In July 2021, Beyonce posted on her Instagram feed a photo of herself in front of an artwork by Aboriginal Australian artist Yukultji Napangati. It was one of two paintings that she and Jay-Z had purchased two years earlier during a solo exhibition by Napangati at New York’s Salon 94. While in New York for the exhibition, the artist had dinner in the Manhattan home of comedian Steve Martin. Her work has been exhibited around the world.

Napangati was no ordinary artist. Until she was a teenager, she had no contact with anyone beyond her desert homeland. She didn’t even know the outside world existed. She and eight other family members moved about the Gibson Desert, hunting kangaroos and goannas, and gathering bush foods as her people, the Pintupi, had for tens of thousands of years. They hid under bushes whenever planes passed overhead. When trucks and tractors left tracks in the sand, Napangati and her family wondered what giant animal had passed across the desert.

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In 1984, a father and his son were fixing a flat tire near the remote Pintupi settlement of Kiwirrkurra, close to the state border between Western Australia and the Northern Territory, when a nearly naked man brandishing a spear appeared over a sand dune. Frightened, the man with the car fired his gun into the air. Equally frightened, the man with the spear ran away. Over the days that followed, the Pintupi Nine, which included Napangati and her family, emerged from the desert, tentatively at first, and then they decided to stay; it was a time of drought and life in the desert was getting more difficult.

As part of the adjustment to town life, Yukultji and her sister, Yalti, spent time with Kiwirrkurra’s Pintupi artists. Kiwirrkurra’s art center did not open in its current form until 2011, so the artists, including many male friends and relatives, painted at ad hoc art studios around town, or on the verandas of local homes. With very few means of gainful employment or in-town entertainment, painting was both a popular pastime and a potential source of income.

By the early 1990s, a group of Pintupi women launched an initiative to start painting and earn income independently of their male family members. The sisters picked up brushes and began to paint. “No one taught me how to paint,” Yukultji Napangati told an interviewer on her first visit to Sydney for an exhibition in 2005. “I just started to paint.”

Australia's Western Desert Art Movement Turns 50
Papunya Tula has become one of the most respected players in the world of Indigenous art, with two art centers—one in Kiwirrkurra, the other in Kintore—and an art gallery, shown here, in Alice Springs. Anthony Ham

Her artistic career was launched by Papunya Tula, an Indigenous artists’ cooperative that provided the art materials to the women and sold paintings created in Kiwirrkurra. Like Napangati, Papunya Tula had obscure desert origins: in 1972, a group of artists from Papunya, a small Indigenous community in central Australia, established their own company. Starting out as an informal gathering of local men painting wherever they could find some shade, Papunya Tula has become one of the most respected players in the world of Indigenous art, with two art centers—one in Kiwirrkurra, the other in Kintore—and an art gallery in Alice Springs, a small desert city close to the geographical heart of Australia.

Papunya Tula still operates much as it did 50 years ago. The original 49 Indigenous owners or stakeholders and their families continue to own Papunya Tula, serve on its board of directors, and receive an annual dividend. Unlike many other Indigenous art galleries and companies, the Indigenous owners of Papunya Tula steer the direction of the cooperative and make all of the major decisions. Hundreds of artists across generations have painted under their guidance; at any one time, between 120 and 160 artists are on Papunya Tula’s books. And through it all, the cooperative has maintained its role as a founder and ethical custodian of the painting traditions of the Western Desert.

Australia's Western Desert Art Movement Turns 50
Alice Springs, a small desert city close to the geographical heart of Australia, is home to dozens of art galleries. Anthony Ham

Everyone in Alice Springs, home to dozens of art galleries, has a story about unethical practices in the world of Aboriginal art. Private operators have been known to pay large sums of money to painters and their families, even plying them with free alcohol, so that the painters will create artworks specifically for their benefactors, who then sell the paintings at great profit; only a small percentage of the profits from such transactions reaches the artists. At a less extreme level, most galleries pay only after a sale is made, and many pay far less than half of a painting’s proceeds to the artist.

Papunya Tula is different. For starters, it pays its artists upfront, and pays as much as 60 percent of the expected sale price. Crucially, the artists get paid whether anyone buys the painting or not.

