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The forgotten Yuendumu Men's Museum murals: shedding new light on the progenitors of the Western desert art movement.

Abstract: In the history of the Western Desert Art Movement, the Papunya School murals are widely acclaimed as the movement's progenitors. However, in another community, Yuendumu, some 150 kilometres from Papunya, a seminal museum project took place prior to the completion of the Papunya School murals and the production of the first Papunya boards. The Warlpiri men at Yuendumu undertook a ground-breaking project between 1969 and 1971 to build a men's museum that would not only house ceremonial and traditional artefacts but would also be adorned with murals depicting the Dreamings of each of the Warlpiri groups that had recently settled at Yuendumu. While the murals at Papunya are lost, those at Yuendumu have, against all odds, survived. Having been all but forgotten, this unprecedented cultural and artistic endeavour is only now being fully appreciated. Through the story of the genesis and construction of the Yuendumu Men's Museum and its extensive murals, this paper demonstrates that the Yuendumu murals significantly contributed to the early development of the Western Desert Art Movement. It is time to acknowledge the role of Warlpiri artists in the history of the movement.


Built between 1969 and 1971, the Yuendumu Men's Museum was one of the first community-based Aboriginal keeping places and museums built in remote Australia. It was constructed by a group of Warlpiri men at Yuendumu in the Northern Territory's Tanami Desert. No longer able to readily access painted rock shelters or hiding places for sacred objects, these senior Warlpiri men, deeply concerned for the future of their culture, quarried stone and constructed a very substantial Western-style building dedicated to preserving a wide variety of cultural artefacts and to passing on law and knowledge to the next generation.

While a unique development in its own right, the project--which also involved the painting of the internal walls with extensive communal murals - was short lived. During the late eighties the museum's contents were dispersed and the building became derelict. However, the murals miraculously survived. These nine large-scale works of art, recently conserved, shed new light on the history of the Western Desert Art Movement. They are the oldest extant communal paintings produced by a Central Australian Aboriginal community in a Western medium, preceding the making of the now lost murals on the walls of the Papunya School, as well as the first Papunya boards.

We all got together and made a decision to collect the sacred objects, tjurunga, made from rock and wood; and we said, 'let's build a museum'.

(Paddy Japaljarri Sims (1))

They said, 'What are we going to do about the walls?' And they came to the decision to paint the walls.

(Paddy Japaljarri Stewart (2))

They were proud and wanted to show off their histories.

(Harry Jakamarra Nelson (3))

'Something strange and marvellous'

In August 1971 Geoffrey Bardon noted that something 'truly, strange and marvellous had begun' at Papunya (Bardon and Bardon 2004:17). However, the Yuendumu Men's Museum project and murals are testimony to the fact that marvellous things had also been underway in Yuendumu. The 'marvellous' had in some ways begun a number of years earlier with the turning of the first sod for the Yuendumu Men's Museum.

Warlpiri men had been convinced of the need for the Museum, partly by fears that their tjurunga (4) were in danger of being stolen by gold prospectors and sold as curiosities. (5) Traditionally, desert hiding places for sacred objects were marked with cairns to ward off women and children.

But the cairns attracted trophy hunters. The museum was to be a sacred site within the boundaries of the Western world, a safe keeping place for sacred objects and knowledge. Young people would be able to learn about important knowledge without having to travel long distances to see sacred objects and paintings.

The Yuendumu Museum Society Incorporated was formed sometime after 1967. Its executive comprised two of the top men of each of the eight skin groups at Yuendumu. While the society's president was Yuendumu Superintendent Chris Clare, and the vice-president and secretary were also Europeans, all decisions were made by the executive of 16 Warlpiri (Northern Territory Affairs 1971).

The idea for a women's museum had also been put forward. As Chris Clare (Northern Territory Affairs 1971) said, 'A museum for women is quite unheard of. We were flabbergasted by the idea although we knew the women had a small amount of ceremonial life. Strangely enough, the proposal came from the men.' The remains of the Yuendumu Women's Museum, constructed later but also destined for a short life, can still be seen in Yuendumu today.

