Aboriginal Papunya Painting

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Traditionally, every adult man and woman in the desert regions is an artist. Men use ancient abstract symbols to create ground designs in feathers, pulverised plants, ochre and blood, and these same materials create designs on their bodies in ceremonies. circles, lines and dots are also used to carry though the same symbolic language to three-dimensional ceremonial sculptures and other traditional items such as shields, weapons and carrying dishes. Women use abstract designs in their own parallel expressive arts and paint their bodies for women's ceremonies. The symbols are a form of visual language in which the ancestral renewal of life is celebrated and its continuance ensured. The arts all express - indeed, establish - the relationship of the people to their ancestors and to their tribal lands through stories of ancestral travels across the landscape. Various aspects of the journeys that must be remembered by future generations are included.


Perhaps the most important subject of western desert ceremonial art is the Tingari cycle. The Tingari were a group of men who lived in the Dreaming and who travelled across the land, making many features of the landscape. The exact nature of the Tingari men and details of their feats remain shrouded in total secrecy. Accompanied on their journey by Tingari women and by young men undergoing various stages of initiation, the Tingari men established all the rituals of initiation for the desert people, as well as creating geographical features of the landscape and defining relationships between men and women, customs and social behaviour. Tingari ceremonies consist of hundreds of song verses which are sung and chanted well into the night.

Aboriginal Bora Ceremony - Arrival of the King, c. 1905


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The Tingari cycle, with its related body decoration, ground drawings and ceremonial performance, is part of the contemporary initiation training of young men. During their teenage years, youths are separated from the rest of the community and spend time with their senior male relatives, undergoing training and manhood tests, one of which is to successfully spear the kangaroo. The youths are instructed in their own Dreaming; they are taken to ancestral paths and tracks. They learn the religious significance of all the natural features of their country, as well as practical food lore and the skills of discovering water. The finding of soaks is directly connected to knowledge of the places at which the ancestors stopped and found water.

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This training period is commonly called 'high school' in English. The use of this phrase was coined as an attempt to put the status of the traditional education process clearly, so that Europeans would understand the importance of such education to desert Aboriginals. The term also relates to the age group of young men undergoing the ceremonies - the same group that would otherwise be ready for high school in Alice Springs. Having speared a kangaroo, the novice is ready to be shown his inherited Dreaming designs in the form of secret ground patterns, body decorations and emblems.  

The ground drawings, which are almost sculptures, as they are raised, low relief patterns composed of hundreds of small pieces of plant or feather down, no doubt have extremely ancient origins. Many designs recorded in early reports contain spirals and circles that are still salient features. These and bird tracks can be found in similar formations in ancient rock engravings and paintings thousands of years old. The ground designs depend for their power and effectiveness not only on the pattern but on the substances used and circumstances of manufacture.

A water dreaming story from the Ngalia group, 1975

It is from these dotted combinations of line and colour that a whole school of new paintings, executed on canvas, has developed. Desert belief and ceremonial practice are very much parts of a living religion and therefore living religious art. When these concepts are transferred to canvas, the men who paint in acrylics for a commercially oriented art market still hold the ground designs and ancient mythological sites in their minds as they paint circles and dot the background with delicate foliage patterns.

Women's art and ceremony in the dry arid interior run parallel to that of the men. There are 'women's Dreamings', stories of women ancestors who travelled across the desert gathering food, often pursued by men. Various sites are exclusively women's places where men avoid going, and these centres are sometimes associated with fertility and 'baby essence'. At some places, as legends and songs tell, the men caught the women and, according to the women's euphemistic accounts, 'sat down with them'; these sites are marked with special rock formations or caves.

Women spend a great deal of time in company with other women, discussing the minute daily affairs of camp life, discussing women's ceremony (variously termed yawulya or awulya in the Walbiri language) and going on extensive hunting trips. The hunting trips are eagerly planned. Available vehicles are crammed with people, each women bringing a billy can for tea, an axe for witchetty grubs and a crowbar with a splayed, flattened end for digging out lizards or rabbits.

