The Papunya paintings are an Australian national treasure and the Australian Museum's most impressive collection of western desert art.

“Knowledge is powerful; artists have to be careful not to break tribal lore in their paintings” (Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri, Aboriginal Arts Board Meeting, Adelaide, 2-3 July 1977).

In October 1983 the Museum purchased 94 paintings, the Papunya Permanent Collection of early western desert art, dating from 1971-1974. Each of the paintings are unique and came with little or no documentation, so there was a race to identify the artists, their country and Dreaming or Tjukurrpa. It was a time for looking back, remembering a time and people, some long gone. I was asking artists to look back at something they had done 20 years or so ago and rethink a way of life that had changed. This was a time when no international market for paintings existed.

Dancing board from the Papunya Community.
Australian Museum Senior Fellow, Dr Kate Khan, pictured holding an aboriginal dancing board from the Papunya Community. Image: Alexandra Nuttall
© Australian Museum

It had been a time of experimentation, new surfaces, paints and brushes. Odd bits of Masonite, chipboard and pieces of wood picked up from building sites became the canvases to celebrate the Dreaming which is the base of all Aboriginal philosophy. The Dreaming describes how the world was created, its flora, fauna, features of the landscape and sky, the beginning and the end, and yet also continuum of all creatures, including humans. Tjukurrpa or the Dreaming also sets out rules of behaviour governing relationships, regulating every part of a person’s life from birth to death.

Paintings connect to mythological beings of the Dreamtime or Tjukurrpa, referring to specific sites and linked to local plants and animals. Water Dreaming, usually around Kalipinypa, a native well 150km north-east of Sandy Blight Junction, Honey Ant Dreaming tells of fights between Honey Ant and Soldier Ant Ancestors at Papunya , Tingarri Dreaming – Ancestral men travelling over vast areas of western desert performing rituals, creating geographical features and establishing rules of behavior. The diversity of meaning is dependent on the level of ritual knowledge held by the painter – knowledge is powerful. An old man at Haasts Bluff in 1988 said in the old days ‘these paintings were only seen in part as you learnt and went through ceremonies, even though they were not secret” – again knowledge is powerful.

Late 19th century Spencer and Gillen (19th century anthropologists) working in central Australia wrote of wondrous works of art – huge ground paintings, towering sculptures of wood, feather and fur and artefacts covered in same designs seen in paintings today. So 60 years later, in 1971, a new art form was evolving- for the first time separate from ceremonial life that accompanied Dreamtime symbols. Now, these paintings are housed at the Australian Museum with approval from the Papunya community, to be taken care of for eternity and preserve this important part of Aboriginal/Australian culture.

“I am deeply indebted and very grateful to all of these people for sharing their knowledge and understanding of the works, now a crucial part of the Museum’s information database. But it should be remembered that these interpretations can only give a glimpse into another world of meaning – to understand all is the journey of a lifetime."

Kate Khan, AMRI Senior Fellow

Note: Due to the sacred nature of the paintings copy’s or reproductions cannot be displayed on this site. Please visit the link below to see examples of these wonderful works.

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