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.
A small group of Aboriginal artists transformed the art world forever.
Irriṯitja | Beginnings
In 1971, a small group of Aboriginal men from Australia’s Central Desert began painting and became some of the most famous artists in Australia and beyond.
Papunya, 2004. Photo by Claire Leimbach.
What brought these artists together?
In the 1950s and 60s, increasing numbers of Aboriginal people were leaving remote areas and their traditional lifestyles for a number of reasons. Drought, environmental change, and the growing cattle industry made it difficult for Aboriginal people to live on their lands. At the time, the government was determined to “assimilate” Aboriginal people; they wanted them to adopt the values, behaviors, and beliefs of white Australians. However, the government knew that white residents of Alice Springs and Darwin wouldn’t welcome a large migration of Aboriginal people into their towns. To solve this, the Australian government established settlements. One of them was a town called Papunya, which was built in 1959 to resettle about 400 people. They came from very different areas of the desert and spoke a variety of languages. Some had considerable experience with white Australians, whether through exposure to missionaries or through their involvement with the cattle industry. For others, arriving at Papunya was their first encounter with the colonizers.
By 1971, more than a thousand people were living in cramped conditions at Papunya, which by then was characterized by horrific poverty and disease. There is a heartbreaking honesty in one Pintupi spokesman’s assessment, recorded by anthropologist Fred Myers: “They came in because they were hungry. They didn’t know that they could not go back.”
In this chaotic atmosphere of strangers and great adversity, painting offered a way of asserting legitimacy and authority— of explaining who you were and where you came from.
The Honey Ant Mural at Papunya, 1971. Photo by Allan Scott.
Using ancient designs rarely seen by outsiders, a small group of men began painting on whatever materials they could find. Motivated by their desire to preserve and share their cultural knowledge, the painters illustrated their connection to the Tjukurrpa (Dreaming). In July 1971, encouraged by the newly arrived schoolteacher Geoffrey Bardon, the men created a mural on the local school wall that defiantly announced the arrival of an artistic renaissance. The following year, they founded their own company: Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd, the first Aboriginal-owned artistic enterprise in Australia.
These old men had a picture in their mind from country and ceremony, and they were starting to think about how they were going to do that new form of painting. From there it blew up like a balloon. They started small, and from small they blew up, from Australia, to the United States, overseas, like a balloon.
— PUNATA STOCKMAN NUNGURRAYI
In the 1980s, the world became increasingly fascinated with Australia. Tourism spiked, flights became cheaper, and films such as Crocodile Dundee, bands such as Men at Work, and celebrities such as Kylie Minogue and Elle McPherson captured the public’s attention. At the same time, the contemporary art world was beginning to embrace art forms and movements outside of Europe and the United States in a new way. All of this set the stage for Aboriginal Australian art to be recognized as Australia’s most unique and important artistic contribution to the world.
Michael Jagamara Nelson AM explains his mural to Queen Elizabeth II and Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke AC, OCL at the opening of the new Australian Parliament House, 1988.
At this time, Papunya Tula artists were painting large canvases that became increasingly abstract. Curators took notice and many critics and collectors observed that the paintings had visual similarities to the works of famous artists in the New York art world. Papunya Tula artists began to be featured in major art world events. For example, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri were included in the Australia Perspecta Biennial in Sydney in 1981, and in 1982, several Papunya Tula artists participated in the Bienal de São Paulo in Brazil. In 1983, Charlie Wartuma Tjungurrayi traveled to Amsterdam to collaborate with the famous conceptual performance artist Marina Abramović.
What impact does this have today and in the future?
From humble beginnings, a multimillion-dollar industry emerged. Papunya Tula artists proved to the art world that they had something powerful to say about who they were, and that their creative expression should be valued on its own terms. Their example inspired many other Aboriginal communities across Australia to establish art centers. Today, these centers encourage cultural expression, develop economic stability for artists and their families, support the passing down of cultural knowledge to younger generations, and continue to deepen global appreciation and understanding of Indigenous peoples.
The movement created a powerful voice for Indigenous artists and communities to share their culture with the world in new and profound ways.
Paintings have been used successfully as evidence in court for land to be returned to Indigenous peoples. Paintings have been used to raise awareness about racial discrimination and violence, and to create ongoing change in systems of oppression. They continue to inspire people around the world with their mesmerizing patterns, unique use of color, and deep layers of significance.