Aborigines - ready for corroboree, North Queensland

The women's Dreaming stories abound with descriptive information of the same hunting trips taken by the ancestral women in the creation time, including the food they gathered - wild raisins, bush yams, seeds from grasses, wild tomatoes and many others. The ceremonies, consisting of dances with bodies and breasts painted with designs symbolic of the landscape stories, are held among the same groups of related women, who also hunt together. The chanting of song cycles accompanies and instructs the dancers in their movements, telling of the ancestral travels, hunting, looking for food and digging.

Dancing is loose and rhythmic, with the women in a line taking short jumps and slightly dragging their feet. Along the soft sand, the rows of separated feet produce a ridged pattern in the sand; this is an important aspect of the dance, being evidence of ancestral beings' tracks, and therefore a visual record of the ancestral journeys. Painted designs on the women's bodies are only one aspect of the whole ceremonial performance, but they are made with patience and loving care, each woman proudly displaying her own designs on her breasts and shoulders. At a recent women's ceremony at Kintore, a remote community in the western desert, over twenty women gathered beneath the shade of a tree to begin singing their own ceremonial songs in preparation for a men's ceremony which was to be held not far away.

A painting from central Australia with
the circles symbolising camping sites and sacred areas.

Kinsmen and their families had assembled over weeks and wee camped together awaiting the trucks which had been on the 'muster', the term used to denote the gathering of the young men for manhood ceremonies. Each evening at about five p.m., the women gathered, and, painting their bodies, sang and danced until dusk. They indicated that they wee 'singing those women to here', re-enacting the ancient events that led to the arrival of two ancestral women to the place where the people were camped, the Kintore ranges. Kintore itself is a very sacred place to the Pintubi people and the men's ceremony that followed carried the women's beginnings to fruition. The women were integral to the whole preparation and anticipation, although they would not attend the 'business', or 'office' as it is known. The women who sing and paint their bodies at these ceremonies are generally mothers of several children or older senior women, knowledgeable in ceremony with power and prestige.

Women's body painting emphasises the breasts, which are full and hang low. The skin is first smoothed and oiled with goanna fat or (more commonly) margarine, and then one women applies designs to another with her finger, tracing the ochre lines slowly and carefully to give curved liens of even width and colour intensity. In fading light, the designs stand out clearly. a row of twenty seated women with their torsos painted and contiguous curving lines dipping and following the deep contours of each breast creates a human tableau of irregular scallops in white and brown.


Traditional desert designs made on the ground for ceremonies have been termed sand mosaics, ground paintings or sand paintings. In reality, they are closer to sculpture or performance art. Neither paint nor brushes are used, and dance and song are vital parts of the performance. To make three-dimensional patterns, a relatively flat area of ground is cleared of small shrubs, grasses and all debris. Before a design is constructed, the area is covered with a thick sludge of pulverised termite mound and allowed to dry. This provides an even, flat and hard surface that will not throw up dust and dislodge the design.

For important and sacred ceremonies the substances used to make the patterns include bird down, native kapok, red ochre, white clay and blood. within the last five years, some ground constructions have been made outside their ritual contexts to demonstrate to Europeans the ancient religious symbols and their construction.

Aboriginal children

One Walbiri man, a member of a group making such a work in the Musee d'Art Moderne in Paris was quoted in the catalogue as saying, 'We present you with a glimpse of the way we venerate the sacred heroes who have given us our identity, so that Europeans can have some understanding of what we are.

The ancient ground constructions are most elaborate. Some of the design elements in themselves are not considered dangerous, but the situation in which they are exposed can release the forces and power of ancestral beings and harm the uninitiated. The dancers and the objects used in a ceremony become infused with the power of the ancestral beings. During the ceremony the dancers obliterate the ground design and the decorations on their bodies are destroyed so that the designs are never seen in secular situations. The artists who create the ground paintings are all mature men, who have gone through extensive rituals so that they are knowledgeable and competent in depicting the designs, singing the songs and dancing correctly at the relevant sites.

Five Walbiri men resident at Warumpi, an outstaton of Papunya, agreed to construct a simple version of a sand design especially for publication. They wished to demonstrate their immense feeling about such designs, their relationship to the land and to life and death and by extension to reveal that other similar designs on canvases and carrying dishes were all part of the same Dreaming. For a non-ceremonial demonstration such as this, no feathers or human blood were used, and powdered white clay was replaced with plain flour - the artists were seeking to reveal the design and its construction, rather than releasing power inherent in the more meaningful substances. The basic material used was a very small flowering herbaceous plant. For the design, the entire plant is pulverised; stems, leaves and small yellow flowers are gathered, bunched up and chopped finely with an axe. Many such plants are needed for a large ground design.

