Painter and teacher, Geoffrey Bardon, is best known for his 1970s collaboration with a remote and dispossessed group of 1400 Aboriginal people living in Papunya, a settlement about 240 kilometres west of Alice Springs. At the time, Bardon was a 30-year-old elementary teacher assigned to work with people who had been living under a government policy of assimilation since the 1960s. The town held no significance to the people living there as they had been relocated through government interventionist schemes and for the most part had come from different regions, spoke different languages, and had accumulated storytelling traditions that related to other parts of the country.
Bardon’s experience in Papunya would be life-changing, both for him and the Indigenous people with whom he worked. Bardon encouraged the development of visual representation for the diverse group of aboriginal males living in the town. He was at odds with township administrators who did not support his initiatives and did not like the popularity of the art space that Bardon set up in the storeroom of the town hall hut. Bardon supplied art materials to the elders of the group so that they could paint their stories. His attempts to promote and sell the resulting paintings, however, were met with deep criticism from town administration and government bureaucrats. It is widely acknowledged that by supporting the artists’ initiative and the Aboriginal people of the town, Bardon jeopardised his career and his health.
It is for his dedicated, if short, period of time in Papunya, that Bardon is credited with helping to establish the first generation of the Papunya Tula arts movement. The Papunya Tula artists group today continues to be entirely owned and directed by Aboriginal people from the Western Desert. The style of Papunya Tula painting remains in keeping with the ideals that Bardon encouraged in the early 1970s – deriving from creating visuals based directly upon each artist’s knowledge of ceremony and sand and body painting.
Geoffrey Bardon studied art education as part of the specialist degree offered only at UNSW Art & Design. He was made a member of the Order of Australia in 1988 for service to the preservation and development of traditional Aboriginal art forms.