Cover image is by Charlie Egalie Tjapaltjarri (Australian, b. ca. 1940–2002)
Possum Dreaming , 1994

In my last blog post I wrote about the Pintupi community from Australia’s Outback that is the subject of an Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) video from 1988. In this post I will delve deeper into this community around that time to discuss concepts of racialized organizations (Ray), appropriation of technology (Eglash) and how the label of “innovation” is bestowed through social and political processes rather than being an objective quality of something or someone (Irani). I focus on the innovation of Pintupi Aboriginal Art and the communication processes and networks that developed around it to move it from the category of cultural artefact to fine contemporary Art. I will review the winners and losers from this innovation, and finally bring the discussion back to the original video. My information is of course second hand, based mostly on the accounts of anthropologists Myers and Morphy who wrote about Pintupi artists.

The Pintupi People

As an Australian, I was very interested in the video about the Center for Appropriate Technology and its work with the Pintupi in Australia’s remote outback. As noted in my last blog post, the video failed to mention any innovations of the local people to solve their own problems. The video producers appeared to have a patronizing attitude towards the Pintupi, which is unsurprising given that attitude has been a persistent feature of Aboriginal Affairs since Australia was invaded and settled in 1788 by the British.

The name of the tribe was very familiar to me because their community was a focal point for Aboriginal land rights protests in the latter half of the twentieth century and their people were involved in either protesting or celebrating the bicentenary of Australian occupation in 1988.  The Pintupi people (so named because the original camp was called Papunya) had been moved off their ancestral lands to Papunya, their traditions destroyed by a government policy of “assimilation” and were really devastated as a community. The conditions in the Papunya camp were at times atrocious and people were despondent, many addicted to drugs and alcohol. See the Appendix for more background.

Art in Pintupi

There was another big reason for my knowing the name Pintupi: the Pintupi were renowned for being the catalyst the Central Desert art movement whose art were the famous “dot paintings” that have been shown all over the world. I learned about it in high school.

Arts and crafts were considered by white officials a way of keeping the Aboriginal people occupied and lifting their spirits. Aboriginal people were introduced to painting acrylic on boards through white people, but long before this, ochre painting was a key part of their traditions, either on bodies or caves and in rituals and ceremonies.  Painting was very sacred, and traditionally only mature initiated males could be involved with it.

The Pintupi people began painting in earnest in the early seventies, and you can read more in Appendix 1 if interested. It was very surprising to me that the video producers failed to mention how culturally important this community was because they really were innovators in the art field.

Pintupi Art Innovation

 Once introduced to painting on canvas, the Pintupi artists became voracious painters. Like Caribbean disc jockeys in New York, they appropriated the painting “technology” and innovated wildly, moving their style away from realism to the iconic abstract expressionist “dot paintings” we know today (Eglash; Myers; Morphy). With the support of art advisor Bardon and his successors and the government funded Aboriginal Arts Board, the artists established the Papunya Tula Company as a cooperative owned by the artists themselves, to promote their art collectively (Myers). Bardon began to build a market for the artists, partly in order to keep them supplied with canvases as they were producing paintings at such a rate, but also because the art advisor was also an anthropologist who believed in the power and value of these paintings too.

Aboriginal Valuation of the Art

The artists were very clear, these paintings were showing their Dreaming, their history and connection to Country, and they were extremely valuable. So valueable in fact that only those mature initiated men whose ancestors came from that part of the land were able to paint its Dreamtime stories and history, and only mature initiated men could view the paintings at all, either when they were in progress or completed (Myers; Myers; Keller). 

They owned these stories like property and producing paintings of Dreamtime and selling them was giving them to others. As a result, the artists expected a lot in exchange for what they felt was essentially giving away their land and their legacy to white people (Myers). In this way, the painting was a way for them to assert ownership of their traditional lands that white people had taken.

Western Valuation of the Art

However, the art market did not have the same sense of appreciation for Pintupi art, at least not in the beginning. The art market is a capitalist, Western institution, and I would argue a racialized one at that. The racialized art market organizations were ill equipped to connect the resources of cosmopolitan buyers and galleries to black artists in a remote camp in outback Australia.

The art advisors had to mediate between the expectant artists and an unresponsive art market. Myers, an anthropologist from the US saw firsthand that they faced a huge problem of translation because the art style was so new, and it broke the traditional categories of the art market and the Western view of aesthetics.

