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.

Women Painters Claim Their Place

Kungka Tjuta | Women Artists

My father used to say, ‘Hey kungka (young women), you’ve got to learn how to paint your ngurra (home) country, your Tjukurrpa. They [the Anmatyerr men] were encouraging their wives, ‘nyuuntulpa ngurra painting (paint your country).’
From early on, the wives and daughters of the first generation of men artists at Papunya would sometimes assist their husbands and fathers with dotting backgrounds, and some painted informally on the side. Pansy Napangardi was one of few women who were able to create a space for themselves in the early 1980s as part of Papunya Tula Artists, but for the most part the company was not yet financially successful enough to support new artists, whether male or female.

By the early 1990s, women at Walungurru were aware that their female relatives had become successful painting nearby at Ikuntji. They had also already painted a mural on the exterior wall of the local women’s center. Both of these happenings inspired them and made them eager to become painters. Initially, however, the women were not supported by non-Indigenous people. Some said there were already “enough dot paintings” and that they should instead make items for tourists featuring pokerwork, a technique in which patterns are applied to wood using a hot wire. Others said the women would never paint unless they were paid up front for their time.

Artists in front of Kaakurutintjinya, the Nangala Canvas for the Haasts Bluff / Kintore Canvas Project after the Walungurru painting camp, outside the Ngintaka Women’s Centre, June 1994. From left: Nyurapayia Nampitijinpa “Mrs Bennett” (seated), Linda Napurrula (behind), Inyuwa Nampitjinpa, Ningura Napurrula, Katarra Nampitjinpa, Pantjiya Nungurrayi, Tjunkiya Napaltjarri, Wintjiya Napaltjarri, Tatali Nangala (behind), Josephine Napurrula, Narputta Nangala, Anmanari Napanangka, Mantua Napanangka, Loline Nungurrayi, Makinti Napanangka (seated in front). Photo by Marina Strocchi.

But the women persisted!

The women knew that their relatives at Ikuntji had become “winners” in part because non-Indigenous artist and printmaker Marina Strocchi had been hired to support them. After doing some favors and including her in several women’s ceremonies, a group of women led by Mantua Nangala successfully convinced Strocchi to assist them in their ambition. In 1994 Strocchi received permission from Papunya Tula Artists and some funding from the government to conduct a painting workshop. It was a five-day workshop in which the women worked collaboratively on a few very large canvases from dawn to dusk, at a camp they set up outside of Walungurru. Up to eight women worked on one painting, discussing and deciding how to express themselves and their Tjukurrpa (Dreaming) on canvas. The paintings were liked and supported by the men artists working at Walungurru at the time, which was a significant stamp of approval.

Tjunkiya Naplatjarri (left) works on the Napaltjarri canvas, while the Nampitjinpas work in the background, at the Walungurru (Kintore) painting camp, 1994. Photo by Marina Strocchi.
After Strocchi received word that several major Australian art museums were interested in acquiring the completed workshop paintings, she arranged another two-week session in 1995. After this, the paintings had their moment in the spotlight: they were exhibited at Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute in July 1995. Strocchi and fifteen of the women painters traveled to Adelaide and danced to celebrate and ceremonially open the exhibition. Most of the paintings were acquired by major institutions in Australia or by important American collectors.

Following this success, Papunya Tula Artists began officially supplying the women at Walungurru and Kiwirrkurra with painting materials on a regular basis. In 1996, Papunya Tula Artists staged its first exhibition of women’s paintings, which was very well received, and the place of women painters as part of the company, as well as in the international art world, was solidified.
At the time, we knew that the workshops were important but could not have imagined the explosion of women’s painting they would catalyze. Hetti Perkins has argued that they 'heralded perhaps the most radical shift in the Papunya Tula cor­pus,’ as women took the reins to paint a new chapter in the history of the company.

Just when many art historians and critics felt the Papunya Tula painting movement had run its course, women burst onto the scene and breathed new life and inspiration.

The immediacy with which they painted created a palpable sense of joy and excitement on the surface, as if the women were frantically expelling built-up creative energy. The women made it clear that they had no desire to emulate their male peers: they were presenting their own imagery in their own way.
Most of the women who began painting in the 1990s were middle-aged or older, and were active and knowledgeable in women’s ceremonial life. As such, they brought a fresh and different perspective to the painting movement. The women’s paintings were informed by the ancestral stories, ceremonies, and places that are part of the Aboriginal women’s world.

Often their paintings emphasize their deep knowledge of the bounty of their Country, especially sources for water and bush foods, or adornments such as hair string made for ceremonies. Stylistically, their distinct expressiveness with paint is often inspired by the ceremonial tradition of using natural pigments to paint on women’s bodies and breasts. As the younger generation began painting, they explored more individual forms of expression while maintaining the connection to their elders and the business of women.

 Click here to watch a video of women painters at Papunya Tula Artists.
When I paint, I feel happy, I don’t feel sick, I don’t feel any pain. I feel strong and healthy, like I’m a young girl again.

Makinti Napanangka at Walungurru, 1997. Photo by Paul Sweeney.