In 1971–1972, art teacher Geoffrey Bardon encouraged Aboriginal people in Papunya, north west of Alice Springs to put their Dreamings onto canvas. These stories had previously been drawn on the desert sand, and were now given a more permanent form.
The dots were used to cover secret-sacred ceremonies. Originally, the paintings were used in addition to the oral history of Aboriginal dreamings and so they were made for cultural purposes and not the art market. The dots are, in effect, a form of camouflage:
“In 1972, the [Papunya Tula] artists succeeded in forming their own company with an Aboriginal Name: Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd…however a time of disillusionment followed as artists were criticised by their peers for having revealed too much of their sacred heritage. Secret designs restricted to a ritual context were now in the market place, made visible to kardiya outsiders and Aboriginal women. In response to these objections, all detailed depictions of human figures, fully decorated tjurungas (bullroarers) and ceremonial paraphernalia were removed or modified. Such designs and their ‘inside’ meanings were not to be written down and ‘traded’. Any contravention broke the immutable plan of descent, the link of the initiated men with his totemic ancestor through his father and his father’s father. From 1973 to 1975, Papunya Tula artists sought to camouflage overt references to ceremony and became reticent. They revealed less of the sacred heart of their culture. The openness of the Bardon era was at an end. Dotting and over-dotting, as an ideal means of concealing or painting over dangerous, secret designs, became a fashion at this stage. The art was made public, watered down for general exhibition, pointing to the uniqueness of the Geoffrey Bardon years – which like innocence, cannot be rediscovered.” (Judith Ryan in Bardon 1991: ix-x)
Eventually the style, known as the Papunya Tula school, or sometimes popularly as ‘dot art’, became the most recognisable form of Australian Aboriginal painting. Much of the Aboriginal art on display in tourist shops traces back to this style developed atPapunya. The most famous of the artists to come from this movement was Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri. Also from this movement is Johnny Warangkula, whose Water Dreaming at Kalipinya twice sold at a record price, the second time being $486,500 in 2000.
In 1983, some members of the Papunya movement, unhappy with the way their paintings were sold to private dealers, moved to Yuendumu and began painting 36 doors at the school there with their Dreaming stories, which started an art movement there. In 1985 the Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Association was founded at Yuendumu, which co-ordinates the artists in the area. Some of the best-known painters from this movement include Paddy Japaljarri Stewart, Paddy Tjapaltjarri Sims, Maggie Napangardi Watson and Judy Napangardi Watson.