Myers writes about the art-culture system in the art market, which is the social and cultural system that categorizes products and assesses their value in line with this categorization. Myers and Morphy both explain that this system is firmly grounded in Western culture and values.  As Irani describes innovation in India, Myer, Keller and Morphy recognize this categorization is a social and cultural discursive process rather than inherent characteristics of the art piece, and it was systematically inclined to ignore the innovations of Aboriginal art.

Underlying definitions of market value in the art-culture system is the capitalist schema, whereby a work only has value in exchange. To give the Pintupi art value in our capitalist ideology, it needs to be commoditized, ignoring value in use in order to be valued in terms of what it will sell for on an open market (Ray).

On the art side of the art-culture system, this category tends to comprise of urban and cosmopolitan works: generally White Global North products (Myers). The value of fine art depends on how innovative it is, the difference it has to other paintings produced before it, the painter’s skills and the work’s aesthetic value, based on Western definitions of aesthetics and evaluations of prior art (Myers; Morphy). This definition sounds to me like Jordan’s definition of hacking and hackers because the value of fine art depends on how good a hack it is, as assessed by the art world, valuers, art experts and other artists. (As an aside: the value is assessed by insiders, you could almost call it insider trading.) A valuable piece of fine art is a material practice that creates a difference, demonstrates mastery, impresses the artist peer group and often makes a political statement (Jordan).

If not considered fine art, their innovative art would be relegated to the category of cultural artefact. The category of “culture” tends to be reserved for remote, primitive, traditional, anthropologic products produced by people of color. Myers notes that Pintupi works needed a written description to go alongside them, and as a result are categorized in the culture category because they have more of an anthropological value.

The value of a cultural artefact is determined by its age and the extent to which is was “pre-contact” and “authentic” and free of Western influence (Myers). However, the materials (acrylic paints and canvas or boards) of Pintupi art were modern, and the techniques were all learned recently by the artists, so the works were neither old nor “untouched” techniques. Therefore, their value in the culture category was low, but they were highly innovative! Because the system was underpinned by the capitalist schema which generally gave power and value to white people, the art advisors and the Aboriginal Art Board knew they had to push to change the categorization to ensure the Pintupi art was recognized as fine art in order to achieve the kind of value in exchange the artists expected.

Recognition as Fine Art

At this time, in the early seventies, it was impossible for a remote community of art outsiders who had only recently been introduced to the cash system to change this categorization. For them to generate value in exchange, they needed insiders to guide, mentor, and champion their art.

Vivien Johnson, the then wife of artist Tim Johnson and an art insider, long maintained that Pintupi Aboriginal Art should be categorized as contemporary Australian fine art in order for it to achieve the valuation and recognition it deserved (Myers).

Morphy also argues that the category of fine art needs to be more multicultural and incorporate more points of view than the Western one. The Aboriginal artists of Papunya Tula broke the “culture” mold, producing art that was innovative, masterful, skillful, and full of iconography, meaning, aesthetic beauty and political statements. Why should it not be considered fine art?

This is very similar thinking about traditional people’s innovation in India like the lota, relegating it to jugaad and therefore traditional and useful and quaint, but not innovative.

The macro level conditions were however ideal for this change to happen, and there were many supporters of these artists that helped them navigate the racialized organizations and put in the work to change the processes of art valuation.

Communication networks supporting the Art

Conditions at the State and macro level were present for a well-resourced and well-connected network to grow around the objective of supporting Aboriginal fine art.

Firstly, the Australian Government changed its position on Aboriginal Affairs in the early seventies from a strategy of assimilation to one of self-determination, and the government held the view that producing Aboriginal art would be instrumental in achieving self-reliance. Idealistically, this was because an indigenous art movement would help Aboriginal people feel proud to express themselves as Indigenous Australians, and they could rally behind their culture and traditions. More cynically, this was a branding exercise:  aboriginal art could be an example of how Australia was improving race relations, and Pintupi art could bring more tourism to Australia’s outback (Myers).

 In addition, the national government took over management of the Aboriginal people and their camps, meaning that they could effectively operate the camps to put this “self-determination” strategy into effect (Commonwealth Parliament House).

