The cultural landscape undergoes seismic shifts infrequently, and works created at these rare moments are infused with a charisma that transcends their artistic merit. The 220 Papunya early boards at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory represent the largest collection of Aboriginal paintings dating from the pivotal period when contemporary Aboriginal art was first emerging. They provide a new perspective on Australia’s foremost atelier when viewed as a whole.

The first desert paintings created by masters have an energy that is derived from their moment of creation. In the traditional context, it would have been impossible for men from different parts of the country to meet. This efflorescence of images that occurred in the hothouse conditions in the Men’s Paint Room – a nissen hut at the government settlement of Papunya, Northern Territory – will never be repeated. These works were created when the epic songlines connecting Aboriginal Australia were unveiled.

Johnny Warangula Tjupurrula: Rain, lightning, and stars at night, 1971, synthetic polymer on compressed fibreboard, 91.5 cm x 91.3cm. (MAGNT, WAL39). (c) Estate of the Artist licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency, courtesy Papunya Tula Artists.

The collection of the gallery – selected highlights for the Tjungunutja exhibition – shows how the focus and style of Papunya paintings evolved, from winter 1971 to the end of the year 1972, when various approaches were developed, tested, and modified.

The collection contains many mysteries. Not only does it reveal the world of men’s rites, but also the evolving collaborative relationships between the men who worked intensively to create this new form of artistic expression.

Who were the Papunya tula artists?

The 30 founding group painters represent individuals, regardless of their linguistic affiliations and their shared historical experiences. I do not want to classify these individuals, but rather to highlight the commonalities in their approaches to painting. I will nonetheless distinguish three distinct groups of painters who worked in those heady years.

Map of the Papunya Region Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.


Anmatyerr Men played a crucial role in the development of the painting movement at Papunya. Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, the first master of the movement, was the man. Kaapa, an Anmatyerr with Ngaliya associations (Southern Warlpiri), provided leadership for artists who came from cattle stations north and east to Papunya.

In the early 20th Century, frontier pastoralists had seized Anmatyerr land. Kaapa and his cousins Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri, Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri grew up as stockmen within an intercultural environment.

These men, despite living in a paternalistic society as subjects, understood the importance of their expertise and labor to the cattle industry. They had a good knowledge of topographical maps and paper and enjoyed comics and Western media. They were also familiar with “Aboriginal artefacts” as they were accomplished carvers.

Haasts Bluff Pintupi

The Pintupi are a group of people who speak a dialect derived from the Western Desert Language. Johnny Warangula Tjupurrula and Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri were boys when their families moved in response to the devastating dry spell of the 1920s. They settled with their extended family near Haasts Bluff, just 20 kilometers south of Papunya, in the early 1930s. The site was selected because it was close to a Lutheran missionary ration station.

Haast Bluff Pintupi people lived in a multi-cultural environment, along with Anmatyerrs, Kukatjas, Luritjas, Warlpiri, and Western Arrernte. Albert Namatjira was a frequent visitor to Haasts Bluff, as were his relatives, The Hermannsburg Landscape Painters. The “framing of the landscape” had a major influence on Papunya-Tula’s painting.

Keith Namatjira. Haasts Bluff, 1963, watercolor and paperboard. 34.0 x 50.8 cm (MAGNT NAM 208). Image courtesy Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory.

It became clear that artesian water from Haasts Bluff was not going to be enough to meet the growing needs of the station. A new settlement at Papunya, where a generous bore was struck in 1954, had therefore been decided.

Kaapa’s earliest paintings are profound statements on Indigenous ontology and have become touchstones of the art-historical records. His delicately painted boards also speak of the social context within which they were created. Kaapa’s first paintings, painted with stolen brushes on recycled material, emerged with an unprecedented clarity from a clashing of cultures.

Artists from the Anmatyerr and Pintupi tribes in Men’s Painting Room, circa August 1972. Charlie Tjaruru Tjungurrayi, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri (seated), and Long Jack Tjakamarra. Kaapa Tjampitjinpa stands at the back, inspecting the paintings in the style that he introduced. The room is dominated by a large board similar to Wild Orange Dreaming from 1972. It acts as a guide for the other artists. Michael Jensen

Kaapa saw the relationship between the whites and Indigenous People at Papunya uniquely.

Kaapa’s works were created in a context that is very different from the one that governs the distribution of Indigenous art today. The ceremonial Scene (Mikantji) was once displayed in a public area of a local store. However, it is now considered to contain “restricted information.” This brings attention to the cultural and social transformations that have occurred since 1971. In order to understand Kaapa’s intention in the beginning, it is necessary to remove the assumptions that have developed over the last 46 years.

Men’s rituals revealed

The Ceremonial Scene, or Mikantji (Mikantji), was created in the final days of assimilation when local religions were suppressed and Christianity was preferred. The assumption was that indigenous advancement was dependent on regular school attendance, training, and compliance with working hours.

Kaapa was an individual of his time, and he may have borne some of the dominant discourses that presaged the end of “classical Indigenous culture.”