Honey Ant Coun­try

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by Kim Ma­hood

The route to Pa­punya from Alice Springs, via Glen He­len Gorge and the Western MacDon­nell Ranges, takes you through colour-sat­u­rated coun­try frac­tured with ge­o­log­i­cal up­heavals, sculpted by wind and wa­ter, scored and scoured by time. A crenel­lated hor­i­zon­tal strip of dark red dolomite, in places barely a me­tre thick, stalks along the foothills of the ranges like a horde of mi­grat­ing stegosaurs. In the dis­tance is the dark blue bulk of Mount Son­der: the Sleep­ing Woman lies prone and splayed, a vast fer­til­ity god­dess with breasts and flanks cleft with in­digo shad­ows.

It’s a tableau of ar­rested move­ment, as if the cre­ation be­ings have paused for the sec­onds it takes you to pass, and will re­sume the lively and in­ven­tive busi­ness of mak­ing the coun­try as soon as you are gone.

This is also the land­scape made fa­mous by the Na­matjira school of painters, and while Al­bert Na­matjira

is the name as­so­ci­ated with the glow­ing wa­ter­colours that white Aus­tralians recog­nise and ad­mire, painters such as Wen­ten Rubun­tja and Otto Pareroultja cap­ture more force­fully the pat­tern of these an­cient hills.

Past the gorge the coun­try flat­tens and opens to re­veal patches of mulga and the sug­ges­tion of grassy plains. At the turn-off to Pa­punya a red four-wheel-drive wagon is pulled over, bon­net up, two Abo­rig­i­nal men pon­der­ing its in­nards. When one of them flags me down I stop and roll down the pas­sen­ger win­dow.

“You got a towrope?” he says.

“You need a pull start?”

“No. Need a tow to Pa­punya.”

Pa­punya is 80 kilo­me­tres away, on an un­sealed road I haven’t driven be­fore.

“I can’t tow you that far,” I say. “Can I tell some­one in Pa­punya you’re bro­ken down?”

“Al­ready,” he says, mean­ing that the mes­sage has been sent.

“You got plenty of wa­ter?”

“Yuwa, we got wa­ter.” He as­sesses me. “You got any sand­wiches?”

“Sorry.” I of­fer the bag of nuts and seeds I’ve been nib­bling, which he ac­cepts with­out en­thu­si­asm. Since I’ve eaten the larger nuts, it’s mostly pepi­tas and sun­flower seeds.

The south­ern as­pect of Haasts Bluff, sim­pli­fied by light and dis­tance into the pur­plish-blue tones repli­cated and made fa­mous by Na­matjira, dom­i­nates the ap­proach to Pa­punya. When I drive through the ranges the shift in light changes the colour and tex­ture of the rock, turn­ing it fleshy pink and seamed, like flayed mus­cle mar­bled with fat. Na­matjira painted this view of the range, known as Alum­baura, in the fi­nal months of his life, which he spent in Pa­punya un­der house ar­rest for sup­ply­ing his cousin Henoch Raber­aba with al­co­hol.

Pa­punya ap­pears to be a ran­dom scat­ter of build­ings punc­tu­ated with bougainvil­lea and eu­ca­lypts. In fact, the town­ship’s lay­out, com­pris­ing a cen­tral cir­cle with a con­cen­tric semi­cir­cle ra­di­at­ing from each quad­rant, is based on rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the Honey Ant Dream­ing: the tjupi (honey ant) trav­elled through here and then headed east where it man­i­fested as the Tjupi hills.

It was in the early 1970s at Pa­punya that the for­tu­itous con­junc­tion of a highly strung young school­teacher, some se­nior Abo­rig­i­nal law­men, and a plan to paint a school mu­ral gave rise to what be­came the Western Desert paint­ing move­ment. The story of Ge­of­frey Bar­don and the canon of first-gen­er­a­tion desert painters is part of our Indige­nous art his­tory. What is less well known is that Pa­punya did not have a ded­i­cated paint­ing space, an art cen­tre as we un­der­stand it to­day, un­til 2009.

Pa­punya Tula, the or­gan­i­sa­tion that has be­come syn­ony­mous with the emer­gence of the Western Desert art move­ment, is a co­op­er­a­tive that for many years op­er­ated out of Pa­punya, ser­vic­ing artists in camps and

com­mu­ni­ties that ex­tended hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres in all di­rec­tions. The home­lands move­ment of the 1970s and ’80s saw many of the artists, es­pe­cially the Pin­tupi, re­turn to their own coun­try. Pa­punya Tula re­lo­cated its field­work base to the Pin­tupi com­mu­ni­ties of Kin­tore and Ki­wirrikurra, and es­tab­lished a re­tail out­let in Alice Springs. While it con­tin­ued to ser­vice the se­nior Pa­punya-based painters, no­tably Long Jack Philli­pus Tjaka­marra, Tim Leura Tjapalt­jarr and Clif­ford Pos­sum Tjapalt­jarri, and sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion painter Michael Nel­son Tjaka­marra, its fo­cus was on the Pin­tupi.

The 1990s saw the mar­ket­place for Indige­nous art spin­ning into the strato­sphere. Car­pet­bag­gers thrived in a land­scape where codes of prac­tice were still be­ing thrashed out. Art cen­tres pro­lif­er­ated, and by the mid ’90s the Pa­punya Tula brand was just one of many strands of the desert-paint­ing move­ment. In Pa­punya, the artists con­tin­ued to ag­i­tate for an art cen­tre of their own. The byzan­tine pro­cesses it took to achieve this are doc­u­mented in Vivien John­son’s ex­cel­lent book Streets of Pa­punya.

