Papunya is a small community with a population of approximately
250 people located 240 kilometres west of Alice Springs. The
settlement was first established as an administrative centre
by the government for the Aboriginal people of the region who
were displaced from their traditional lands.
Papunya was where the Central and Western Desert Art Movement
began in 1971 when a school teacher, Geoffrey Bardon, encouraged
some of the men to paint a blank school wall. The murals sparked
tremendous interest in the community and soon many men started
painting. In 1972 the artists successfully established their
own company, Papunya Tula Artists. For more information about
the origins of the Western Desert Art Movement, go to our essay
on Papunya Aboriginal art and
The outstation movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s
encouraged many of the Papunya artists to move back to their
traditional country - for many this was as far west as Kintore
and Kiwirkurra (700 kilometres west of Alice Springs). Papunya
Tula Artists became the cooperative for mainly Pintupi and Luritja
artists working in communities west of Papunya.
Community Art Centre
Early in 1994 the Papunya Community Council established its
own art centre to give the Aboriginal people of Papunya an increased
involvement in the commercial aspects of Aboriginal art. This
centre, called Warumpi Arts, maintained a gallery in Alice Springs
until September 2004 and was the main centre for paintings by
Papunya artists. The Papunya Community Council then decided
to close the gallery with the aim of later opening an art centre
The Warumpi gallery operated in a way determined by the Community
elders, who ensured that profits from the sale of paintings
and crafts go to all the Aboriginal people of the community.
The artists who painted for Warumpi Arts took considerable pride
in their paintings as a reflection of their culture and beliefs.
Warumpi is an Aboriginal (Warlpiri) word meaning
'honeyant'. Honey ants are one of the favourite bush foods of
central Australia and their nests are found at the base of mulga
trees. The ants produce a sweet "honey" which is stored
in their bodies.
The range of mountains behind Papunya has a distinctive rounded shape,
like the shape of a honey ant in profile, and it is this shape which
has given these ranges their name.
The closure of Warumpi Gallery left the majority of Papunya artists with no representation and at risk of exploitation by private dealers.
Papunya Tjupi Arts
In October 2005 the Papunya artists approached Professor Vivien Johnson of the College of Fine Arts, University of NSW to help them establish a ‘community-based art centre’ in Papunya for the first time. Support for a new art centre was received from the Papunya Community Council, government agencies and regional bodies. Desart (the Association of Central Australian Aboriginal Art and Craft Centres) assisted by engaging a consultant to source funding.
As a result of the consultant's efforts, the Commonwealth government provided $39 000 while additional funding was received from the Northern Territory government. This allowed Papunya Tjupi Arts to start operating in October 2007 through the appointment of an experienced coordinator and manager.
The project’s future was initially uncertain but it has now developed into a ‘fully fledged’ art centre. Its long-term viability depends crucially on the artists’ commitment and the centre’s ability to achieve financial security through sales with the assistance of external funding.
From the beginning the artists have indicated that the education of young people in arts practice and industry skills was the primary motivation for the establishment of Papunya Tjupi Arts. The co-founder and Committee Member, Long Jack Phillipus and elder/artist, Michael Jagamara Nelson, expressed a deeply-held belief that young people need to learn the stories and the painting skills from the older artists.
The skills of the senior artists are already well-recognised for their involvement in the beginnings of the Central Desert art movement. The art centre will be a conduit for their expertise and experience to be passed on to the next generation who make up the current group of 60 or so artists, many of whom have never painted before.