This website was developed for the exhibition Irriṯitja Kuwarri Tjungu | Past & Present Together: Fifty Years of Papunya Tula Artists that was on view at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia from 2021-23 and the Embassy of Australia in Washington, DC in 2024. It was made possible by our creative partnership with Papunya Tula Artists and the generous support of UVA Arts Council. Site design by Urban Fugitive for V21 Artspace.

How did Papunya Tula Artists grow and change over time?

Kuwarri | Papunya Tula Today

The importance of Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd to the people of the Western Desert was apparent from the beginning. The company took on even greater significance in the 1980s when the communities of Walungurru and Kiwirrkura were established some 300 miles from Papunya. Eventually, and for the first time, the studio and its facilities were made available to almost anyone who wanted to try their hand at painting, rather than just the original shareholders and established artists.

The company and the production of art became the most significant form of employment within the communities, and this is still true today. By the 1990s, there were up to eighty practicing artists working at Walungurru and Kiwirrkura, which was just as many as those employed by the schools, clinics, community offices, and essential services combined. On any single day in these communities of 200-400 people, there were as many as thirty or more artists working in each location, either in the studio or on their home verandas.

Papunya Tula Artists studio at Walungurru in 2007. Photo by Paul Sweeney.

Papunya Tula Artists studio at Kiwirrkurra in 2010. Photo by Paul Sweeney.

What is the relationship between the company and the artists? Is it fair?

Today, Papunya Tula Artists represents the large number of Pintupi artists who live and work at Walungurru and Kiwirrkurra. In 2007, the artists who continued living at Papunya banded together to form their own, independent art center called Papunya Tjupi Arts. One of the great benefits for artists of Papunya Tula is the company’s ability to offer immediate payment for completed works. This is a best-case scenario for people who are often living hand to mouth and are heavily reliant on daily trips to the community store for food and supplies. Cash flow is incredibly important in remote desert outstations, and from its first days, Papunya Tula Artists has been able to provide a payment and financial support system that has successfully met the social and cultural expectations of its members. It is an arrangement that would please any practicing artist, anywhere, but for Western Desert painters, it offers a unique form of financial security.

In addition, company shareholders receive a significant annual dividend payment. Each year, more than $1 million is returned directly into the artists’ hands and the artists and their communities.

There are two other clear benefits of this system. Working as a painter or artist is a special employment opportunity because it doesn’t require artists to relocate or commute away from their traditional homelands for work. It is also a form of employment that strengthens the community itself and Aboriginal people as a whole. Painting is a way of maintaining cultural knowledge and ensuring the transmission of this knowledge to future generations, as opposed to other forms of employment that require skills and knowledge traditionally valued in western cultures that may contradict or fail to support Aboriginal ways of being.

Aside from the government’s social support system, Papunya Tula Artists is easily the greatest economic driver in the region.

How else does Papunya Tula Artists support Aboriginal health and well-being?

Due to a constellation of complex histories and health realities, kidney failure emerged as one of the most significant health challenges among Western Desert Aboriginal people. Initially, few people were diagnosed and required regular dialysis, but that figure rose quickly. Within a few years many more patients were suffering the same fate. Among the ranks of Papunya Tula, Timmy Payungu Tjapangati, Maxie Tjampitjinpa, Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, and Yala Yala Gibbs Tjungurrayi all suffered kidney failure and died between 1997 and 2000. These were not only important senior men of their communities, but also giants of the Papunya Tula movement. To date, a staggering twenty-four painters from Walungurru and Kiwirrkurra have succumbed to the same debilitating illness, with numbers expected to continue rising.

The effects of kidney failure cannot be reversed, and patients from remote communities were forced to permanently relocate to Mparntwe (Alice Springs) to receive treatment. For some, this is hundreds of miles from their homes, requiring them to leave behind their friends, families, and connection to their Country. This had such a terrible impact on the patients and their communities that some sufferers decided against moving for treatment and stayed at home to die.

The Purple Truck is a self-contained dialysis unit on wheels. Established in 2012 with the help of Medicines Australia, Papunya Tula Artists and Fresenius, it gives patients with end-stage kidney failure the chance to return home for family, cultural business or funerals.
At a time when the Australian heath system did not prioritize making dialysis available to Aboriginal people in remote communities, enabling them to stay on their country, Papunya Tula Artists and its network of committed supporters took on the responsibility to establish local treatment services. Collectors, gallery owners, and industry figures banded together and donated works of art to be auctioned at a gala on November 11, 2000, in Sydney, which raised over $1 million.

This effort by Papunya Tula Artists funded the creation of the Purple House, an organization that now delivers dialysis to patients through clinics in eighteen remote Aboriginal communities.

Walungurru Pool opening, February 2008. Photo by Paul Sweeney.
Five years later, another similar auction took place, this time with the goal of constructing a swimming pool in the center of Walungurru, just 100 yards west of the art center. Research has shown that access to swimming pools provides numerous benefits to the health of young Indigenous people, and most importantly, reduces the risk of future kidney failure through a lower rate of chronic skin-related infections. The pool also represented a valuable resource for a community desperately in need of sporting and recreational infrastructure. When the idea to construct such a facility to help prevent health issues emerged, Papunya Tula Artists once again rose to the challenge. The company donated five large, solo works that collectively raised 65% of the auction’s profits, and on February 14, 2008, the pool officially opened. Since 2007, Papunya Tula Artists has invested over $1.5 million in major infrastructure in the communities of Walungurru and Kiwirrkurra.

Ronnie Tjampitjinpa with the painting he made for the Pool auction. Photo by Paul Sweeney.

The power of art had spoken, and rather than relying on government handouts, the artists and their company fulfilled a major need that would not have happened otherwise.

Today, Papunya Tula Artists remains the financial cornerstone of the two Pintupi communities and their respective studios in Walungurru and Kiwirrkura, the central hubs of activity. 
Kiwirrkura men dialysis painting 1999

At work on the Kiwirrkurra men’s collaborative painting for the Western Desert Dialysis Appeal, 1999. Photo by Paul Sweeney.
The company also firmly established itself as an international brand. Artists travel to exhibitions of their work and, while meeting with admirers to talk about their art, have expanded their own lives and experiences, returning home to their desert settlements with stories of altered time zones, exotic food, and crowded cities. Despite what goes on elsewhere in the world, the Western Desert painters remain unfazed. The ancestors and spirits that created their Country and established their cultural traditions are of the greatest value to them and lie embedded within each and every artwork they create.

The artists’ drive to keep their ancestral stories alive remains resolute and unwavering, guaranteeing their company’s future.