The Papunya art movement was born in the western desert of Northern Australia and is one of the wonders of the modern art world - but its story is not well known.
In 1971 a young Sydney art teacher, Geoffrey Bardon, was posted to the Government settlement at Papunya in the Northern Territory where he found more than a thousand Aboriginal people living in a state of dislocation and degradation. The Papunya settlement was established in 1960 and was chosen because of the availability of bore water - it is not the traditional region for any of the five main tribal groups: Aranda, Anmatjira Aranda, Walpiri, Loritja and Pintupi.
Aboriginals were poorly treated and were removed from their traditional lands and "confined" to settlements such as Papunya by the Commonwealth Government. What existed on Bardon's arrival was a community of several tribal groups dispossessed of their lands that had been systematically humiliated by European (white) authorities. The culture of the Aboriginal people is based on journeys or tracks and all their Dreamings refer to movement over great distances and the authorities had denied them their birthright to travel which was like removing their wings. In this environment many of the tribal heirachies and family groups disintegrated. Consequently there was a lot of trouble and riots in this group of Traditional Aboriginals in exile from their homelands.
Bardon was not the first "European" to take interest in the traditional sand paintings of these dispossessed people, nor was he the first to recognise them as evidence of a powerful ancient culture. Anthropologists had studied this group over many years, however, Bardon was the first white person to gain the trust of the tribal elders and to manage to kindle the great surge in creativity amongst the Papunya settlement. He provided painting boards, brushes and paints and invited the men to paint their tribal rituals and stories instead of drawing them directly in the desert sands. In defiance of the white authorities he encouraged the men to value their work both commercially as well as spiritually.
Bardon left Papunya in mid 1972 yet he had by that time encouraged the Aboriginals to value their work spiritually as well as commercially and they had set up their own company, Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd. This company had prodigous output, strong sales and great optimism and was the start of the unleashing of an exceptional artistic force that continues to this day.
The painting movement has spread to other areas of Central Australia and has achieved high international acclaim. It has gone some way to restoring the cultural pride of a deeply religious people and has opened the worlds eyes to an impressive culture.
Sadly Geoffrey Bardon passed away in March 2003.
The exhilaration and the agony of the early days of the art movement at Papunya are well documented in the book, "Papunya Tula - Art of the Western Desert", by Geoffrey Bardon.