Chopping the plant used in the design is itself a skill; the plant is fed to the axe deftly and quickly, each blow cutting the stems cleanly into very small pieces. The plant fibre is then divided into two heaps, each to be coloured separately, one deep red, the other white. For the red, called wanjari, a lump of deep red is ground onto a flat stone, forming red ochre powder. Taking some fat or lard into his hands, the artist holds the plant stuff and rubs it into the red ochre on the stone.

Aboriginal dance

The resultant mass is deep red material, similar to fairly dry papier-mache pulp. The fat aids in binding the ochre to the plants and allows the material to be manipulated with the fingers into small or large dollops. The second half of the chopped plant stuff is coloured in a similar way, with kitchen flour replacing the red ochre and being substituted for the white clay used on ceremonial occasions. The white coloured pulp is termed turrijirri.

The design chosen was a series of concentric circles, one element of a much more elaborate composition. Paddy Carroll, who, with Two Bob Tjungurrayi, was owner of the design, combined with two other men, Dinny Nolan and Elgin Djambijimba the kutungulu, to make the ground drawing. Each design marks an important place, the centre of the power for a particular Dreaming; these sites have owners as well as kutungulu who ensure that the owners carry out their duties correctly.

Aboriginal man, King Billy

All four men participated as well as a fifth, a younger related man, Don Tjungurrayi, who assisted. The men were silent and respectful as thy sat around the flattened earth. Slowly, working from two sides simultaneously, they made a small circle of tightly packed dots of plant pulp, making a ridge about 2.5 centimetres high. Then an outer circle of the second colour was added, the pattern being first traced on the ground with a wet paintbrush. circle after circle went down, dot after dot, slowly, meticulously, reverently. One man began a small song and then left off just to gaze at the design, his mind going to the Dreaming and the first time he saw the pattern.

'This is really dear one, bush tucker, we call 'im yunga, bush onion place. Might be different story, 'nother story, still they do 'im same. When we camp in high school in the bush only men know, pretty tickly. Young men in high school can't see this one till they get kangaroo.'

Detail of the decoration of a western Australian
desert shield collected just before the turn of the century.

When the design was complete and photographs taken, it was carefully covered with sheets of corrugated iron and bushes. Other trusted Europeans in Papunya were invited to look at the painting as well as some men from other areas. One who approached, a Pintubi artist noted for his works on canvas, was reticent, but as he drew nearer he was invited to share the experience with the ground artists, and, kneeling, he placed his hand in the centre of the circle. The experience of this ground design enhanced and expanded all our perceptions about the canvas paintings. although the design was specifically made for publication* its motives could not be separated from its deep religious meaning, and its manufacture was clearly a religious act and a pleasure for all participants.


Ground constructions or mosaics are the most elaborate Pintubi-Walbiri art forms, and it is from these that the modern paintings draw their inspiration. The dramatic contemporary development of an art industry centred at Papunya and based on the ancient ground paintings is most extraordinary.

The movement began in the early 1970s, stimulated by Geoff Bardon, a teacher. Bardon was attempting to paint a mural on the school wall, trying to achieve some semblance of 'Aboriginality' by using geometric shapes and symbols such as circles and zigzags. Intrigued, some of the older men came closer, and upon encouragement, took over the task, completing a traditional design over the whole wall.

Aboriginal man

Other murals followed and the interest and fervour of the men to paint their Dreamings grew until up to twenty artists were using available scraps of masonite and board, and grinding ochres or obtaining paint from Bardon, producing many paintings in completely traditional symbols. Bardon was told later that one old man considered himself responsible for 'giving' the initial Dreaming - the honey ant story - to the school mural. Papunya settlement is built close to a low ridge of the MacDonnel Ranges, the site of the honey ant Dreaming. In giving his authorisation, old Tom Onion Tjapangati allowed others to follow.