Elder and senior artist Paddy Japaljarri Sims (c. 1917-2011) was one of the Men's Museum's initiators:

   All the men who had the idea for the building
   are all gone now, except me.

      There was Barny Japanangka Poulson,
   Jimmy Jupurrurla Peters, Larry Jakamarra
   Nelson, Rufus Jungarrayi Woods, Comadi
   Japanangka Martin and Pompy Japanangka

      It was better to bring all those sacred
   objects together ... so it's safer, and it would
   stop them from drying out. (6)

Executing sand painting within the future museum was also an aim. Sand painting is an important source of forms used in Western Desert painting. As well as sand and sacred objects, materials including clays, ochres, sticks, bird down, hair, plant fibres, blood, inscribed ant's nests and painted standing stones were used. The works, often on epic scales, also incorporated patterned furrows, ridges and other raised elements. Soon after being made, sand sculptures were ceremonially destroyed. Harry Jakamarra Nelson translates and sums up the words of Paddy Japaljarri Sims and Paddy Japaljarri Stewart:

   The original idea came from Jimija Jungarrayi
   Martin and a group of Jungarrayi and
   Japaljarris, old men who had got together.
   They did a ground painting out in the bush,
   out that way. They had done it to encourage,
   more or less urge, the other mob to
   build up a museum and do a ground painting
   inside it. The original idea came from
   this ground painting they did out bush. Then
   the other mob, Jampijinpas and Jangalas,
   they decided to do their painting, too. They
   wanted to do it together in a museum.
   They were really strong those old people,
   they were really tough. (7)

Along with the Mission House and Administrator's Residence, the Men's Museum was one of Yuendumu's first formal buildings. Rudimentary housing for Warlpiri was only just starting to be built. The Warlpiri were at this time still moving from a semi-subsistence lifestyle to one based on government employment and wages, and the construction of the Yuendumu museum represented an early scheme to pay Warlpiri wages for labour. The building of the museum amounted, therefore, to an early amalgam of new Western ways and traditional knowledge and religion.

Harry Nelson recalls: 'The old fellas got together and gave instructions to the superintendent; then the superintendent gave instructions to the carpenter, which was Arthur Hutchins. Under his guidance those men started to build the museum. It was built from the instructions of those old men.' (8)

The museum was built by an Aboriginal work gang, the 'workforce' as it was known. Warlpiri labourers quarried the flat sandstone from the Yuendumu Quarry within the mulgaclad hills above Yuendumu. Paddy Japaljarri Sims remembers:

   We used to have gangs. To get that Museum
   built we got the flat stones from Yuendumu
   Hill, from the other side of Yuendumu Hill.
   You remember, when those old people were
   working together to build the museum, the
   old people worked together? They were on
   the special workforce, back in the welfare
   days. We had on-the-job training. Some were
   on the carpentry side, others were gardeners
   and there was a woodcutting mob. (9)

Building the museum cost $14 000. Of this, $7000 was raised by Warlpiri themselves and the rest came from a grant from the Aboriginal Benefits Trust Fund (Northern Territory Affairs 1971).

The South Australian Museum, as well as the local mission, supported the Men's Museum's construction and intent. Robert Edwards, the Curator of Anthropology at the South Australian Museum from 1965 to 1973, promoted its construction. Edwards, who had studied museums around the world through a 1970 UNESCO Fellowship, saw the Men's Museum as fundamental to the preservation of Warlpiri men's sacred objects and culture. From 1966-67, with Edwards' encouragement, Darby Jampijinpa Ross had been appointed as an assistant curator at the South Australian Museum. In a white dust coat, he advised and helped with the repair of some of the many sacred objects that the museum had by then collected. (10)

The Men's Museum's most sacred tjurunga came to be stored beyond the view of visitors, in locked metal cabinets standing in two small side rooms. Others, less sacred, were displayed in glass-covered cabinets (donated by the South Australian Museum) along the northern wall or were incorporated into the approximately 15 metre by 10 metre sand sculpture made on the central sand floor for the museum's opening.

