradition meant not European. But Kaapa wasn’t yesterday’s man; Kaapa was definitely the man of today. I held one of those paintings in my hand about a month ago. It’s a beautifully executed seated figure with all the body paint on it - the paint is quite chalky and soft but the execution of it is brilliant. Kaapa didn’t give up the figure. The figure kept going through his work.
VIVIEN JOHNSON: For another example, have a look at the Tim Leura painting in this exhibition.
CHRISTOPHER HODGES: Quite often in one painting Kaapa would have a figure with body paint on and he would have a diagramatic illustration of the picture. Sometimes he would have a dancing board with the picture displayed on it. Then maybe he would have included a totem pole and a fantastic pattern of landscape in the background of the painting. Somehow he managed to unite all those visions together. Being a man that worked pretty well in both worlds, Kaapa captured a lot of really stunning individual images. Tim Leura was Kaapa’s mate, and you can see the figures as they run through his paintings. They were both terribly inventive people and terrific artists. They weren’t beholden to anybody -
VIVIEN JOHNSON: Well, yes they were. The name we should mention here is Albert Namatjira. He is the person who showed everybody that an Aboriginal artist was something to be: you would get the respect of the highest levels of European society and you would get a great big truck from Ampol too. Clifford Possum was perhaps one who declined to be Namatjira’s disciple, but there are watercolour landscapes out there with Kaapa’s name on them. If anyone has any, I would love to see them.
MARGO NEALE: Chris was saying that, despite all those influences and being beholden to people, these artists managed to be able to satisfy different kinds of market. It’s a mobile field.
CHRISTOPHER HODGES: Yes, but what I was really saying was that they were artists. They were out there inventing their own language - they weren’t merely reproducing things that they knew time and time again. They weren’t manufacturing. They were working out new ways of painting pictures. Looking at the works in the exhibition of Tim Leura and Kaapa Tjampitjinpa - using watery, fluid paint getting soft, dark, and light and strong - they are painterly things, it is not a traditional thing. Their paintings grew differently. Even though they are influencing each other while they are sitting side by side, Kaapa does a bit of something and Tim sees it, they are feeding each other in their artistic endeavour. It is really important to see them as artists not as ethnographic reproducers of tourist items - there is certainly a hell of a lot of those people around. They were really innovative when they were doing their work.
MARGO NEALE: The method by which they were expressing themselves was innovative but they were actually still expressing traditional, cultural subjects and values.
CHRISTOPHER HODGES: Every great artist needs a subject. They had their subject, they knew it well, and that was fuelling the content of their art - giving it meaning and potency. But if they weren’t any good with the brush, the hand and the mind, and getting the three of them together, you wouldn’t have the power that the paintings project.
QUESTION: Vivien, your point about Namatjira is not only apt but also interesting. I was in the painting shed in Papunya in 1977 and bought my first piece of Indigenous art there. But the group of people I was with and people with whom I had spent quite a long period of time with in Alice Springs had never heard of anything but Namatjira. So they expressed no interest whatsoever in the sorts of paintings that were beginning to evolve out at Papunya. That must have been a very frustrating period for the artists, working perhaps in a medium that they were familiar with but working with a background that they understood but nobody else did. So it is not too surprising that not a lot of work was sold to people who didn’t understand and who weren’t interested in it. The 1950s and 1960s fascination with Namatjira was still in full swing at the beginning of the 1970s and perhaps even right through that decade.
VIVIEN JOHNSON: Yes, that’s right. There is a passage in one of Geoff’s books where he talks about the fact that Kaapa and Keith Namatjira, Albert Namatjira’s son, and I think Nosepeg Tjupurrula used to go around the houses in Papunya in the early 1970s trying to flog various wares such as Namatjira style watercolours - the kind of paintings we were talking about a moment ago from Kaapa or maybe his watercolour landscapes and also artefacts. You were saying that the people in Papunya had never heard of Namatjira?
QUESTION: No, the group of people that I was travelling with and then also the people I was with back in Alice Springs.
CHRISTOPHER HODGES: Don’t worry, a lot of people in museums and art institutions didn’t know it was going on either. You are not alone. In 1988 when I started, people were saying, ‘This is a boom in Aboriginal art,’ and I would think, ‘Why do I have to break everyone’s arm to look at this stuff?’ But it kept going with people saying, ‘The boom is on.’ There is a huge portion of the population that know about it now but they don’t know much. There is a growing number of people that show a great appreciation for it. I think the greatest success of it so far is that not only through visual art but also through the arts more generally, a greater number of Australians have been able to engage with Aboriginal people, at least superficially, and more and more are engaging with Aboriginal people properly and actually having an Aboriginal person as a friend. That has been a huge change in our society in the last 20 years.
