By ERWIN CHLANDA
One of the world’s greatest art movements started in a shared house in Papunya, one of Australia’s most remote towns, 250 kilometres by – in those days – corrugated dirt road.
School teacher Geoffrey Bardon, who liked to paint, produced a mural and said to some of the Aboriginal locals: “What do you think of that?”
“Not bad in a whitefeller kind of a way,” was the reply.
“Why don’t you do one blackfeller sort of way?” Mr Bardon replied.
Kaapa Tjampitjinpa – and others – took up the challenge and the Western Desert art movement took the world by storm, with sales in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
There are other versions of how “dot painting” came into being, but this one comes from Peter Fannin, now 86, who yesterday donated $100,000 to the Olive Pink Botanic Garden to start off a perpetual fund with a $250,000 target to assist the garden employing young Aboriginal people.
Mr Fannin was Mr Bardon’s housemate in the early 1970s and spent decades untiringly promoting the art form, became an alcoholic as he was using beer as a form of relaxation, reformed at the first rehab – “it usually takes two or three goes,” he says – and hasn’t touched a drop since.
He first thought complete abstinence, which the AA required, was nonsense, but then discovered his memory improved and he thought, why take the risk?
Mr Fannin gathered his own collection of early Papunya works, sold it to the Australian National Gallery (pictured) for $1m, supported the Purple House kidney dialysis facility in the Western Desert, now lives in a small flat at the Old Timers. He has pledged his estate to the artists-owned company Papunya Tula.
All through his eventful life – and I’ve known him for more than 40 years – he has been carrying a small magnifying glass (he is holding it in the photo at top) in his shirt pocket, taking every opportunity to enjoy his other passion, and his training, as a botanist.
He recalls the early days of the art movement were fraught with conflict, traditional people warning Kaapa Tjampitjinpa, “You will die, your children will die” if secret and sacred stories were shown in the paintings to the public.
“The Pitjantjatjara men were particularly strong on this,” says Mr Fannin, “which is rather ironic because now the Pitjantjatjara women are some of the most successful painters.”
Tjampitjinpa was an Anmatjerre man, but Papunya had become home to people from several tribes, including Pintupis to the west.
“This was deliberately done – divide and conquer,” says Mr Fannin.
“I had shouting matches with the [government] superintendent of the settlement.
“The Aborigines were hard done by but art was becoming an opportunity for them becoming less hard done by. It is now a most important contributor to their welfare.”
Another influential outsider was Bob Edwards, director of the Aboriginal Arts Board: “He spent more money on Aboriginal art than anyone else on the board previously and since.
“We only survived because he produced money to buy the paintings.”
Mr Fannin says Jennifer Isaacs, also from the Aboriginal Arts Board, went all over Australia but could not place a single dot painting. They were selling beautifully in Paris, of course. Finally Australia caught on.
He switched the very small boards the artists were painting on to chipboard which is four foot by three.
“I would be packing them up and dispatching them to Bob Edwards in North Sydney until I just dropped on the bed exhausted. And then I’d get up and pack some more.
“Not surprisingly I was using alcohol as a sedative.
“My particular friend was Mick Namarari. We would down many cartons of beer.”
The painters, enjoying the income, worked out motifs which “didn’t offend too many people” in terms of sacred imagery, says Mr Fannin.
Later he introduced the artists to painting on canvas on advice of local expert Virginia Crippen who suggested if Belgian linen was too expensive cotton linen would do the job. “We’ve had no complaints about it,” he says.
In the time he spent with the artists he collected 50 paintings, for three reasons.
“First of all I liked them. Secondly we were always running out of money and I put my hand in my pocket. And the nicest of all for us whitefellers, who like money, was for someone to come to my door and say, ‘I don’t want anything for this, Jungarai, I just did it for you’. It’s a reciprocal society.”
Meanwhile Olive Pink curator Ian Coleman says the garden, which celebrated its 60th birthday yesterday, has a big agenda which includes rehabilitation work of the banks of the Todd River by volunteers from the community.
By ERWIN CHLANDA