Meet Paul Sweeney, the photographer turned art curator. Paul left Sydney for the redder pastures of Alice Springs exactly 20 years ago - he hated city traffic and had a desire to learn more about Aboriginal art and culture. One of the many reasons that Paul loves life in the Red Centre is our incredibly vibrant visual and performing arts scene.
Inspiration in the Earth - Paul Sweeney's Story
Inspired by vast ancient landscapes of rugged mountains, vivid colours and monoliths – Central Australia has long been a drawcard for visual and performing artists. The harsh beauty of the land and the cultural richness are inspirations for artists to write, paint and create.
Paul Sweeney, Manager of Papunya Tula Artists, arrived in the Red Centre in the spring of ’94. Leaving behind the bright lights and fast paced lifestyle of Sydney, he came to Central Australia as a freelance photographer. Having visited Alice Springs once in the late 80s, Paul’s decision to move was inspired by his friend the singer/songwriter Neil Murray of the Warumpi Band.
“Neil has a long attachment with Alice Springs and in particular – Kintore. He opened up this part of the world in my mind”
“Time came for me to head out of Sydney and I thought where to? And it was Alice Springs, by this time I heard about the arts scene and I was particularly interested in Papunya Tula Artists”
Papunya Tula Artists is an art cooperative and private company that formed in 1972 and is owned and directed by traditional Aboriginal people from the Western desert. With 50 shareholders, the company currently represent 80 artists from Kintore, Kiwirrkura and Papunya.
“PT is owned by the painters which is something that is paramount to me. We’re a privately owned company and we report to ASIC as any other company would but you’re talking about people (shareholders) who are 60-80 years old so there’s tremendous faith in us to guide the business”
“They let us know what they want and we implement it”
Paul joined Papunya Tula in 1995 at a time when the popularity of the Central Australian art movement was gaining traction. He believes that Aboriginal art captured the imagination of people because what they were seeing on canvas was ancient, yet had a contemporary look.
From the late 90s to 2005 there was considerable growth in the Indigenous art market and galleries in major cities around Australia started popping up carrying these artworks. High profile international auction houses (Sotheby’s, Shapiro’s, Deutscher & Hackett) with global audiences were including Central Australian art in their annual shows. And Paul believes that the cultural iconography of the art is part of that appeal.
“There has to be an educational component to the art, showing people where it comes from, who the artists are, customs, beliefs and origins. The story behind the art, that’s always been the appeal for Aboriginal art. It’s natural human interest if you’re interested in visual art, most people want to know more about it”
Aboriginal art styles also vary from region to region but in recent times there has been one significant trend. It is now more common to see paintings with wider pallets of colour instead of just ochre-based earthy tones. Paul believes that there are many factors behind this evolution.
“The thing with Indigenous art in Central Australia is that it’s so diverse. There’s Desart here representing some 45 art centres across the region and the works are so different. You only have to go 100km to a neighbouring community to see that difference”
“It’s not just the iconography, it’s the style, it’s the pallets, what people have access to and art coordinators play a large role in that”
Through his experience managing Papunya Tula Artists, Paul has discovered that the majority of art lovers worldwide connect with works produced in Central Australia.
“You lose focus or reality on what the impact that our art has on some places around the world – not everybody gets it but a lot of people do and they respond strongly to it”
Exhibitions such as Desert Mob (now currently on) attract large numbers of art lovers and buyers into Central Australia from across Australia and overseas.
Other popular visual art forms coming out of Central Australia include ceramics, sculpture, photography and basketry to name a few. Exhibitions are on all year at the Araluen Art & Cultural Centre and tickets to events such as the Wearable Art Awards sell out year on year. The performing arts scene is also incredibly dynamic with the Alice Desert Festival set to open on 10 September and the Desert Harmony Festival just wrapped up in Tennant Creek.
Undoubtedly, Central Australia has a dynamic arts scene. As a photographer for many years in both Sydney and Alice Springs - Paul believes that this it’s the vastness, openness, serenity and remoteness of our land that people’s inspirations are drawn from – be it music, visual or performing arts. And no artist who comes through Central Australia leaves unchanged.
“This place changes everyone who comes here and I think that’s directly related to the landscape – people who used to paint abstract and expressionism in the city are probably painting stuff that’s more influenced by light and texture out here”
“You cannot live here as a visual or performing artist and not be influenced by the landscape. That’s why a lot of people are here”.