Vivien Johnson: Once upon a time in Papunya - Art Collector

4 May 2011 | Once upon a time in Papunya is Vivien Johnson’s latest attempt to unlock the cultural, historical bind surrounding the Papunya Tula art movement of central Australia.

Johnson’s part autobiographical, part historical narrative tells the story of the early Papunya Tula boards and how they came to the attention of international auction houses in the late nineties. Unlike Johnson’s earlier works that catalogue the who and what of the Papunya Tula artists, Once Upon a Time in Papunya is propelled by Johnson’s desire to find out what the artworks tell us about its creators.

“They were the first of their people to inscribe their culture in permanent images based upon their own visual traditions….and from those images went on to make their mark in the stubbornly Eurocentric world of contemporary Australian art”, writes Johnson in the introduction.


Johnson has been researching the Western Desert Art Movement for over thirty years and injects a large portion of her research into revisiting Papunya, Northern Territory. She wrote Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists and is the founding Editor-in-Chief of the Dictionary of Australian Artists Online. In 2000, she was placed on an all white National Cultural Heritage Committee that held the responsibility of determining the significance of the Papunya boards amidst rising demand for indigenous art overseas.

In Once upon a Time in Papunya, Johnson gaze is sociological rather than aesthetic. She claims to be interested in the world the artists inhabitated as a way of accessing what the works mean to them and their relationship with the land, their ancestors and to each other.


Once Upon a time in Papunya is published by New South Books.


Amy Yang






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