The Desert Painting movement began at Papunya in 1971. Aboriginal people from across the Central and Western Deserts were settled in Papunya as part of Australia's misguided assimilation policy, an ambitious attempt to merge one of the world's oldest living cultures into mainstream Australian society. Aboriginal people were not consulted in this process, and in 1971 they had only recently won rights as citizens after nearly 200 years of western occupation of their traditional homelands. Needless to say, it was a very unhappy time, a time of wrenching social turmoil, and Aboriginal people needed a means of defining themselves to the seemingly hostile and ignorant society surrounding them, which now threatened their cultural survival.
When some of the elders began to paint for Geoff Bardon, an art teacher working at the community school, as a means of educating him about their artistic and cultural traditions the painting movement was born. Gradually, men from a variety of backgrounds and tribal affiliations came forward and asked for paints. These men can be split into two groups: men who were often of mixed tribal affiliations (Anmatyerre, Arrerente, Luritja, Warlpiri), many of whom had worked as stockmen on the cattle stations in the years before it was required to pay Aboriginal people wages; and the Pintupi, many of whom had recently been brought out of the Western Desert and who were newly confronting the puzzling outside world. For the first time in the harrowing settlement process the men were engaged in a non-traditional activity which was affirming to who they were, rather than a denial of it painting was a validation of their cultural traditions in their own eyes as well as those of outsiders. Geoff arranged to have their work exhibited in Alice Springs, and slowly during the 70's the world began to get its first look at what would become an international phenomenon.
By the early 80's the desert painting movement began to come into its own, Papunya painters were finally receiving serious recognition both at home and abroad, but the community of Papunya was fragmenting. Many of the Pintupi moved back out into the Western Desert, closer to their traditional homelands founding the outstations of Kintore and Kiwirrkura, while the others moved in any number of different directions including Alice Springs. Today the Papunya Tula cooperative is predominantly comprised of Pintupi artists from the aforementioned outstations.
Today most of the original generation of founding artists have sadly passed, but their legacy lives on in vibrant and evolving styles of painting exciting recent developments include the rise of Pintupi women painters during the 90's and blossoming of geometric painting styles amongst the men