Non-ceremonial objects on display included headbands made from human hair and ochre, armbands, beads, shields, Kurdaitcha shoes, (11) stone knives and axes, various weapons (such as boomerangs of many types), hunting and fighting spears and woomeras, coolamons, water carriers and wooden shovels.

The murals were not the focus of the museum, and were perhaps even an afterthought. Nonetheless, a great deal of discussion took place between their many creators as to what would be appropriate. Harry Jakamarra Nelson sums up the words of Paddy Japaljarri Sims and Paddy Japaljarri Stewart:

   They said, what are we going to do about the
   walls? And they came to the decision to paint
   the walls. They got together and decided to
   put paintings on the walls instead of going
   out hundreds of kilometres to the country
   where those paintings come from ... have it
   done on the walls. They made up their minds,
   all the different skin groups. (12)

The group painting and negotiation of subjects was also a new phenomenon, a reflection of the reality of settlement and new living arrangements. Harry Jakamarra Nelson says the different groups were 'getting to know each other' through the paintings. The murals were a way of showing off skills and knowledge:

   Doing those paintings, each skin group was
   showing off their dreams to each other. They
   were proud and wanted to show off their
   histories. The township was just building up
   then. People were living all around a settlement
   area. That place was originally built
   to teach. Instead of taking young fellas out
   to the original sites, the paintings were done
   already. The teaching could be done on the
   spot. They had the facility there, instead of
   driving out for hundreds of kilometres. They
   had all the stuff, the paintings, the sand
   paintings, the sacred objects, they had everything
   there, like they had out in the bush, at
   caves and sacred places. (13)

The opening

The opening of the museum on 31 July 1971 attracted visitors from all over the Northern Territory, including remote communities such as Docker River, and from South Australia. Photographs from the day show it to have been important enough for Harry Giese, head of the Native Affairs Branch of the Northern Territory Aboriginal Affairs Department, to attend. A sand sculpture was created within the museum's internal courtyard. Ceremony was performed with men painted up, dancing and singing and one of the last recorded games of purlja, an Aboriginal football game once common to desert people, was played between teams using a traditional ball woven from string made from human hair.

Neville Japangardi Poulson, Harry Jakamarra Nelson and Francis Jupurrurla Kelly, young men at the time of the opening, testify to the murals being created months before the big day. All attended the opening and, in Francis' case, assisted in the execution of the sand sculpture, and Harry Jakamarra Nelson gave a speech to the assembled crowd. (14)

Progenitors of the Western Desert Painting Movement

The nine Men's Museum murals were completed in time for the opening. They were painted before the completion of the celebrated, but now lost, five murals executed on the walls of the Papunya School between June and August 1971 (Bardon and Bardon 2004:12). The Papunya School murals, photographed and documented so extensively by Geoffrey Bardon, are credited by him as having been the progenitors of the Western Desert Painting Movement.

Is it possible to regard the murals of the Men's Museum in a similar way? Yuendumu's first acrylic art works on canvas boards had been executed by 1976 (Sutton 1989:99). Peter Sutton's Dreamings: The art of Aboriginal Australia contains a photograph of a fine 30 centimetre by 55 centimetre acrylic on board by George Jampijinpa Robertson. These works were possibly influenced by those of Papunya Tula, but the murals in the Men's Museum were there in Yuendumu to behold. In 1976 the Men's Museum was still in a healthy state, with Darby as its official curator.

Production in large quantities of Yuendumu acrylics began in the early 1980s, especially after the creation of the celebrated Yuendumu Doors (15) and the establishment of the Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Association. However, the works of the 1980s were by no means the first Yuendumu output. Paddy Japaljarri Sims, one of the founding members of Warlukurlangu, who, along with Paddy Japaljarri Stewart, was responsible for most of the Yuendumu Doors, was also responsible for sections of the Men's Museum murals.

