Tjunguṉutja – The Stunning Papunya Exhibition

Ian Plunkett reflects on the exhibition of early Papunya works on display in Darwin.

Tjungunutja Papunya exhibition

The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory have put together an extraordinary exhibition of paintings from the early works from Papunya. It is called Tjungunutja which means “having come together”.

This is a seminal exhibition. I hope that it tours nationally –  it deserves to. The works go right back to the very beginning of the Indigenous fine art movement in the Central Desert, which started in 1971. It has some of the first and the earliest paintings and boards produced by Indigenous artists in this region of Australia.


The depth of work is impressive; there must be two hundred paintings along with important correspondence from Geoffrey Bardon.

For those who don’t know much about it, Geoffrey Bardon was a school teacher during those critical years at Papunya , which is some 240 km west of Alice Springs. Some of the senior male artists had painted a mural on the school wall, with traditional motifs and stories about the Honey Ant Dreaming. This caught the imagination of the whole community.


Geoffrey Bardon played a vital role in all this. He encouraged a group of about thirty artists to start recording their stories and paintings in a more permanent medium, using artists paints on board. They ended up painting on almost anything they could find. Their work was really about preserving the stories for future generations, just as they’d done at the school.

Little did anyone know that this work would also capture the imagination of the art market, as well as communities all around the world. It is worth remembering that this material relates to the oldest continuous culture on the planet.


Here they were recording their stories, mythologies, dreamings, in this unusual art form that had never been seen before. It is remarkable to walk into that gallery and see all these early boards, shields and paintings. It was also wonderful to see the correspondence from Geoffrey Bardon, when he’s writing to the community, after he had to leave due to illness. It’s a privilege to have seen it and to have experienced it and stood in the middle of those remarkable boards.

My congratulations to the curators Long Jack Philipus Tjakamarra, Michael Nelson Jagamarra AM, Sid Anderson, Bobby West Tjupurrula, Joseph Jurrah Tjapaltjarri and Luke Scholes, Curator of Aboriginal Art MAGNT. To all of you, I want to say this.

I thought it was a fantastic exhibition and I’ll never forget it.

Tjunguṉutja will be on display at The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin until the 18 February 2018.

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