Predicaments of Painting Indigenous Presence in Central Australia: Early Papunya Boards in Circulation

Professor Fred Myers, Silver Professor of Anthropology, New York University

Fred Maine

This paper considers a predicament in the constitution of Aboriginal acrylic painting in Central Australia. Begun in 1971 as a translation of ritually-based designs into a new medium, the international success of the painting movement attests to their recontextualization from ‘ritual’ to ‘art.’ While much of the iconography in the early acrylic paintings was later considered inappropriate to have circulated – even in the art world – the paintings themselves have continued to be exhibited, and they are considered to be the most authentic forms of presenting authentic indigeneity. At the same time as Western Desert painters have always insisted on the paintings as revealing the indigenous claims to identification with the land, changing styles of painting and presentation have made this less apparent. Recently, painters representative of this movement in the arts cooperative have begun to say that these paintings should not be seen by uninitiated, and I consider the implications of these views for the continued exhibition of privately and publicly held objects.

Fred Myers is the Silver Professor of Anthropology at New York University. He has been involved with Indigenous people in Central Australia since 1973. In addition to his long association with the Pintupi artists of the Papunya Tula Arts cooperative, Myers has written frequently on questions of place and personhood, and on issues of culture, objects, and identity as they are understood both within Indigenous communities and circulated through different regimes of value. A recipient of numerous grants and awards for his research and writing, his books include Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self: Sentiment, Place and Politics among Western Desert Aborigines (1986), Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art (2002), and edited volumes The Traffic in Culture: Refiguring Anthropology and Art (co-edited with George Marcus, 1995), and The Empire of Things (2001). His current project involves the repatriation and ‘re-documentation’ of ten hours of film footage from 1974 with the two current Pintupi communities.

When: Monday, 6 June, 6.00 – 7.30pm

Where: Theatre A, Elisabeth Murdoch Building

Enquiries: Contact Margaret Sullivan in the Faculty of Arts at or 8344 7775.