Papunya Tula Art Inetta Bennett

Papunya is a small Indigenous Australian community located in the Northern Territory of Australia. Their population is predominantly made up of displaced Pintupi and Luritja people who were forced off their traditional lands in the 1930's. These people had to move into the Hermannburg and Haasts Bluff, where government ration posts were set up. Based on the 2011 cencus done, the Papunya population is 418, 376 of which are indigenous people. Papunya is on restricted Aboriginal land and a permit is required to enter or to travel through the land.

City of Papunya, Northern Territory, Australia

The Beginning


Papunya Tula Art

Before they painted murals or on canvas, they already painted their stories on the sand.

"THE DREAMING" in sand

Art is one of the key rituals of Aboriginal culture. It was and still is, used to mark territory, record history, and tell stories about "The Dreaming." Aboriginal ceremonies are concerned with acting out The Dreaming, its laws, and stories.

Stories of the Dreaming told by artists through sand painting.

Men and women both had their own roles in these ceremonies. Some ceremonies were for men only, while others were only for women. Both men and women had their own Spiritual and sacred objects, and this was their way to coexist in different ways to ensure that the sacred elements of The Dreaming would be practiced and passed on. Ceremonies and rituals take on many different forms. Some were very private and involved only some of the people in that language group while others involved all people belonging to the language group, even children. Drawing the Dreaming on the sand was one of the ceremonies which allowed for them tell stories of their Dreamtime Ancestors through the use of sacred symbols recorded on the sand.

As mentioned in the previous paragraph, some ceremonies were for men only, and others were only for women . These groups are seen working separately from one another in the images above.

The Transition to Using paint

Honey Ant Dreaming, by Tanya Price Nangala

"It's the Old People Who Know"

Geoffrey Bardon was an Australian art teacher who ended up inspiring the creation of the Aboriginal Art of the Western Desert Movement. He was a school teacher that spent 18 months at the Papunya settlement in the early 1970's. There he instructed the children to paint things related to their world on canvas. Eventually, the elder men asked him, "Why are you asking the young people? It's the old people who know" (Wroth).

This led a group of elder men to start telling their significant stories. They also had to work out which aspects of the stories could be told and which aspects had to be kept sacred and hidden from the public view. Together, they worked out how they could express very significant aboriginal stories without giving non-initiated people access to the meanings of their sacred symbols.

The Elder men who painted the mural(left image), the school (center image), Geoffrey Bardon posing with the mural(right image).

Once the group figured out how to proceed, the Elders were able to paint their stories. The pioneers painters in the early stages were all men. Bardon arranged for them to paint a mural on an empty school wall. Bardon then supplied the artists with paints and canvas, and by 1972, he arranged a painting area in the storeroom of the Town Hall hut.

The papunya tula artists were born

The painting area arranged by Geoffrey Bardon talked about in the previous paragraph.


These massive dot paintings with an array of bright colors and patterned symbols that represent the animals, lakes, and the story of the Dreamtime which are all so sacred to the Aboriginal people. Papunya art is not only created for the purposes of aesthetic beauty, Papunya art continues to derive itself directly from the artists' knowledge of traditional body and sand painting associated with ceremony. To portray these Dreamtime Creation stories for the public, careful monitoring of ancestral designs and required removal of sacred symbols is now practiced. Traditional Aboriginal colors used in Papunya paintings were yellow, red, brown, and white.
  • Yellow - represents the sun
  • Brown- represents the soil or the earth
  • Red - represents the desert sand
  • White - represents the sky and the clouds

Technique | Medium

Using bamboo satay sticks and acrylic paint, these images show the slow process of applying a single dot over and over to achieve the piece's completion.


Armed with a bamboo satay stick, acrylic paint, and a large canvas, Papunya Tula Artists begin a long and tedious creation consisting of applying single dots to the piece, which is then repeated thousands of times before a piece is finished. Many dots are made larger by superimposing more dotting once the initial application of paint has dried. Complex dotting and over-dotting styles can also hide the sacred stories of the piece from people who are not allowed to learn it. For accurate translations however, the stories are revealed by the artist to the initiated group members.

Contemporary Papunya Art

Being internationally recognized, Papunya Art can now be seen in many museums and art galleries.

Papunya tula Artists: art of the western desert

The Papunya Tula Art Movement in 1971 allowed for the artists to successfully establish their own company. The Papunya Tula Artists Art of the Western desert est 1972, is a company now entirely owned and directed by tradition Aboriginal people. The company derived its name from the Papunya settlement. The main goal of the company is to promote individual artists, provide economic development for the communities to which they belong, and to assist in the maintenance of rich cultural heritage for the Aboriginal people.

Proud artists posing by their work.

Inspiration from the superimposed dotting technique and unique style of Papunya art can be widely seen on new surfaces now. These new canvases or surfaces can include clay, wood, sculptures, bark, leaves, and even fabric.

Wood, fabric, and a woven rug all with the same superimposed repetitive dotting style inspired by Papunya Tula Art.

interpreting the symbols

Almost all of the art is loaded with symbols that can be interpreted, because the pieces of work are actually stories with different meanings.

Below is a chart with the different symbols alongside with their meanings. These symbols often show up in Aboriginal art. Sacred Symbols are kept away from the public eye, but it seems that Aboriginal people do not mind outsiders to know these general meanings to their stories.

inspiration from nature

A vast majority of the subject matter seen in Aboriginal art can find its roots from nature. Inspired by the living creatures and sometimes the Dreamtime creatures, there is an array of different animal species seen in many Papunya Tula Art Pieces.

Many different animal species are depicted in these paintings.

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