QUESTION: I wondered if you could talk a bit about the emergence of women artists in Aboriginal communities, because one of the fundamental thing about this exhibition is that the artists are primarily men. There was a question earlier on about the role of women. I think some of the most beautiful and amazing paintings that I see coming now from Aboriginal painters are from some of the women’s communities. That might be something you would like to comment on.
VIVIEN JOHNSON: Margo read a comment from someone about the exhibition saying that the women didn’t have any spiritual life or ceremonial engagement, when of course this is not the case, though it was not perhaps for male anthropologists like Professor Elkin to know this. But as you say, the last couple of decades of art production by women have set everybody straight on this score, if they needed to be set straight. But the fact is that over this period when the art movement was struggling for survival and when there were very limited resources, and right back at the beginning too, it was the men who started painting. In the early days it was very much men’s business and not for women even to see. There is an ongoing issue about the suitability of the paintings produced in the very early years for general display on the basis that they are actually not suitable for Aboriginal women, or uninitiated young men, to even see them.
When the Emily exhibition, curated by Margo, comes to the Museum this year in August it will be undeniable, if it isn’t already realised, that women have made an enormous contribution. Some of the more feminist inclined artists say nowadays: ‘Wati way gone now – Kungka way now’ [It’s women’s way now]. Of course that is a slight exaggeration but certainly women have made an incredible contribution over the last few decades.
In 1981 there were a very few women who, like a lot of pioneers, made their contribution; however no-one picked it up because people believed that women didn’t have any cultural knowledge to impart. In addition, some of these women had very strict ideas about what should be revealed and limited themselves to bush tucker themes and so on, and they have been forgotten. Some of the first women to paint are the two women, Daisy Leura Nakamarra and Pansy Napangarti, whose involvement in the early movement is symbolised by their objects in the exhibition.
CHRISTOPHER HODGES: I was going to make the point that, in Papunya, Geoff Bardon was the man who coordinated this stuff, whereas at Utopia there were women who started off the paint movement. When I went to Utopia in 1988 it was basically a women’s movement that the men weren’t part of. When I used to go a meeting the women and the men would be split into two groups. You either had to stand in the middle and talk to both groups or you went and addressed one group and then went and addressed the other group. It was very much two separate things. The art coordinators at Utopia had tended to be women. Then Rodney Gooch, a man, became the art coordinator, so the men came and approached him, asking whether they could do it too. That was a change in that situation. If you look at that cultural situation of the two groups being separate and the mediation that was going on, it was not surprising that some of these groups existed on gender lines. At Ernabella they were doing batik too and it was basically done along gender lines.
MARGO NEALE: The defining difference between the two places we are talking about is that ten years prior to Chris’s visit in 1988 it had been a batik movement, which is interesting given that textiles were seen as being western and not necessarily seen as being Indigenous.
CHRISTOPHER HODGES: That grew out of the hippy era because the women that were there on the spot knew how to tie-dye and do things like that. Just as Vivien said that Kaapa was the original punk, it was the right era for it. It was mainly because the women were sitting outside the school and there was a woman who met the women and therefore an opportunity arose because in that time tie-dying was common. So the people that took the opportunity were the ones who had the opportunity. So at Utopia when Lindsay Bird got the chance, there was a man there and so Lindsay was straight over and began a painting lot.
VIVIEN JOHNSON: If I can mention Kaapa again in this context: Kaapa was the first person to enlist his wives and daughters to help him with the backgrounds of his paintings. He was a pioneer in that respect as well, much to the dismay of Andrew Crocker who was a bit of a chauvinist.
MARGO NEALE: Daughters and wives in Arnhem Land had been assisting the bark painters for a good decade or so before that, but it had been mostly in assisting roles.
QUESTION: I went to see the Sydney Nolan exhibition in the Art Gallery of New South Wales the other day and as I walked down the stairs I came across a most wonderful collection of paintings. This draws on your earlier comments about what is ethnography - what belongs in a museum and what belongs in a gallery. The collection I am referring to is a collection of landscape paintings with works by Lilly Kelly Napangardi and by Fred Williams. What are artists for? They are to help us see our world. They are our eyes. In this one little room there are works by female and male Aboriginal painters as well as Australian non-Aboriginal painters. It’s a transformation from the conflicts you were talking about earlier about what belongs where. This room was much more interesting than the Sydney Nolan exhibition.
