Documenting the Australian Museum’s Papunya Permanent Collection – Interview with Kate Khan

Posted by Aboriginal Art Directory | 28.07.08

The following is an interview with Kate Khan about the Australian Museum’s permanent collection of 94 Papunya paintings called the Papunya Permanent Collection. These paintings were offered to the Museum by the Papunya artists’ collective in 1983 and when they were acquired by the Museum they lacked any documentation. Kate has been dedicating her time to the huge task of documenting the stories behind these paintings.

Kate has been compiling details on artworks that were painted from 1971-1973, paintings that are not part of this exhibition. She has been traveling to remote communities with photographs of artworks, to find out who the artist was and what the artworks were all about.

These early artworks were painted on bits of house boards or masonite, whatever materials the artist could find. Interestingly during this period there were few dots on these paintings but lots of cross hatching, with amazing colours like hot pink, green and softer pinks.

The Papunya community wanted these pieces to be kept all together so their families could come and see them, so they could bring their sons to show them the works. Some time ago the members from the community did view these works. Kate hopes these artworks will be on display at the museum in the near future.

Kate is also involved with Papunya Painting: Out of the Desert, an exhibition showing at the Australian Museum, from 5 July- 2 November 2008, following is a short interview with Kate about this exhibition:


1. What are your thoughts on the Papunya Painting: Out of the Desert exhibition?

The pieces are stunning, major paintings you don’t see very often. The exhibition ties in with the art advisers of the Aboriginal Art Board, who commissioned these works back in the early 1970s. The Board supplied the canvas and the paints, and it was one of the first times that the artists painted on canvas, instead of painting on the ground or on their bodies.

These are stunning works.


2. What do you love about these artworks?

There are many levels of understanding and enjoyment you can derive from this exhibition’s artwork:

You can look at these pieces as works of art, and you can look at them as stories about the land, AND then you can look at them and gain cultural understanding, and spiritual meaning, AND then you can get a ritual meaning from these pieces, which only the fully initiated Aboriginal men from that community can understand.

The symbols can mean different things. Circles may be water holes, caves, or honey ant nests for example. Curved lines may be possum prints, or possum tails, or wind breaks.


3. Tell us about the beginning of the Papunya Art movement in Australian Aboriginal art?

When the Papunya Art movement started no one was interested in the art, and the Papunya Art Company nearly went broke. Geoffrey Bardon was desperate, the men wanted to paint but the market wasn’t there. Now Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd is the most successful Aboriginal art business in existence.

The Aboriginal Art Board played a big part in this. The Board was created in 1973 by the Whitlam government. It was comprised entirely of Indigenous members, three of which were artists, and it commissioned art work and ran exhibitions overseas. Exhibitions were held in the United States of America, Germany and even Nigeria, with works often donated after the exhibition. The Aboriginal Art Board arranged for paintings to be displayed in consulates, embassies and art galleries, so people could continue to learn about this new art movement and the Aboriginal culture.


4. How do you view the Aboriginal art scene today?

The Aboriginal art scene today has mixed quality and nobody seems to critique it. People are frightened to say no this is not good quality and this is exceptional.

If we want Aboriginal art to be a part of the international art scene, we need to be open and critique it. That’s just my opinion.

There is also some criticism that art galleries put pieces up without their stories, and they appreciate this art like they appreciate European art, but Aboriginal art is very different.


5. Why drives your interest in Aboriginal Art and why do you think it is so popular?

It’s very different, but I really don’t know why it appeals to some people, some love it and some can’t stand it.

Personally, I love it for its artistic merit but also for its significant role in aboriginal social life, its representation of the daily existence. I love the stories and its relationship with the whole of Aboriginal life. I’ve enjoyed the shields, the music, the songs and there is so much more to it.

Australian Aboriginal art from the Western Desert is the expression of life in the desert, how people live. It is such a rich inheritance from such a dry country and the conflict between this richness and dryness is represented magnificently in his art.

In the book Wild Bird Dreaming (by Nadine Amadio and Richard Kimber) there is a passage where the explorer Ernest Giles in late 1872 describes the land where he is as ‘desolate hills’ and a ‘horrible region’. He saw nothing around him. But he was less than one kilometre from watering holes, honey ant nests, and possum dreaming. He just didn’t know it. He couldn’t see the richness of the land.

And that’s the power of Aboriginal art. It shows us what we can’t see.


'Papunya Painting: Out of the Desert' will be at the Australian Museum from 5 July - 2 November, 2008. Opening hours are 9:30am - 5pm seven days a week.
'Papunya Painting: Out of the Desert' is a travelling exhibition developed and presented by the National Museum of Australia, Canberra.

A special slideshow of these works can be viewed through the Aboriginal Art Directory gallery » View the slideshow. This exhibition is also featured as part of our July edition of AboriginalArtDirect enewsletter.

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Last modified: July 28, 2008 5:09 PM