For acting manager Grant Rundell, Papunya Tula’s success and reputation also comes down to the cooperative’s deep roots in the communities with which they work. All are welcome at the art centers owned and operated by the cooperative. Anyone who wishes to paint is encouraged to do so, and urged to tell the story behind the painting. Beginner artists may be paid as little as $50 for a simple artwork, depending on Papunya Tula’s expert assessment of its market value. For established artists, they might be paid tens of thousands of dollars. Everyone who paints is considered a Papunya Tula artist.

“You either support an art center that’s in a community, an art center that people can work in, and the money stays in the community,” said Rundell, “or you don’t care about the provenance of the painting and where it comes from.”

His predecessor, Paul Sweeney, agreed. “There’s a learned experience in the process of creating the paintings. Part of Papunya Tula’s best practice is the conversation that goes on about what each painting is about: What’s the place? What happened there? What’s the story? Painting here is a form of storytelling that has been transformed into an economy. We created the economy 50 years ago, and it has given way to a tremendous degree of self-empowerment and self-employment.”

That economy began with some of the original paintings being sold in 1972 for as little as $20. They’re now worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Artists like Napangati, Eileen Napaltjarri and George Tjungurrayi exhibit internationally; one Papunya Tula worker described Tjungurrayi as “the Salvador Dali of the Western Desert.” One painting by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri (1932-2002), one of the Western Desert’s elder statesmen artists, set the record in 2007 for a Papunya Tula painting when it sold at auction to the National Gallery of Australia for 2.4 million Australian dollars. Even at the level of non-elite artists, painting provides one of few reliable sources of income in remote communities where official unemployment rates sit at around 40 percent and are probably much higher.

It was time to see some of the paintings, and I stepped through the glass doors of the Papunya Tula Artists Gallery in Alice Springs. Australian writer Nicolas Rothwell once described the gallery, which has been around in some form since the 1980s, as “little short of the Florence Baptistery in its significance.”

Australia's Western Desert Art Movement Turns 50
Papunya Tula pays its artists upfront, and pays as much as 60 percent of the expected sale price of an artwork. Anthony Ham

In a city where many shops are shuttered at night and windows are barred in the downtown area, Papunya Tula is defiantly all glass, so that the 1,000-square-foot exhibition space appeared to double in size and extend out onto Todd Mall, the pedestrianized main street. Stepping inside was a journey through time and space. Paintings of great intricacy, including some by Yalti Napangati, and Rosie Nampitjinpa, another desert painter, hung from the walls, telling stories of creation, landscape and epic journeys. Staring at the paintings and their labyrinths of dots and lines, I felt my perspective shift, as if I were suddenly scanning the far horizon in the heat haze of a desert midday, or looking down on the Australian desert from above.

Around me, tourists in shorts and broad-brimmed hats came in to browse the catalogues and desert women and men spoke softly, keeping to themselves as they waited to speak with the gallery’s workers. The phone rang constantly.

Paul Sweeney, who worked at Papunya Tula for 25 of its 50 years, is a veteran of such days. “One moment you could be talking quietly with an elderly desert painter or having a screaming match with someone who wants to charter a plane,” he said. “Then, in the very next conversation, you could be talking to the director of the National Gallery, or some billionaire collector.”

If it feels like a clash of cultures, that’s because it is. Papunya Tula has field workers who work with the artists at its two art centers. As one of these field workers told me, Alice Springs is “where an ancient art form meets Western capitalism.”

That Papunya Tula should be still going strong 50 years after it began is quite the achievement. In a country where successful Indigenous policy outcomes are few, Papunya Tula is both 100 percent Aboriginal-owned and commercially successful. “Everyone here is my boss,” said one of Papunya Tula’s white workers, indicating the artists standing nearby.

“Papunya Tula’s success has a lot to do with the way it arrived on the scene,” Sweeney said, “the story of its origins.”

In search of those origins, I left Alice Springs, traveling north along the Stuart Highway, then northwest across the southern Tanami Desert. The roads narrowed, then emptied. Only occasional road trains—the three-trailer trucks that ply outback roads—rumbled into the north, and then, not so much. The low, red hills of the West MacDonnell Ranges receded in the rearview mirror to the south.