As explained by Ray, a change in policy in a racialized organization does not guarantee a change in the reality for the subordinate people, in fact it can make racial inequality even worse because people take their eye off the ball. However, the Whitlam government in 1972 put in place and funded organizations to implement their policy: the Aboriginal Art Board (AAB), the Australian Council for the Arts and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (Myers; Commonwealth Parliament House). These institutions were able to use their knowledge, communication channels and networks to connect the Pintupi to the art world’s resources.

These organizations set up prestigious art prizes and sought out corporate sponsors. These sophisticated cultural events were exactly what the art market and corporate sponsors want to experience, so they feel they can do something for Indigenous Australia without ever having to put their champagne down. Winning a national prize like the NATSIAA gave artists direct exposure to the art market and resulted in overwhelming demand for their work (Gibson; Keller).

The art movement also benefited from the appointment of key individuals to positions of power such as the AAB’s first Chairperson, Bob Edwards, who was a skilled administrator who ensured strong and effective Papunya and indigenous representation and decision making on the Board. Due to his passion and skill, he was able to negotiate the art world, and get the work exhibited in local and overseas art galleries. Edwards was personable and well-connected and could operate to connect the local indigenous world to the international art scene as a bridge between these networks. His work helped create bridging social and cultural capital

There were also the art advisors, Bardon and then Fannin and many others afterwards, based at Papunya who liaised between the fledgling markets, the AAC, the galleries and the artists. These advisors nurtured the communities creativity and encouraged and supported artists entries into art competitions (Keller; Gibson).

Keller quotes such an advisor who was working with women fiber artists in South Australia, describing her role ((Keller page 8):

“I just had a feeling…that she had such a sense for sculpture and architecture…and ways of arranging space. …I remember just saying to her, keep making anything you want, just whatever you think of. Let’s make it and leave the rest to me. …everybody was thinking I was crazy. I remember, as I was loading it on the plane [which was very difficult] … But we did get it on the plane, and it won in the Art Award.’

(Moon 2003, pers. com., 8th October)

 These advisors worked the established white world processes of communication, capital raising and networking to drum up the cash to purchase art supplies for exhibitions. They wrote documentation for the art works in English to prove their “authenticity” and “uniqueness” which they felt was vital to supporting their value and making them salable in the art market.  They were bilingual: figuratively, and literally translating the value of the Papunya Tula Company’s body of work into international fine art value.

Key individuals like Edwards and the AAB and other organizations did the marketing, organized exhibitions, sought out patrons, lectured at universities, made decisions, sought government grants and all the work to ensure the art movement was funded. Of course, there were always complaints from the art advisors that more funding was required. They felt they needed more advisors because the painters were so prolific: the art advisors couldn’t keep up with the documentation needed so not all art was salable, which was a missed market opportunity (Myers). 

There was resistance to and undermining of these policies by the local management hired by the State governments (who had lost control of Aboriginal Affairs in favor of the national government).  The local authorities were against indigenous art because they felt it was encouraging insubordination; it encouraged protests (albeit in artistic form), and pride in tradition and in being Aboriginal, which went against the previous policy (and current State policy) of assimilation (Myers). Many other white people were against what the art represented, Aboriginal land rights and protests against the devastation wrought by the British colonization of their home.

The art advisors had a very precarious position trying to encourage the work of the artists whilst being scrutinized by the local authorities, essentially feeling like “gun-runners” trafficking illegal art (Myers). There was a lot of burn out by the people filling these positions, but the role continued to be filled whilst the art kept coming. In this way, the art advisors helped navigate the pitfalls that could not have been avoided without a white “benefactor”, which is a hallmark of a racialized organization as described by Ray.

With all these resources and skilled operators working to build communication networks to promote the ever growing, high quality art production of the Papunya Tula Company, the art was able to reach the international art market and eventually be valued in monetary terms in equal terms as the value placed on it by the artists themselves.

By the year 2000, when Sydney Australia held the Summer Olympic Games, the Art Gallery of NSW held a retrospective of Papunya Tula Company’s artists and work, called Genesis and Genius (Myers; AGNSW). This exhibition showcased the work of the artists to all the international Olympic visitors, recognizing the Pintupi artists as being the genesis for Western Desert art movement.

Winners and Losers

As explained by authors Berkun and Godin, it is myth that all innovation is good for society (Berkun; Godin). There are winners and losers even from the Papunya Tula Company innovating to produce Aboriginal fine art, as it becomes commodified on the international art market.

