In May 2015, paintings conservator Vanessa Kowalski and a small group of masters students from the Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation (CCMC), set out to conduct in-situ conservation work on two important acrylic on plywood panel paintings. The works, by Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula (1938-2001) and Charlie Wartuma (Tarawa) Tjungurrayi (1921-1999), are held in the remote community of Kintore, 530km west of Alice Springs.
The paintings were originally commissioned in 1985 by the newly established Pintupi Homelands Health Service (PHHS). They tell the story of the Pintupi people’s return to their traditional country, Walungurru (Kintore), in 1981 after they were forced to resettle to Papunya in the 1930s and the subsequent establishment of the health clinic.
Tolson’s work, depicting the Ngintaka or Perentie Dreaming, telling of the formation of Walungurru country, has been displayed proudly outside the PHHS clinic for twenty-nine years. Wartuma’s painting, which tells the story of the community’s journey back from Papunya, has a far more extraordinary provenance. Having vanished from the clinic during relocation in 1996, the painting re-emerged as part of a Mossgreen Auction in 2012, which was dedicated to the sale of indigenous works from the collection of the late American billionaire and philanthropist John W. Kluge. Following a petition from the Pintupi Homelands Health Service Aboriginal Corporation (PHHSAC) for its return, the painting was donated back to the community at Kintore.
Development of Conservation Project
For two years after Wartuma’s painting had been returned, it was stored by Papunya Tula Artists at Araluen Arts Centre in Alice Springs, yet to take the 9 hour truck journey across the desert back to Kintore. Tolson’s work had been removed from display and stored at the PHHS clinic. Community members sought to restore and reunite the two storyboards in the clinic for which they were painted.
In late 2014, Papunya Tula Artists contacted CCMC, on behalf of the PHHS clinic and the Kintore community, to request help with the task. A group of CCMC students sought and received funding from the Copland Foundation to travel to Kintore and carry out conservation work in consultation with the custodians and an advisory committee, consisting of community elders and relatives of the artists. The resulting project was guided by key Kintore community members and represented a valuable learning opportunity for the students involved.
Condition of Paintings
The paintings were both in stable condition. The Wartuma panel, despite being held in a prominent collection for over 15 years, had a heavy layer of desert dirt across the composition. The Tolson work, which had been displayed outside the clinic, also had a moderate layer of grime and accretions, as well as an eclectic array of graffiti, both applied and scratched in to the paint layer. Furthermore, areas of the paint layer in the upper half of the Tolson work were actively flaking, with associated loss.
The conservation treatment was undertaken in the PHHS clinic boardroom, where community members attending the clinic could visit and view the conservation process. This enabled a dialogue between the community members and visiting conservators, and new learning for both parties about the stories, the history and the care of the two paintings.
The main challenge of the treatment was working in a remote area, with limited resources and limited time. The PHHS staff members provided detailed information and images of the paintings, prior to CCMC’s visit, so that a treatment pathway could be determined, and the treatment materials required sent across from Melbourne.
The treatment undertaken followed standard steps, with consolidation of the Tolson work undertaken first, to stabilise areas of flaking paint. Dry and wet cleaning was undertaken on both paintings. Recent developments in the cleaning of acrylic paintings were taken into consideration, and a tailored cleaning solution using pH 6 buffered water and EcoSurf™ surfactant was used to reduce the moderate grime layer and accretions across both panels. The reduction of the graffiti on the Tolson panel proved more difficult, with limited availability of solvents. The team improvised, using a combination of isopropanol swabs from the clinic, methylated spirits and the surfactant to reduce the graffiti.
With regards to the reintegration of areas of loss on the Tolson work, and retouching to further reduce the appearance of the graffiti, a discussion was held with both the custodians of the work and community members who formed part of the advisory committee to the project. The aim of retouching was to reduce the visual impact of graffiti and losses in the paint layer and, thus, restore the aesthetic integrity of the piece. Permission to carry out retouching was granted, and the work undertaken using watercolour paints.
Overall, the treatment outcomes for the two panels were satisfying. Consolidation, cleaning and retouching resulted in the works exhibiting sharper and brighter colours with more distinct detailing. The images and stories can be read without distraction for the first time in many years.
The custodians within the clinic as well as community members who viewed the panels during and after treatment expressed feelings of nostalgia and joy on seeing their history preserved. As they shared their memories of the works in their original location with the conservation team, it became apparent that the works are highly symbolic and cherished by the Pintupi people.
The works now hang inside the clinic in a temperature controlled space, reunited for the first time in 20 years, just in time for the 30th anniversary of PHHS.
This work was made possible by the generosity of the Copland Foundation, Pintupi Homelands Health Service and Papunya Tula Artists Pty. Ltd. The student conservators, Rebecca Cvetanoski, Soma Garner, Hanna Sandgren and Oskar Slifierz, would like to thank Robyn Sloggett and Vanessa Kowalski for their professional guidance and support throughout the project.
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