It is fascinating to note that Bardon, in his book on the art of Papunya, mentions in passing that he visited the Yuendumu Men's Museum in 1971 and saw ground paintings there. Perhaps he was one of the visitors at the official opening in August: 'I first witnessed sand paintings at the Yuendumu museum, which was secret to women and children, in August 1971' (Bardon and Bardon 2004:21).

Bardon's experience at the Yuendumu Men's Museum obviously left an impression on him. Perhaps his work with Aboriginal people had to some degree been inspired by news brought to Papunya of the museum's construction and its cultural raison d'etre. The murals were already in place at Yuendumu when he visited. Did Bardon see the Yuendumu masterpieces, as well as the sand sculpture, and take impressions of them both back to Papunya, 150 kilometres to the south? We shall never know, for he does not mention the murals. Certainly, Warlpiri (including Paddy Japaljarri Stewart) were living at Papunya during the time of the painting of the Papunya School and Men's Museum murals, and they constantly travelled by truck between the two settlements.

Bardon had no doubt about the significance of the Papunya School murals to what would follow: 'This was the beginning of the Western Desert Painting Movement when, led by Kaapa, the Aboriginal men saw themselves in their own image and before their very own eyes, and upon a European building. Truly, something strange and marvellous had begun' (Bardon and Bardon 2004:17).

There are some important differences between the Papunya and the Yuendumu murals. While the Papunya murals were initiated through a school project by Bardon, the Yuendumu murals were the idea of Warlpiri men and were initiated by Warlpiri men. Additionally, the Yuendumu Men's Museum murals can be considered as part of a much bigger project to preserve traditional knowledge and enstire that, despite the social changes and government policies that were affecting Aboriginal peoples' ways of life at the time, young people could continue to learn about their culture and the Law. The Papunya School murals were made in an open public space and could be viewed by the entire Papunya community, whereas the Men's Museum had restricted entry because of the sacred objects on display. Indeed, a notice outside the museum read, <No women or children what so ever are permitted to enter. Men wishing to enter museum must be accompanied by a member of the committee.'

Galleries on both sides of the centre area of the museum are divided into four sections, representing the eight skin groups (Northern Territory Affairs 1971): Japaljarri, Japangardi, Jakamarra, Jungarrayi, Jupururrurla, Jangala, Japanangka and Jampijinpa. Important Warlpiri places and Dreamings are depicted on the walls, and include representations of the Flying Ant Dreaming, the Emu Dreaming and Snake Dreaming and references to important places such as Mt Bennett, Mt Theo and Mt Doreen. In total, there are nine murals, including two that are more than 15 meters long and one that is two meters high. The latter, painted by Darby Jampijinpa Ross and other Jampijinpa helpers, depicts the mythical travels of the emu's Dreamtime ancestors. Emus are represented by rows of arrow-like tracks; circular forms represent waterholes and emu eggs. Similar iconography and the use of vibrant colours and heavy dotting can be found in later works by Darby Jampijinpa Ross.

There are motifs common to both Yuendumu and Papunya murals. For example, the Papunya murals' Snake Dreaming, with its short bars within each curve of what appears to be a slithering motion, is almost identical to the same Dreaming in the Men's Museum. The snakes are uncannily similar in form, size and colour. The Snake Dreaming of Papunya had obviously caused no problems in its public portrayal. Other Men's Museum motifs, such as those of the Emu Dreaming, were later regularly executed by Darby in acrylic on canvas (as the Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Association archives of Darby's work clearly show) and on the public walls of the first Warlukurlangu building.