Firstly, there is the question of exploitation of the Pintupi and other indigenous artists. The artists painted their culture and their personal Dreaming, selling it for a few hundred dollars. Westerners then “made” the market for the product, gaining supernormal profits from its resale.

Myers quotes Anne-Marie Willis in his book who writes about this commodification of art like Irani and Lindtner do about Indian and Chinese innovation respectively:

“The meanings are not buried in the works, they are actively constructed through the agencies of art criticism, journalism, context of appearance. . . .The paintings do not produce useful knowledge for those who view and buy them; for the purchaser they are tantalizing tokens of Otherness, an Otherness which cannot threaten, and is in a subordinate position because of its dependence on the system of commodification as it operates within a neo-colonial context. “

(Myers page 315)

The artists themselves generally don’t financially benefit from the astronomical resale prices their art received (Myers). They are still living in poor conditions, in communities dependent on welfare. The capitalist myth of the “trickle-down effect” has not brought any lasting benefit there.

Indeed, many like Myers see the influence of the commodification of the art as corrupting, but to me it is just the capitalist market doing its work as it does on all people. The Pintupi people knew the value of their paintings, and they knew they were being exploited by not receiving fair compensation for their work, and this often made them very angry (Myers). Over time they are bound to learn the value of money.

As the government in recent years has stepped back to allow the Aboriginal art industry to be self-regulating, there was a flood of inauthentic and low-quality art works on the market (Myers; Gibson). This lead to stratification of the art into a fine art and a tourist quality, and to the pursuit of art from particular artists rather than from a community, which then stratifies the community into winners and losers. Many artists sell their work to the highest bidder rather than honoring exclusive deals they have signed, or the agreements with their cooperative that funded their career, and white folk fight over who has the closest relationship with the artists (Myers).

            Another losing group were communities in other parts of Australia who felt that resources were unfairly prioritized towards the Central Desert artists because they are the ones with the biggest name overseas (Gibson). In fact, more urbanized Aboriginal communities have been compared to Central Desert peoples and judged lacking because they had “no visible culture to speak of” (Gibson). This of course is a terrible insult and certainly the Pintupi are not to blame for this, but it has been noted.

Still, there have been incredible benefits flowing from this innovation to move Papunya Tula art into the fine art world.

The Pintupi people and other Aboriginal people have benefited from the art facilitating a connection with Country and their traditions and their identity as Indigenous Australians. The international recognition of their work has led to a sense of pride that has benefited Aboriginal people across Australia, and according to Myers participation of urban and remote Aboriginal people in the running of Aboriginal Art Board, visits to Country to share ideas, art workshops and other programs have brought different tribes closer together.

Indigenous people in other parts of the country have taken the example of the Pintupi and revived traditional skills and culture that was almost lost, such as fiber weaving in South Australia (Keller) and line painting and carving in New South Wales (Gibson).

Indeed, the women fiber artists have innovated themselves and “gone sculptural”, progressing from baskets and other woven fiber implements to sculpture and in the same way moved from culture to fine art. As an aside, women were initially not even allowed in Aboriginal culture to see painting happening, let alone paint themselves. They appropriated painting “technology” by turning to fiber art, which did not have these same restrictions to express themselves artistically (Eglash; Keller).

Lastly, the artists found a way through their art to bring their Dreaming to the forefront of Australian culture. Every school child who studies art now knows of the Pintupi camp and what the people did there. Aboriginal art is now taught in every fine arts program in the country due to their influence and achievements. This has enriched Australian culture immensely.

The Pintupi are not as portrayed in the video passive and neglected consumers of western technology, but people who work creatively to honor their traditions, keep their culture alive and win back their lands and dignity. It is this, their spirit of innovation, so grounded in tradition and full of respect for Country that was missing from that 1988 video about appropriate technology. Hopefully, this paper has righted that omission.

Works Cited

AGNSW. Art Gallery of New South Wales – Archive: Papunya Tula. 2000, http://archive.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/exhibitions/archived/2000/papunya_tula/.

Berkun, Scott. The Myths of Innovation. First edition., O’Reilly, 2007.

Cirino, Gina. AMERICAN MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINAL ART. 2015, p. 183.

Commonwealth Parliament House. Overview of Indigenous Affairs: Part 1: 1901 to 1991. 1991, https://www.aph.gov.au/about_parliament/parliamentary_departments/parliamentary_library/pubs/bn/1011/indigenousaffairs1. Australia.

