Collaborated permanence


Dear Artist,

In 1970, Geoffrey Bardon was teaching elementary school art in New South Wales when he could no longer ignore the emotional struggles of his Aboriginal students. In an effort to gain insight, he applied for a teaching post in a remote government assimilation centre 240 kilometres west of Alice Springs. In his diary, he described Papunya as “a hidden place, unknown on maps, considered by officials as a problem place,” where 1400 people had been gathered from scattered tribal groups, having been forced from their land and way of life. Seeing instead “a community in distress, oppressed by exile,” and “a place of emotional loss and waste,” Bardon broke with protocol and immersed himself in the lives of his students in an effort to honour and understand their languages, culture and beliefs.


Untitled (Rainbow and Water Dreaming) 1972
natural earth pigments and synthetic polymer powder paint on composition board
71.5 x 76.5 cm
by Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra (born 1932)

After watching the children make sand drawings of their Honey Ant Dreaming creation story, Bardon invited them to transfer the imagery into a mural on the side of the schoolhouse. He supplied paints and brushes, and when the mural grew too large in scope for the children, some community elders joined in, inspired to revitalize their desert traditions of painting on sand and rock and ceremonial body painting and feeling they were better experienced to tell the story. Bardon, inspired by this enthusiasm, then gathered supports for more paintings — first cardboard and wood, then canvas — and encouraged the artists to look to their culture for painting inspiration. At first, only the older men painted — the storytellers of the sacred, temporal motifs that could be obfuscated and erased during ceremonies — details that were forbidden to be seen by women, children and uninitiated young men. Originally not intended to be sold, the paintings began to attract admirers beyond Papunya and Alice Springs, and the artists found a way to camouflage any private aspects of their Dreamtime stories by layering coloured dots in acrylic paint over sensitive areas. Their now portable, permanent artwork had evolved into a signature style and, to many, the layers of dots and dancing circles had become integral to the telling of the Dreamtime stories and their meaning.


“Father / Son / Grandfather Dreaming” c. 1978
synthetic polymer powder paint on composition board, 47.5 x 62.5 cm
by Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri (ca.1924-1984)

Bardon left his teaching post at Papunya after only eighteen months, his health deteriorating while enduring hostility and suppression from his government employers. In 1972, Bardon and the artists organized an artist-owned co-op, sparking the beginnings of what is now known as the Western Desert Art Movement — historians now call it the “greatest single cultural achievement” of Australia’s post-settlement history. Forty-five years later, Australian Aboriginal contemporary art is collected worldwide and the Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd. represents 120 artists, has 49 shareholders and is just one of over 30 art co-ops owned by Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders across Australia.


“Napperby Lake”
acrylic on linen, 122 x 91 cm
by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri (1932-2002)



PS: “Those who lose dreaming are lost.” (Australian Aboriginal saying)

Esoterica: Critics have characterized Bardon as an intervening exploiter who directed the artists of Papunya towards a formulaic painting system that could be commodified for a 1970s global contemporary art world. Like Heissenberg’s Uncertainty Principle or the Observer Effect, whereby simply observing a phenomenon changes it, historians now mostly agree that Bardon, in his efforts to keep art accessible to the displaced and dispossessed, unavoidably altered the course of Aboriginal art traditions. But, in doing so, he inadvertently collaborated on a bridge to cultural understanding and nurtured into existence a now globally-revered contemporary art movement. “A catalyst is needed for all the big developments in art, and Bardon was the right person at the right time,” said Senior Curator of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Victoria, Judith Ryan. “He was not an anthropologist, but he understood art, had the right temperament and was selfless.”

For the rest of his life, Geoffrey Bardon stayed in touch with the artists at Papunya, making documentary films and writing books about them including Papunya Tula: art of the Western Desert (1991) and Papunya: a place made after the story (2007).


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“[The paintings] were produced by people who were displaced, and living a long way from their country. The works were visual representations of their own being. They painted sites that they belonged to and the stories that are associated with those sites. Essentially they were painting their identity onto their boards, as a visual assertion of who they were and where they were from.” (Paul Sweeney, Papunya Tula Artists manager)



  1. It’s funny how change, especially when something is viewed as inappropriate to change, such as the Aboriginal art, actually keeps it living and evolving. I was moved by the story of Bardon and the artists he nurtured.