Thus, the secrecy of the Men's Museum had more to do with the sacred objects incorporated in the sand sculpture and displayed in the glass cabinets than the paintings. The paintings were not the reason for building the museum, and according to Harry Jakamarra Nelson are akin in their sanctity to the motifs applicable to marna kurra warnu, the very first stages of a young man's initiation, and are images commonly seen by women. (16) When the museum opened in 1971, European men and older, grey-haired European women were permitted to enter. (17) Indeed, parts of the museum were open to tourists, and local Warlpiri acted as guides to explain the use and significance of the collection (Northern Territory Affairs 1971). As stated on the sign outside the museum, a fee of $1 applied to visit the museum.


In his introduction to Bardon's Papunya: A place made after the story: The beginnings of the Western Desert Painting Movement, Paul Carter laments the loss of the Papunya School murals. His words also serve as a testimony to the importance of the Yuendumu Men's Museum murals (Bardon and Bardon 2004:xiv):

   My Western comparisons, then, by no means
   exaggerate the significance of the Papunya Tula
   Painting Movement. Its designs, like Pindar's
   poems, notate a sacred geography. The
   development of a breathtakingly elaborated
   painting style, able to communicate sacred
   knowledge to the uninitiated, made generally
   available a hermetic legacy. As for the first
   and greatest emblem of its local knowledge,
   the 'Honey Ant Mural', painted on the wall
   of the Papunya school room--it has been
   destroyed. At least the Venetian frescoes were
   allowed to weather to nothing. The murals'
   fate (there were five in all) illustrates the lack
   of value ascribed to the early work.

Whatever the circumstances in which it happened, the painting-over of the Papunya School murals seems today like an act of sacrilege. In contrast, the survival of the Yuendumu murals is a great gift to future generations of Warlpiri. The fact that the Yuendumu murals still exist is tangible proof that, in Central Australia, other initiatives to experiment with Western media happened at the same time or even earlier than in Papunya and have contributed to the beginning of the much-celebrated Western Desert Art Movement. (18)

The museum closed sometime in the 1980s and was left to decay. Unfortunately, the museum building, internal sculptures and murals suffered damage and artefacts disappeared until the Yuendumu Men's Museum Committee was formed in 2005. (19) The committee was anxious to fence the museum's grounds to prevent cows and horses from further damaging surroundings and to have the museum refurbished with the view to open it again to visitors. The men saw an opportunity to foster tourism and create employment. The committee also decided that the museum grounds should again be used for men's business. In 2006 the committee approached the local art centre, the Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Corporation, to look at ways of saving the building. Further consultation followed and the Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Corporation Committee strongly supported the project. The art centre successfully applied for grants through the federal government (Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs), the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, the Aboriginal Benefits Account (Indigenous funding) and Community Royalty funds (Granites Mine Affected Area Aboriginal Corporation--Indigenous funding) to fence the site and to restore the building, external and internal sculptures, and murals, and to create a new ground painting in the centre area of the museum. The museum restorations were completed in mid-2010, and it is now hoped that a detailed analysis of the paintings and their iconography can begin. This will contribute to and acknowledge the important role that these visionary Warlpiri painters played in the genesis of the Western Desert Art Movement. Warlpiri men are now in a position to decide how they want to use their rejuvenated museum.


Bardon, Geoffrey and James Bardon 2004 Papunya: A place made after the story: The beginnings of the Western Desert Painting Movement, Miegunyah Press, Carlton, Vic.

Kimber, RG (Dick) 1995 'Politics of the secret in contemporary Western Desert art' in Christopher Anderson (ed.), Politics of the Secret, University of Sydney, Sydney, p.123-42.

Northern Territory Affairs 1971 New Museum Will House Sacred Objects, volume 4, October.

Sutton, Peter 1989 Dreamings: The art of Aboriginal Australia, Viking, Ringwood, Vic.


(1.) Paddy Japaljarri Sims, interviewed by Bethune Carmichael, 2006; translated from Warlpiri by Harry Jakamarra Nelson. The men were interviewed specifically with the view of writing an essay on the history of the museum. Permission was given to the authors to publish a draft of this paper.