Nearly two hours into the drive, I left the paved road and took the Papunya road, a straight, flat track that faced few obstacles—an occasional dry creek bed, a formidable river red gum—on its long journey west. Signs pointed to remote cattle properties or Indigenous outstations. Broken fences ran to the far horizon.

Australia's Western Desert Art Movement Turns 50
Papunya, population 400, has a general store and fuel stop, a health center and government offices behind barbed wire, a church, an art center and a primary school. Anthony Ham

Low-slung Papunya, population 400, is a disparate place devoid of any identifiable center. It has a general store and fuel stop, a health center and government offices behind barbed wire, a church, an art center and a primary school.

Established in 1959 to house nomads coaxed from the desert by government officials in return for sugar, flour, housing and other handouts, Papunya was always an artificial creation. Papunya’s founders forced together a whole cast of language groups—Pintupi, Luritja, Arrernte, Kukatja and Warlpiri among them—paying little heed to traditional rivalries in the process. Papunya was a study in dislocation. Violence was common, and diabetes and other diseases swept through the newly sedentary communities; in some years in the mid-1960s, nearly half of Papunya’s inhabitants died from illness.

In 1971, Papunya was home to 1,400 souls when a 31-year-old Sydney teacher named Geoffrey Bardon arrived in town to teach at the local school. Truancy was rife and a public health emergency had taken hold of the town; many of Bardon’s students had no parents.

Soon after arriving in Papunya, Bardon asked the children to paint murals on the shabby school walls. His purpose was partly artistic, but he also hoped to rally the children around a project that might instill some community pride. The children soon lost interest. But the old men of the community, including the school’s caretakers and gardeners, asked if they could help out.

Their first attempts borrowed from realist Western techniques, just as Albert Namatjira (1902-59), Australia’s first Indigenous painter of renown, had a generation before. But the men in Papunya started over, adapting instead the dot and line techniques of sand mosaics and body paint used in traditional ceremonies. It was a desert revolution that marked the birth of a truly Indigenous artistic style.

At an exhibition of paintings from Papunya in Sydney in 2001, two years before his death, Bardon recalled the “intensive level of intuitive concentration” of the men as they painted. He also remembered the sense of “a tremulous illusion” in the style of painting that emerged. Bardon knew at the time that he was witnessing something special. It was, Bardon wrote in his 1979 book, Aboriginal Art of the Western Desert, “like a sudden rediscovery of their artistic heritage…These guardians of the culture had helped men living at the settlement, in conditions alien to their tribal past, to find a way back to their heritage.”

When the mural, which told the traditional creation story of the Honey Ant, was finished, the men asked if they could continue painting. Bardon provided them with paints and hardwood boards, anything he could find. He took the paintings to Alice Springs and they quickly sold, bringing 1,300 Australian dollars to the artists and wider community. Within six months, they sold more than 600 paintings. In October 1971, against the wishes of local government administrators, the painters formed a cooperative which, in June 1972, they named “Papunya Tula,” meaning “a meeting place for all brothers and cousins.”

By 1974, however, a maintenance worker had painted over the mural, and many of the painters left Papunya. Papunya is on Luritja and Warlpiri country, but many of the artists were Pintupi and they moved, in the early 1980s, back to their traditional lands farther west, deeper into the desert. Papunya Tula remained tied to Papunya for a time, but it eventually followed them west.

Australia's Western Desert Art Movement Turns 50
The author drove from 268 miles from Papunya to Kintore. Anthony Ham
Australia's Western Desert Art Movement Turns 50
The trip offered views of desert oaks. Anthony Ham

The style of paintings changed as well. In the early years, Sweeney said, “Many of the paintings were really accessible and you could see the iconography that people could relate to and the stories they could understand, and that was the doorway that people could happily open. This was the Papunya style. There was a rhythm to the paintings that people could tune into and understand.” There were, however, problems associated with the Papunya style, which included easily identifiable representations of animals and humans interacting with the spirit world. In the process, some artists unwittingly revealed through their paintings stories that were considered secret and sacred.

