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The origins of the Modern Aboriginal Art Movement also known as the Western Desert Art Movement, as we know it today, can be traced to the community of Papunya, a government enforced outstation, and an unknowing catalyst, an art teacher by the name of Geoffrey Bardon.

Papunya community C.1970s
Aerial view of Papunya community in the 1970s
In 1971, Bardon, noted that elders telling stories drew pictures in the sand to accompany the tales. He encouraged the schoolchildren to paint a mural in the traditional style, but the elders amongst them decided the task was better suited to adult artists. Thus, the origins of the wonderful Papunya Tula Art Cooperative formed.

Papunya itself is the epicenter of the Honey Ant Dreaming, where associated Songlines converge and is famously known for its namesake, the ‘Honey Ant Dreaming’ mural. This renowned mural adheres to the strict protocols necessary for the art form, giving it a spiritual context. The elders used earthen tones of ochre, black, red, and yellow, and painted on the wall of the school that Bardon taught at. At the center of the community, the mural was seen and admired by many people and is broadly understood historically, to be the catalyst for an artistic revolution and the foundations for the Aboriginal Art Movement.

In “an act of cultural vandalism” (Ryan in Bardon, 1991), the mural was painted over, but its influence had already reached far into the community. Smaller paintings of Jukurrpa (Dreaming stories) appeared on an array of surfaces, like Masonite boards, matchboxes and tin cans. Initially comprised only of men, the collective embraced female painters in the 1980s—most notably Pansy Napangardi. In 1994, women began participating in creating Aboriginal Art more frequently, and today, some of the movement’s greatest artists are women.

Traditionally, these images were created in sand and as body art for spiritual ceremonies. Hard surfaces and acrylic paint were a new, Western way of making permanent art. As the work gained popularity, it drew criticism from the Aboriginal community. The art revealed “too much of their sacred heritage” and from 1973-75, many images were camouflaged by dotting to conceal their secret designs.

Before the Western Desert Movement originated, outsiders were not permitted to see the details of Jukurrpa, for elders believed it “broke the immutable plan of descent,” interfering with the link men had with their ancestors. As such, the intricacies were hidden in the art, providing a broader picture and keeping totemic secrets safe.

After the Aboriginal Land Rights Act was established, many people left Papunya and returned to their traditional lands. Despite this, the cooperative continued to grow and the Pupunya Tula Artist Collective is well and strong to this day, painting on their homelands.
Though slightly altered for public viewing, this Aboriginal Art collective has produced incredible pieces, culminating in what is widely considered to be one of the most exciting contemporary art forms of the 20th century. Created with great respect, detail, and reverence for the sacred link with totemic ancestors, each piece offers a unique glimpse into one of the oldest and most unique cultures on earth.