Pa­punya Tjupi Arts was in­cor­po­rated in late 2006, and op­er­ated from a two-bed­room house be­long­ing to the North­ern Ter­ri­tory Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment, be­fore mov­ing in 2009 to the premises it oc­cu­pies to­day.

I ask for di­rec­tions and am pointed to the western edge of town, via Leura Street and Pos­sum Cres­cent, where I find the cen­tre housed in a vast besser-block and cor­ru­gated-iron build­ing that was orig­i­nally the com­mu­nity store and later the lo­cal garage. Aban­doned for some years be­fore Pa­punya Tjupi ac­quired it, the build­ing was signed over by the com­mu­nity coun­cil days be­fore the fed­eral gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tion made such coun­cils re­dun­dant.

On the con­crete slab out­side the cen­tre, sev­eral el­derly women sit on paint-stained vinyl cush­ions and work with deep con­cen­tra­tion. In­side, the cav­ernous build­ing sup­ports paint­ing on a grand scale. The artists, all women apart from one old man paint­ing in a cor­ner, work on big can­vases, some on ta­bles, oth­ers on the floor. The still­ness and fo­cus of the artists is a coun­ter­point to the ef­flo­res­cent en­ergy of the paint­ings. I’ve been told that Pa­punya Tjupi Arts is the ex­em­plar of an artist-driven resur­gence. The cur­rent artists are the wives, sis­ters and de­scen­dants of the found­ing artists of the 1970s. There are traces of the for­mal Pa­punya style that evolved from the orig­i­nal paint­ing move­ment – the way Martha McDon­ald Na­palt­jarri, daugh­ter of Shorty Lungkata Tjun­gur­rayi, ap­plies dots; the geo­met­ric lozenges of Mau­reen Poul­son Na­pan­gardi’s Wa­ter Dream­ing paint­ings – but the limited colour pal­ette has gone, and “work­ing big” has un­leashed a man­i­fest bold­ness and con­fi­dence.

To­day Martha McDon­ald Na­palt­jarri is paint­ing on a bright red back­ground, us­ing yel­lows and greens to fill the spa­ces be­tween a dra­matic scaf­fold­ing of black. Char­lotte Philli­pus Na­purrula, daugh­ter of Long Jack, sits on one end of a 2-me­tre can­vas and paints fine con­tour lines of cop­per on black. “Tali,” she says when I ask what she’s paint­ing. Sand­hills. The in­ferred “stupid ques­tion” re­mains un­said. A Kalipinypa Wa­ter Dream­ing paint­ing by Mau­reen Poul­son Na­pan­gardi is a shim­mer of over­lap­ping di­a­monds that rep­re­sent the rip­ples on wa­ter and the light­ning that pre­cedes rain. When I pho­to­graph it the cam­era strug­gles to fo­cus, the im­age flick­er­ing like fish scales un­der wa­ter.

The work of Ti­lau Nan­gala com­bines a cal­li­graphic sim­plic­ity with the dots and cir­cles of tra­di­tional paint­ing. In 2008, at the age of 75, she un­der­took a print­mak­ing work­shop that trig­gered a process she grap­pled with in sub­se­quent years, even­tu­ally re­sult­ing in the dy­namic, pared-back lines of her con­tem­po­rary work.

On the wall of the art cen­tre’s of­fice a Doris Bush Nun­gar­rayi paint­ing – bronze and turquoise on a black back­ground – writhes with amoeba forms that threaten to spill off the can­vas. Like many of the older painters, Doris Bush Nun­gar­rayi has a back­story of loss, re­con­nec­tion to coun­try, and the dis­cov­ery through paint­ing of a cel­e­bra­tory means of ex­pres­sion.

The art cen­tre man­ager, Joanna Byrne, is about to re­sign for fam­ily rea­sons. One of those in­domitable women on whom the re­mote art cen­tres de­pend, Byrne is sorry to go, but says she’s con­fi­dent that the next man­ager will in­herit a flour­ish­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion. The cen­tre’s artists, who range in age from 30 to 90, have found a vo­cab­u­lary with which they con­tinue to ex­per­i­ment and ex­pand, and the Pa­punya Tjupi trade­mark is dis­tin­guish­ing it­self from Pa­punya Tula in style, scale and orig­i­nal­ity.

One ques­tion that begs to be asked con­cerns the ab­sence of men. Byrne tells me it’s to do with tim­ing, the lim­i­ta­tions of the build­ing and the gen­der pro­hi­bi­tions that com­pli­cate Indige­nous desert cul­ture. At the time of the resur­gence of paint­ing in Pa­punya most of the artists were women. The cur­rent build­ing doesn’t lend it­self to divi­sion, which means there’s no ded­i­cated space for men to work. A grow­ing num­ber of men use the art cen­tre after hours, and the pro­vi­sion of a paint­ing shed for them is a pri­or­ity.

As if on cue, sev­eral men en­ter the build­ing. It’s time for the weekly money meet­ing, and time for me to leave.

Just be­yond the arts cen­tre I stop to pho­to­graph a tableau of desert ar­chi­tec­ture: an A-frame church sport­ing a cross and a bell­tower, an el­e­vated wa­ter tank, and a white shed of curved cor­ru­gated iron that juts from the earth like a gi­ant half-buried drum. On the hori­zon, partly ob­scured by the build­ings, the three hum­mocks of the Tjupi hills jut from the earth like a gi­ant half-buried honey ant.

Doris Bush Nun­gar­rayi has a back­story of loss, re­con­nec­tion to coun­try, and the dis­cov­ery through paint­ing of a cel­e­bra­tory means of ex­pres­sion.

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