MARGO NEALE: We have time for a couple more questions before our guests give some concluding comments.
QUESTION: In one of the panels next to one of Tim Leura’s painting it says something about the work looking soft and watery and that he was drawing on watercolours that he had done. Were they Namatjira-style watercolours?
VIVIEN JOHNSON: He is drawing on his background in that style of watercolour. I have actually never seen a Tim Leura watercolour. However, you can see the influence of that style of painting in the way he mixes colours, the way he puts washes over it, and so on. If he hadn’t actually done them, he must have sat around when Kaapa was doing them.
CHRISTOPHER HODGES: That school of painting idea where people are always feeding each other ideas was very important. All of the artists from the central desert have one eye on what everyone else is doing, just the same as when I go to an art exhibition I have one eye on what everyone else is doing too, because you don’t want to miss out on a trick. There is a good story that concerned the Emily Kame Kngwarreye exhibition that is opening in Japan in February. There are a series of paintings that are pink and white in strong, vibrant colours, but the last painting in the series is like a ghost. It is all done in pale, watery pink and pale watery white colours. I made the comment to Emily, ‘This is lovely, this pale one here,’ and she said, ‘Yeah, I ran out of paint.’
Another story came from the time when Emily was one of three artists representing Australia at a Venice Biennale. In that exhibition her main works were the striped body paint pictures, and what are called the ‘yam root’ pictures. A lot of people were contemptuously saying, ‘She’s just seen Sol LeWitt,’ when of course Emily had never seen Sol LeWitt and wouldn’t have known who Sol LeWitt was. It was a little quiet putdown that was going on all over the place. But then the one person who did see the exhibition, and who was terribly moved by her works, was Sol LeWitt. He thought she was fantastic and was so appreciative of her work that he pursued it to get one for his own collection. It shows you that while we can all make some observations we need to learn a bit more about some things.
MARGO NEALE: John Kalder kept sending Sol LeWitt prints and pictures done by Emily to feed his appetite.
QUESTION: You have told us that it has been about 30 years since some of this material has seen the light of day, what happens with it tomorrow when this Papunya Painting exhibition closes?
VIVIEN JOHNSON: Thank you for asking that question. The answer is it goes back to the vaults. The Museum has talked about putting it on again another time or maybe doing a tour. I can only hope so because it would be a terrible waste if it were to languish unseen for another generation, would it not?
QUESTION: On that note can I just comment that I found the lighting sensational - instead of having dark paintings on white walls with bright ambient light we had stained glass windows in a cathedral. It’s beautiful.
VIVIEN JOHNSON: More power to the lighting guy, who came in while he was in a wheelchair and did that.
QUESTION: How much more of it is there that is not in the exhibition?
VIVIEN JOHNSON: We have used almost all of the big canvases, but there are lots of smaller paintings. In terms of the whole Aboriginal Arts Board collection, there is what you call a diaspora all around the world. The Aboriginal Arts Board left exhibitions and parts of the collection in the place where they were originally installed. I have a dream that one day we may be able to put it all back together or at least take this part of it to where the rest of it is.
MARGO NEALE: What Vivien didn’t say is that, because these works at the time of production were not marketable as such, the Aboriginal Arts Board collected them to put into their international exhibition program. So the works went overseas to embassies and outposts of various sorts, and then over the next decade or two they became lost or were left in dark cupboards in various places. Vivien has been researching this area for some time and trying to locate them all.
VIVIEN JOHNSON: Four paintings in this Papunya Painting exhibition are from the New Zealand diaspora. There are 20 over there altogether. New Zealand could be stage one perhaps of the tour.
QUESTION: And I believe Papunya itself still doesn’t have an exhibition space.
VIVIEN JOHNSON: That’s right. They have an arts centre in Papunya but it doesn’t have a building. They won’t even let people paint on the verandahs of the derelict houses, because the intervention force intends to fix them up one fine day.
MARGO NEALE: That’s a whole new story. I want to thank you very much for being such an attentive and enthusiastic audience. I hope this is the beginning of a long journey for many of you and further stimulation to become more interested. I would like to thank Christopher Hodges and Vivien Johnson. I hope to see you all back here at the National Museum of Australia when a selection from the Emily exhibition goes on show here from mid-August 2008. We will be doing only a selection because the exhibition in Tokyo and Osaka is over 2000 square metres, whereas here we have 1000 square metres. Look out for August.
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Date published: 01 January 2018