As Papunya Tula followed the Pintupi west, a different style emerged. “It was later, with much of the Pintupi art, that the movement became more abstract, wilder, and that’s where we are now,” said Sweeney.

With few traces of Papunya Tula’s origin story left to see in Papunya, I drove the road to Kintore, 268 miles to the west. Watched over by two long, rocky hills that rise like monuments from the desert floor, Kintore (or Walungurru in the Pintupi tongue) was only founded in 1981 to house the Pintupi who were leaving Papunya. The mountains, which represent man and woman in Pintupi Dreaming or creation stories, watch over a town spread haphazardly across the sand.

Australia's Western Desert Art Movement Turns 50
Kintore is watched over by two long, rocky hills that rise like monuments from the desert floor. Anthony Ham
Australia's Western Desert Art Movement Turns 50
Papunya Tula operates two art centers—one in Kiwirrkurra, the other in Kintore, shown here. Anthony Ham

Kintore’s demographics mirror Papunya’s—close to 400 people, around 90 percent of whom are Indigenous, compared with fewer than 3 percent for the wider Australian population. Alongside the town basketball court is Papunya Tula’s art center, which opened in 2007. Inside, canvases lined up along the walls, ready for artists to come in and choose when they arrived to paint each morning. The 700-square-foot art center, where all of the artworks in Kintore are created, had separate painting rooms for men and women. Every surface of the two studios was spattered with paint, and there were no furnishings: everyone painted while seated on mattresses on the floor. A third wing of the center served as basic living quarters for Papunya Tula’s field workers. All three wings faced onto a courtyard, which in turn faced the basketball court. After a series of recent break-ins, a wire fence encircled the center, but it was half-hearted; one of the gates didn’t close properly. At the end of each day, the workers packed away the unfinished paintings—the master painters can take months to finish a painting—and rolled up the finished canvases, ready to be sent back to Alice Springs.

The number of artists who turned up to paint every day varied; sometimes it was dozens, other days just a handful. When I arrived, the artists had left for the day, but Rosie Nampitjinpa and her friends let me tag along as they collected bush foods and firewood nearby.

Australia's Western Desert Art Movement Turns 50
Rosie Nampitjinpa and her friends let me tag along as they collected bush foods and firewood near the Kintore art center. Anthony Ham

I had seen artists like Nampitjinpa emerge from the gallery where their paintings hang in Alice Springs, blinking in the sunlight, a vague bewilderment in their movements as they set off to navigate unfamiliar city streets. Out here, Nampitjinpa’s hand gestures, perfunctory and knowing, directed me off well-worn tracks and out into the spinifex. Reading the country and studying its messages, the women gathered bush tomatoes, sultanas and onions. Aside from my presence, my vehicle and the ladies’ cast-off clothes, it was a scene little changed in 60,000 years.

Australia's Western Desert Art Movement Turns 50
“Every morning I go to the gallery to paint,” said Nampitjinpa. Anthony Ham

The sense of continuity with a disappearing past felt strong. Every artist in Kintore and across the Western desert supports whole networks of family members. Historically, the Pintupi survived out here in the desert thanks to their expertise as hunters and gatherers. The artists were the new hunters, only now they provided for their people using not spears and digging sticks, but high-quality Matisse acrylic paints and Belgian linen of the kind once preferred by Andy Warhol.

Like so many Pintupi, in town Nampitjinpa was guarded; she had seen countless versions of me pass through her life. But out in the desert, she was at ease and promised that she would be at the art center when the doors opened the following morning at 9 a.m.

“Every morning I go to the gallery to paint,” she said. “I stay most of the day. We all go. We talk. We paint. We spend time with our friends. And we paint some more.”

Nampitjinpa was true to her word. The next morning, I found her sitting cross-legged on a foam mattress on the art center floor, painting as children, camp dogs and shouted conversation swirled around her. Nampitjinpa was part of it all, yet somehow detached, absorbed in the world she was creating on canvas.

Why do you paint? I asked her. “To tell stories from the Dreaming, stories about my people,” she said. “I paint so that I can tell the story of our land.”

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