Bardon showed the paintings to the Australian public in the form of exhibitions, which, although immediately appreciation by European gallery audiences, caused some Aboriginal concern and a reassessment by the artists. The use of some symbols and the realistic portrayal of particular sacred objects were subsequently omitted from the paintings after artists had held lengthy meetings. In the enthusiasm for the new medium and pride in the recognition and appreciation of what was mot dear to them, their Dreaming stories, the painters had inadvertently let too much  out and they drew back, seeking a compromise.

The paintings that have flowed since those early years have not suffered in any way. Federal grants secured the services of an adviser to take Bardon's place when he left, and several people have held this position, acting as agent, organiser and intermediary between these artists, their co-operative company Papunya-Tula, galleries and the public. At present about sixty-five artists are painting wonderful works on canvas in geographical locations hundreds of kilometres apart, although most are at Kintore, a settlement 300 kilometres due west of Papunya in the Kintore Ranges, not far from the Western Australian border. To some extent some stylistic differences are evident between the paintings of some of the language groups, particularly the Pintubi and Anmatjira, with the paintings of other groups developing features of each.

Pintubi tribespeople were the last to adapt to a settled existence. the remaining groups of nomadic Pintubi, thought to be starving in the desert, were brought in to Papunya in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and they are occasionally termed 'bush' Pintubi by other Aboriginal groups, indicating their relative lack of contact and adjustment to European values and ways.

Pintubi territory extends west of Papunya and throughout vast areas of Western Australian desert. The Pintubi are proud, determined and intensely religious people. Pintubi paintings are principally geometric, two-dimensional representations of sacred Dreaming sites and ancestral journeys. circles, U shapes, tracks and linear journey markings frequently combine in symmetrical, relatively simple paintings, using a limited colour range.

The Anmatjira are related to the Aranda, whose territory extends south to Alice Springs. Many Aranda and Anmatjira have had lengthier contact with Europeans on cattle stations, and it is amongst the Aranda of Hermannsburg that the famous school of realistic watercolour landscapes grew around Albert Namatjira in the 1950s and 1960s.

Anmatjira paintings are compiled compositions of dots with some symbolic geometric Dreaming references as well as tracks. The dots, in different colour blocks, represent vegetation in the landscape as it changes from place to place and from season to season. Moving through the Australian desert during the flowering or seeding season is a visually exciting experience as wide patches of spinifex grass give way to low grey-green bush foliage, or to mulga trees, wattles and daisies.

The vegetation itself grows in dots and patches of colour, like the paintings. The artists are providing not only a topographical map of ceremonial sites and hence mountain ranges, waterholes and other geological formations, but the Anmatjira in particular are also showing the important vegetation changes - the places where bush fruit can be gathered or where grass seeds give flour for bread or damper. The brushwork is freer and, at times, a three-dimensional optical effect clearly sets the Amatjira paintings apart.

Clifford Possum Tjapaltjari is an exceptional Anmatjira painter, whose work has now won several art prizes, and has been featured in Australian contributions to international contemporary art symposia.  

Despite stylistic variations, the central theme of all paintings, as of ground designs and ceremonies, is the events of the Dreaming. Each painting is about a place, frequently the birthplace of the artist or of his Dreaming ancestors. each painting represents not only the site but the event that took place there in the Dreaming. Sites may be specific rocks, waterholes, special trees, mountains and many others. The creation ancestors, which can be honey ants, bush onions, wild kangaroos, sweet potatoes or budgerigars, are thought to be at rest at these places, but their power and force become one with the dancers during ceremonies.

A group of carved and painted ironwood figures
associated with the Tiwi myth of Purukapali, Bathurst Island

For example, the flying ant is an ancestor of the Anmatjira people; he was immense and had a long beard and wizened face. Occasionally he rested, and paintings of this story concern the sites at which he did so. Concentric circles not only represent the site but also the earth mount homes of the flying ant - wavy lines symbolise the travels as well as the journeys underground. Flying ants are an important source of food to desert people; they are gathered in hundreds in the wooden carrying dishes and their wings are singed off in the fire.