(2.) Paddy Japaljarri Stewart, interviewed by Bethune Carmichael, 2006; translated by Harry Jakamarra Nelson.

(3.) Harry Jakamarra Nelson, interviewed by Bethune Carmichael, 2006.

(4.) Ceremonial objects sculpted from acacia wood, slate or sandstone and painted with coloured ochre.

(5.) Warlpiri were seeing the breakdown of their law and society. Country and sites of great cultural and economic significance, such as Pikilyi, a permanent water source north of Yuendumu, had been taken over by pastoralists and were no longer freely accessible.

(6.) Paddy Japaljarri Sims, interviewed by Bethune Carmichael, 2006; translated by Harry Jakamarra Nelson. Darby Jampijinpa Ross was inadvertently left off Paddy's list.

(7.) Paddy Japaljarri Sims and Paddy Japaljarri Stewart, interviewed by Bethune Carmichael, 2006; translated by Harry Jakamarra Nelson.

(8.) Harry Jakamarra Nelson, interviewed by Bethune Carmichael, 2006.

(9.) Paddy Japaljarri Sims, interviewed by Bethune Carmichael, 2006; translated by Harry Jakamarra Nelson.

(10.) At this time there was something of a movement to support the establishment of regional museums in Australia (pets. comm., Bob Edwards to Bethune Carmichael, 2006).

(11.) The shoes worn by a Kurdaitcha man (one who has either been formally selected, or goes out on his own initiative, to avenge the injury by magic of someone) woven from feathers and human hair.

(12.) Paddy Japaljarri Sims and Paddy Japaljarri Stewart, interviewed by Bethune Carmichael 2006; translated by Harry Jakamarra Nelson.

(13.) Harry Jakamarra Nelson, interviewed by Bethune Carmichael, 2006.

(14.) Robert Edwards and anthropologist Nicolas Peterson concur with this dating of the paintings (Peterson and Edwards, pers. comm. with Bethune Carmichael, 2006).

(15.) The Yuendumu School doors were painted by senior Warlpiri men in the early 1980s.

(16.) Harry Jakamarra Nelson, interviewed by Bethune Carmichael, 2006.

(17.) Dick Kimber and Robert Edwards, personal communication with Bethune Carmichael, 2006.

(18.) Furthermore, copies of receipts found in the Warlukurlangu archives show that the Yuendumu museum was very active in promoting the sale of artefacts throughout the 1970s. The men even had a customised Land Rover truck for the collection of art materials. The museum also held exhibitions during sports festivals. For example, in August 1972 an exhibition was held and included paintings from Papunya. One of the paintings by a Winanpa artist caused some concerns with Pitjantjatjara men and had to be quickly removed from display. Indeed, the painting was perceived as a serious transgression, revealing the uninitiated, secret-sacred aspects of men's law (Kimber 1995:129).

(19.) Bethune Carmichael, one of the authors of this paper, helped establish and supported the committee, which comprised senior men of the community: Harry Jakamarra Nelson, Paddy Japaljarri Stewart, Paddy Japaljarri Sims, Thomas Jangala Rice, Francis Jupurrurla Kelly, Otto Jungarrayi Sims and Neville Japangardi Poulson.

Bethune Carmichael lived in Yuendumu and worked at the Yuendumu Community Education Centre from 2003-07 as the Bilingual Resource Development Unit's (BRDU) literature production supervisor. The BRDU has more than 1000 graded Warlpiri readers written and illustrated by Warlpiri. From 2005-07 he helped establish and facilitate the Yuendumu Men's Museum Committee.


Apolline Kohen has more than 20 years' experience in the museum and cultural sector as a researcher, curator, manager and writer. She is currently a Senior Researcher with Ninti One and a freelance arts writer.

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Title Annotation:RESEARCH REPORT
Author:Carmichael, Bethune; Kohen, Apolline
Publication:Australian Aboriginal Studies
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Mar 22, 2013
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