Eglash, Ron. Appropriating Technology: Vernacular Science and Social Power. U of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Emberson, Jill. Appropriate Technology. ABC Science, 1988. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrYEGbAZhzc.

Gibson, Lorraine. “’We Don’t Do Dots–Ours Is Lines’–Asserting a Barkindji Style.(Report).” Oceania, vol. 78, no. 3, University of Sydney, 2008, p. 280.

Godin, Benoît. “Innovation: A Conceptual History of an Anonymous Concept.” Edward Elgar Publishing, vol. 25, no. 32, 2017, p. 36.

Irani, Lilly. Chasing Innovation Making Entrepreneurial Citizens in Modern India. eScholarship, 2019.

Jordan, Tim. Hacking: Digital Media and Technological Determinism. Polity, 2008.

Keller, Christiane. “From Baskets to Bodies: Innovation Within Aboriginal Fibre Practice.” Craft + Design Enquiry, vol. 2, 2010, p. np.

Morphy, Howard. Becoming Art: Exploring Cross-Cultural Categories. 2008.

Myers, Fred R. Painting Culture the Making of an Aboriginal High Art. Duke University Press, 2002.

Owen, Kate. Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri – Artist Biography. 2020, https://www.kateowengallery.com/artists/Cli12/Clifford-Possum-Tjapaltjarri.htm.

Ray, Victor. “A Theory of Racialized Organizations.” American Sociological Review, vol. 84, no. 1, SAGE Publications, 2019, pp. 26–53, doi:10.1177/0003122418822335.

Appendix 1 Background

The video we reviewed for Module 4 was shot in 1988, the year of Australia’s bicentenary. Sensitivity to race relations nationally was then at an all-time high because 1988 marked 200 years of occupation and yet indigenous native title and land rights were still being denied in Australian courts, the aboriginal people were still dying in great numbers in police custody, people were only just being returned to their ancestral lands (like Kintore), and no one had made reparations for the decades old policies of forced separation of indigenous children from their parents. Given this context, the video does seem quite tone deaf, even for 1988.

The Pintupi are known in Australia, as they were back when this video was produced. As mentioned by the narrator, the Pintupi had been forcibly removed from their traditional lands and were settled in Papunya, but at the time of the video had returned to their homelands in Kintore (Emberson). In addition, some of their members were the last people in Australia to live a traditional nomadic life (the Pintupi Nine joined the community from the Gibson Desert in 1984) and that brought the community some renown. This community was a focus of land rights demonstrations, and the scene of rock music videos and events held to protest the treatment of Aboriginal people in Australia.

Protests were based there because Aboriginal settlements in remote parts of Australia like Papunya are very basic, and at times the conditions were horrendous and residents died from treatable conditions (Cirino; Myers). The Superintendent and supervisors of Papunya throughout the fifties and sixties were responsible for “assimilating” the aboriginal people into white culture as was the government strategy of the day, which basically meant destroying their culture and free will (Myers; Commonwealth Parliament House). The indigenous people suffered boredom, despondency, violence, and despair from the loss of their lands and heritage, and they were dependent on the State for everything (Myers; Gibson).

Alongside of all this political and cultural renown, the Pintupi were known for their incredible skills as contemporary Australian artists. Art and painting were a vital part of the Pintupi communities’ lives, and a source of pride and community in the camp. Painting was handed down from their ancestors for rituals and ceremonies using body painting and cave painting.

In addition, like many Aboriginal communities, Pintupi people produced and sold arts and crafts, souvenirs and trinkets to tourists or to other businesses to make money (Keller; Gibson; Myers). Earnings were very modest, providing a small supplement to their welfare payments. The welfare payments themselves were characterized as a training and development allowance because producing craft was considered “work” by the government and by the Pintupi people, and the government believed it was a way to deal with “the Aboriginal Problem” and keep boredom and despondency at bay (Myers).

In the 1940s, Albert Namatjira who lived near Papunya began painting to great acclaim in a realistic modern style, and that style was how Pintupi people initially started to paint in Papunya. Myers writes that “painting boards” was introduced there by an art advisor and teacher called Geoffrey Bardon in the camps in the early 70s as a form of arts and craft, but according to one of the most famous painters from there, Clifford Possum Tjapiljarri, he received his first set of acrylic paints from Albert Namatjira himself (Myers; Morphy; Keller; Owen).

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