Another painting may depict the travels of the witchetty grub ancestors beneath the ground. The painting could be interpreted as showing the emergence of the witchetty grub from the ground or through the hollow tree, and its metamorphosis into a moth. at a deeper level it may symbolise the journey of a boy to manhood by means of his initiation ceremony.

it is not possible for outsiders or Europeans to fully comprehend the elaborate and extended multilevel meaning of the central Australian ground designs from which the paintings are derived. Certainly no women are permitted, and only a few European men have passed through the secret stages of initiation. Each man may only produce the paintings connected with sites that he owns himself, although in recent years a number of paintings have appeared in the contemporary stream that have been executed under unusual circumstances. An artist who does not himself paint on canvas can ask another painter to paint his own Dreaming site.

Bima, wife of Purukapali, holding her dead child in a paper bark cradle.
The painted designs are the same of those worn on the face and body for modern ceremonies.

For the artists, as for the public, the paintings may work on several levels. They not only tell the story in symbolic form, but the artists use them to recall the legends to their own minds as they paint. It is common for an artist to sing as he paints and for another artist to sit beside him and to trace the patterns on the canvas with his own fingers, singing along. Like Arnhem land art, the paintings are maps of the land, prescribing the extent of the territory owned by the artists and connected to the Dreaming being painted. In a new way they are beginning to be individual artistic expressions. some artists are developing reputations for being more extravagant and flamboyant in their work. They are extending the bounds of tradition slightly bending it to their own wills, incorporating contemporary themes or striking non-traditional colours.

Another most important feature is the personal nature of the symbols. one artist cannot be sure that he is interpreting another man's painting accurately. Although the symbols are limited And familiar to each man, each artist uses them subjectively so that only he himself could give a full interpretation of the many levels of meaning that his painting has for him.


The Papunya-Tula canvas paintings were exclusively done by men until very recently. Gradually, as canvases grew larger for important commissions, the wives of some artists helped paint the dotted backgrounds and so acquired skill with paint and brushes. Women have now begun small paintings of their own, which, in size and simplicity of statement, are very similar to the first men's paintings on small boards produced in the early 1970s. Women paint 'women's stories', generally about special sites, depicting women seated around a campfire in the traditional U shape, and with their digging sticks and coolamon or wooden carrying dish nearby.

Aboriginal vintage postcard

Women as well as men own the important Dreaming sites, and the Papunya honey ant Dreaming story of Papunya itself is one of the first Dreamings to be given expression. Some women such as Entalua Nangala, wife of Don Tjungurrayik, and Daisy Leura are pleased to paint in order to earn more income for the family, and do so at the request and with support of their husbands. Other women paint as the only alternative to dole cheques, ('sit down money'), or pension money; besides, in an otherwise quite relaxed life they felt a need to express themselves artistically. Occasionally a husband who has been a successful painter has turned to drink to alleviate stress in Alice Springs and the wife is now painting out of economic necessity.

So far women have not painted Dreaming stories featuring male ancestors, though men, perceiving the beginning of new interest in women's paintings, are increasing their production of 'women's Dreamings'. The men are indicating to the external world that, although the women may assist in economic matters and paint their own pictures, the men wish to retain their place and authority in the Papunya-Tula Company. The canvas paintings from the Papunya school have been more easily accepted into the mainstream of Australian contemporary art than the bark paintings of the north.

Arnhem land paintings commonly employ figurative designs; this and the use of natural tree bark as a painting surface have kept them in the philosophical mould of artefact rather than art in the minds of contemporary European artists and curators. The Papunya acrylics on canvas are more easily accessible to the Western art tradition of abstractionism. The treatment of landscape subjects, acrylic paint and canvas surface are all familiar, allowing the Papunya painters to be accepted into contemporary art circles as painters rather than 'primitive' artists.

Aborigines in war paint

The sale of Papunya-Tula paintings has now become a major economic support to the artist in the difficult process of adjusting to European values and their need to acquire European goods such as cars and radios in increasing quantities. The paintings have been widely exhibited and individual artists are now receiving large public commissions in recognition of the beauty and importance of their work in Australian contemporary art. 

*the five men who made the ground drawing pictures in on this Web site requested that they be published to show the deeper arts of the desert men beside those of Aboriginals in other parts of the country. However, they remained reticent about any revelation of the design to Aboriginal women. They requested if this source is used and kept in communities amongst their desert relatives - Pitjantjatjara, Walbiri, Pintubi, Aranda or Loritja, in houses frequented by Aboriginal women - that helpful owners seal these pages to avoid any worry for the women.

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