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Papunya Tula

representing the Pintupi and Luritja artists of the Western Desert

Papunya Tula Artists is the iconic, original Aboriginal owned and directed art cooperative, representing the Pintupi and Luritja artists of the Western Desert. The company was established in 1972 by the core group of artists that catalysed the Western Desert Art Movement. Today, the company comprises 50 shareholders and represents approximately 80 artists, whose homelands span the heartland of the Western Desert, straddling the border between the Northern Territory and Western Australia and encompassing Kintore, Kiwirrkura, Lake MacDonald and Lake Mackay.

Papunya Tula derives its name from the government settlement of Papunya, approximately 240km north-west of Alice Springs, where the art movement originated. The movement began in 1971 when Geoffrey Bardon, a schoolteacher in the remote community of Papunya, encouraged some of his students to paint expressions of their own cultural traditions instead of teaching western conventions. Bardon was fascinated by the sinuous line drawings the residents made in the sand and sensed their connection to social and ontological understandings.

Turkey Tolson and Charlie Tarawa alongside their murals, Kintore 1985
‘Papunya boards’

Bardon, affectionately known by the artists as ‘Mr Patterns’, arranged for some of the senior the men to paint a mural on the school wall. The resulting Honey Ant mural sparked tremendous interest in the community, inspiring many more men to paint. Collectively, these artists produced the exquisite and now infamous ‘Papunya boards’ – a body of paintings on boards and small panels based on ceremonial designs and Tjukurrpa (Dreaming stories). These men became the pioneers of the Western Desert Art Movement – a style characterised by its strikingly contemporary aesthetic grounded in ancient cultural practices that exploded onto the art scene like a hand grenade, forcing the art world to take notice.

Geoffrey Bardon with the ‘Honey Ant Dreaming’ Mural at the Papunya School.

The internationally recognised Western Desert Art Movement has been instrumental in establishing a place for Australian Aboriginal artists in the contemporary art scene. The distinctive Papunya Tula painting style derives directly from the artist’s knowledge of traditional body and sand painting associated with ceremony. Portraying these esoteric creation stories for the public has a required the removal of sacred symbols, and a careful monitoring of ancestral designs – a process of community negotiation over time. Due to their unique and unmistakably powerful representations of ancient cultural traditions the work of Papunya Tula artists is held in the collections of most major institutions, galleries and museums in Australia and internationally.

Painting has become central to contemporary Western Desert culture, providing vital opportunities to document and transfer important esoteric, cultural and ecological knowledge. Art has also become the primary industry in the remote Western Desert communities of Kintore and Kiwirrkura, where Papunya Tula Artists has studios. The art centres create a framework for nurturing important social connections, supporting intergenerational learning, and providing an independent income stream for people on Country.


The central ethos of the company is to promote individual artists, provide economic development for their communities, and assist in the maintenance of a rich and dynamic cultural heritage. As a result, Papunya Tula Artists has evolved into a profitable social enterprise that funds vital social and cultural services including the Purple House mobile dialysis service, the Kintore swimming pool, and financial assistance for ‘sorry business’ and ceremony. This funding has become the lifeblood of these communities, allowing the people of Kintore and Kiwirrkura to continue to keep their culture alive on Country.

Papunya Tula Artists has become both an iconic art canon and model Indigenous enterprise. Vivien Johnson describes the company as, ‘the most enduring and successful commercial operation in the history of Indigenous cultural enterprises in Australia.’ Papunya Tula Artists is internationally recognised for the genius of their work, with celebrities such as Beyoncé, JAY-Z and Steve Martin counted amongst their fans.

Papunya Tula artists and family gathered at the site, Umari.
Reggie Baldock and George Tjungurrayi with their dogs outside the Kintore store

Preparing rumiya (goanna) for cooking

Exhibition at Papunya Tula Artists, Alice Springs