This museum on the outer edge of Yuendumu played a remarkable role in the development of the Western Desert art movement in the 1970s. It was built in the 1960s and completed in 1971 by Warlpiri men at the community. A solid stone building, it was made as a secure storage place for ceremonial and traditional objects (such as tjurungas) and the two side sections of the building were painted with murals depicting the Dreamings of each of the Warlpiri ‘skin’ groups that had settled at Yuendumu.
Paddy Japaljarri Sims said that “We all got together and made a decision to collect the sacred objects, tjurunga, made from rock and wood; and we said, 'let's build a museum'.” Paddy Japaljarri Stewart said that the men at the time asked 'What are we going to do about the walls?' and they came to the decision to paint the walls (Cecilia Alfonso 2015).
The origin of the Western Desert painting movement is conventionally traced back to the painting by senior men of the Honey Ant murals on the walls of the school at Papunya. However, the Yuendumu museum project was completed by the end of July 1971, before the Papunya School murals and the production of the first Papunya boards. A strong case can be made that the Yuendumu murals were a key factor in the early development of the Western Desert Art Movement.
Warlpiri men arriving at the museum on 31 July 1971
The activities in the two communities were different. At Papunya the murals were for public viewing, whereas at Yuendumu, with exclusively Aboriginal involvement, they were secret-sacred, and access to the museum was tightly restricted. Not only were sacred rock art paintings reproduced, but also sacred objects were transferred to the museum, most of them kept locked away in cabinets to be shown only to the right people during ceremony.
Philip Jones, historian and curator at the South Australian Museum, says that the murals are “unique in the canon of Australian art. Aboriginal artists took the opportunity on their own terms, in their own space and time, with no white person looking over their shoulder, to produce a coherent set of paintings reflecting the art of their country.” (Jones 2015).
Research by Jones has shown that the idea to build the Yuendumu museum developed in the early 1960s. In 1963 the superintendent at Yuendumu had control over people’s labour and he could direct what they worked on. When the old men came up with the idea for a museum, the superintendent allocated one day a week for work on it. Local men quarried the stone from nearby and by the end of 1963 or into 1964 the walls had come up to chest height.
Work continued in 1960s, funded in part by money from the Aboriginal Benefits Trust Fund and then by money contributed each week by Warlpiri men from their pay packets. Initially the idea was to save for a truck to take men out to the sites for which they were responsible. Then the idea turned to bringing in some of the objects hidden in secret storage places and making them safe in the community. At the same time the idea developed that painting murals in a building would be the equivalent of bringing key rock paintings into the museum.
Although the secret-sacred contents of the museum meant that access had to be restricted, from the start the old men wanted it to be a showcase for their culture. Non-Aboriginal men and even older non-Aboriginal women were allowed to enter for a fee. The late Darby Jampijinpa Ross, who had painted one of the murals in the museum, became its curator after it opened in 1971.
However, Darby Ross was by then in his seventies and as he became frail he was unable to protect the museum and its objects. The sacred objects were removed and taken back out to country or to safekeeping in places around Yuendumu, to be retrieved only for ceremony. The building gradually fell into disrepair, the electricity was cut off, and by the 1980s the murals were in darkness. When I visited the building in the early 1990s the building was in decay and the murals no longer visible.
Cecilia Alfonso (left) and Gloria Morales
In 2006, the board of the art centre at Yuendumu, Warlukurlangu Artists, decided to restore the Museum. Substantial grants were obtained by the centre’s manager Cecilia Alfonso and assistant manager Gloria Morales for renovation of the building and restoration of the murals. Work has included documenting the murals and other items; weather proofing the building with a new roof and floor; conservation of the murals; creation of a new ground painting; and landscaping the grounds.
The centre employed Catherine Millikan of the National Gallery of Victoria to carry out the detailed cleaning and conservation work needed on the murals. The following image shows the restored murals (left behind the low stone partition):
A three-panelled ground painting was commissioned for the building’s central space to replace the one from 1971 that had long since disappeared. The new work was made by senior men using plant fibres and natural ochres. It represents Yurrampi (honey ant), Janganpa (possum) and Ngapa (water) Dreamings. Careful work was carried out to restore the murals to their original condition.
New ground painting representing Dreamings belonging to the Warlpiri artists. Photograph by Greg Weight, courtesy Warlukurlangu Artists.
This remarkable project has now been completed and the building was re-opened at a celebration in Yuendumu on Sunday 6 September. The Museum is a testament to the energy and commitment of the Warlpiri men, the Yuendumu community and the Warlukurlangu Artists to maintain their cultural traditions and to communicate them widely.
Joe Bird and Thomas Rice singing at the museum opening September 2015
Visitors entering the newly restored museum on opening day 6 September 2015
Girls painted for dancing at Warlukurlangu Artists before museum opening
Alfonso, Cecilia Personal communication, 2015
Jones, Philip Desert revelation: the Yuendumu Men’s Museum and its murals, forthcoming, 2015