  2. Dear Sara; I have been captivated by the stories of aboriginal peoples around the world and their art that captures the spirit and allows us all to gain from sharing with them. Being able to experience their stories and art in a more in-depth way in my 2016 travels in Australia continues to inspire my work today. I fell in love with many of the art books I saw while there but was not able to carry them back to Canada with me [ weight ….] I wonder if you might provide some details in your books section on some of these beautiful artists and art and how one might be able to track them down ….. [ I wish now I would have noted some of the books while in Victoria, etc]….. or if anyone has any ideas pleas let me know…. I was also fascinated with how young aboriginal artists in Australia are moving their stories forward in new and creative ways ..

    • Robin, public galleries in Australia have fantastic collections of Indigenous art. You might like to look at the website of the NGV (National Gallery of Victoria).

  3. I loved the story. I love to think about how these supposedly primitive people or cultures were NOT really so – in so many ways. This old Inuit Song expresses for me their similarity to all of us no matter time or place – and it expresses a deep spiritual understanding that is reflected too, in their art.

    Old Inuit Song

    I think over again my small adventures,

    My fears,
    These small ones that seemed so big,

    For all the vital things
    I had to get and to reach.

    And yet there is only one great thing,
    The only thing,

    To live and to see the great day that dawns
    And the light that fills the world.

    • The first light here this morning was so primitively inspiring I saw my fist love who has been gone to the spiritual side scince 1966. He will always be in my soul along with all who have passed through my life.
      Thank you for giving me your insight
      Linda from BC

  4. Does anyone know if these documentaries are available here in Canada?? I think my local Arts Club members would be very interested in seeing them. I will check with the local representative of Australia (the High Commissioner in Montreal? or the Australian Embassy in Ottawa) to find out if we can get them here.
    Does anyone have any suggestions?

    Celestine Segers

    • I would recommend Art+Soul as one of the best documentaries about Australian Aboriginal art. Made by Aboriginal people about the stories and artists. It follows the history and then includes contemporary art as well.
      I am grateful to have some local Australian Aboriginal artists share their stories and paintings (and some knowledge) with me. It has started me on a quest to learn more about their stories.
      NGA= National Gallery of Australia, NSWAG= New South Wales Art Gallery have fantastic websites as well.
      Thanks for sharing this, Sara!

    • Darrell Norris on

      Do you recall a poorly dressed Englishman in Montreal in 1969-70? A grad student in Geography who was entranced by you? Who knew you as Sylvia? Who was so crushed at the prospect of having to leave Montreal? I was astounded to find you on the Women’s art web-site and hope to catch up our respective half-centuries of life experiences. I live in Rochester NY, am married with two children, and am a professor of geography at SUNY Geneseo. I’m hoping that you ar4 on Facebook . My email is I look forward very much to hearing from you.

  5. Thank you so much for this. I have an aboriginal bark painting from northern Arnhem Land painted in 1957 and it is an example of what was painted in those days with natural ochres etc. It is so different from those paintings depicted above and demonstrates the tremendous changes over time in how the indigenous peoples paint. I am not indigenous myself but have always admired this kind of art and know of several wonderful painters in my area who produce marvellous paintings which stir the soul. Thank you for highlighting this kind of art.

  6. Beautiful and inspiring short piece of history. Thanks for this opportunity to understand how sometimes the art is an outlet after oppression and difficult times.
    Perfect for reflection this time of the year.

  7. I grew up on Australian art. My mother was Australian, we visited throughout my life. I’m so happy that you can show this amazing art to the world through the painters keys. Thank you

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sharon-rusch-shaver_workshop-2We will be exploring ancient sites, painting Plein Air, taking photos and eating Chef prepared delicious Peruvian cuisine all while staying in a comfortable Hacienda in the Sacred Valley shaded by towering Eucalyptus trees. Meals, ensuite rooms, transfers to sites*, tours*, museums included.


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My art represents an artistic journey that has been on-going for more than thirty-five years with help and guidance from many wonderful artists. Now, with years of plein-air painting experience, study and solo exhibitions, I believe that my current work has reached its highest level, reflecting the depth of my absorption in the wonder and beauty of the world around me.  I have learned that, as an artist, I will never stop looking for better ways to express my feelings in art and that struggling to more fully understand myself is integral to my painting; a philosophy that was part of every workshop I taught. Still is.


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