Papunya Tula Profiler | AAA | April 2022 Nick Resch | Wordsmith



Papunya Tula Artists is a unique Australian business, celebrating its half century in 2022. The Company is fully owned and directed by traditional Aboriginal people of the Western Desert. We run a co-operative style Company, and whilst we do promote individual artists, proceeds from sales are channelled back to Indigenous communities.

Many individuals and organisations have collaborated with Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd over the last 50 years. We have an incredibly diverse range of artists, suppliers, advisors and customers.

Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd., headed by Anthony Wallis, has been with us almost from the start, and is integral to our operation. There’s always a lot going on behind the scenes and beyond the transaction of artworks. Matters relating to intellectual property and copyright are of utmost importance. Essentially, Aboriginal Artists Agency (AAA) ensures that these things are attended to properly, efficiently and in a timely manner, and that monies from related commercial activities end up where they are supposed to. It’s a complex task, crucial to our continuing success.


Anthony Wallis studied anthropology and psychology at the University of Sydney in the late 1960’s. He went on to take a job as a trainee cinematographer at the then Commonwealth Film Unit at Film Australia. Initially confined as storeman of the camera department, he soon found himself working as an assistant cinematographer on wildlife films, which took him all around Australia and Papua New Guinea. This saw him living temporarily in various remote communities, opening his eyes to an alternative side of the country. “These human marvels of isolation which functioned so well against impossible odds, were my inspiration to later change course completely from film making and the film industry,” recalls Anthony.

But that opportunity didn’t come until after he’d worked with Peter Weir on his first film, Homesdale. He then applied to the BBC Bristol for a bursary in wildlife film production, which saw Anthony living in London for two years in the early seventies. He then married photographer Jennifer Steele and their son was born soon after. “In other words, I had no idea at the time of working with Aboriginal people that I would end up ditching everything else by 1973 and taking a full-time job in the arts bureaucracy, Australia Council, as their first project officer – for Aboriginal Arts,” says Anthony.


In 1978, Anthony was made Manager of the new government initiative Aboriginal Artists Agency. Over the next 2 years many changes took place within the Australia Council’s portfolio; it was a turbulent time. By 1980 the AAA had morphed into a non-for-profit Company with a large staff and Anthony as Managing Director. He soon realised that what applicants desperately needed was sound career management, rather than simply receiving money from the government.

Papunya Tula Artists had been operating for 8 years by this stage and Anthony remembers fondly, “Papunya Tula was unique. Its founders and Managers decided to forsake putting their snouts into the communal arts trough and as a proprietary company they just kept their profits for local distribution.” He explains that, as profits grew, PTA took a leaf out of the capitalist playbook and created tax deductible activities in support of local communities. Even bolder, they turned the proceeds of an art auction in 2000 into funding Australia’s first remote privately operated dialysis unit in the Kintore Community, 500km west of Alice Springs. 5 years later a similar style auction and fundraiser was held with the profits this time put towards building a community swimming pool, also in Kintore. This has provided the children with a much needed recreational facility as well as the added health benefits of swimming during the hotter months.

This development was incredibly important in the context of Aborigines living in a traditional way in the desert. Hand to mouth was their way, and now they had created a series of income streams both private (sale to the Company of their work) and corporate (a share in the Company profits).

Yet still the artists were missing out personally on any bonus accruing from their own rapidly developing fame. Anthony wasn’t having it. He wanted to embed into practice a payment for the intellectual property contained in their art. He pioneered contracts with the Papunya artists where they permitted AAA to represent them in this area. The initial agreements were for two years to test how this would work. Once a flow from copyright fees began, the artists agreed to convert those agreements to long term, life-of-copyright contracts with the AAA. This meant a second stream of income for artists in addition to PTA dividends: fees for the reproduction of each and every painting used by government, industry, education and finally public museums and art galleries. Anthony notes the latter were initially reluctant to pay anything. “‘It will be really good publicity for them’ was the refrain we heard over and over, in place of send us an invoice.’”


The late 70’s was the early days of copyright fees for reproduction of art, in Australia. People weren’t used to it. Not that a lot of art was being reproduced here yet. It was still mostly overseas where most publications were produced.

In 1980 PTA and AAA collaborated to produce a book on the work of Papunya Tula artists. The two Companies designed, edited and had it printed and published themselves. Half the contents were devoted to full page reproduction of paintings, which was somewhat of a novelty at the time in Australia. Most academic texts on art used tiny stamp sized pictures, perhaps to save money on printing costs. In those days, the public galleries had only just begun to collect the work of the desert painters and they weren’t up to writing books about it, so there was a ready market for the book around the country. AAA and PTA went on to publish a number of titles in the 1980’s, but soon enough the public institutions began to produce their own material. But now, they had to pay copyright fees for every image they used.

AAA has also undertaken all sorts of project management for the Australia Council, from touring dance groups to exhibitions around the country and international tours such as the Festival of Pacific Arts. AAA has been closely involved in important projects like negotiating the installation of Michael Nelson Tjakamarra’s painting as a design for the Parliament House forecourt in Canberra. At Yulara Village and hotel at Uluru, the architects Philip Cox & Partners commissioned AAA to see to it that every room had an example of work by Aboriginal artists, the only hotel in the world to do so. AAA has looked after the copyright interests of Aboriginal artists whose work has appeared on Australia Post stamps, and much more.


An artwork’s physical and influential journey doesn’t come to an end once it has been sold, or subsequently traded and ‘commodified’. “Paintings have an afterlife,” Anthony advises. He explains that there’s a lot more to controlling one’s copyright than simply earning money from it. He says that ‘control’ is the key word in that concept. Artists need to know that an agency is considering each and every situation in which their work may be reproduced, and know that they have options. If artists don’t know what’s happening to their images not only will they be unlikely to see any financial return but sometimes – more seriously – they may have no idea what’s being done with them. Some successful artists permit their work to be reproduced without charge, and this is a judgment they’re welcome to make for themselves. But this is much more difficult for younger and emerging artists. There’s a lot to consider. Will the image be all over the internet forever, without their name on it? Could it be taken up for a political campaign which they don’t support? Might it be reproduced so badly that you wouldn’t want to see it that way at all? Different colourways could be applied to it, etc. So, control is vital, whether the artist is earning nothing or a significant amount. Since some of these decisions can be tricky to negotiate, it may be beneficial for artists to appoint a person or agency with experience, who can make these judgment calls and report back. An agency should be able to maximise every commercial opportunity for their artists, and also to explain where and when reproductions of their artworks in non-commercial catalogues etc. really are ‘good publicity’.

For Anthony, AAA is a labour of love, and he is very proud to have worked closely with PTA across many years, a Company which he says is a ‘business with a social conscience.’ He says that it’s been extremely rewarding working with Papunya Tula Artists, “where profits are ploughed back in so many ways.” We couldn’t have done it without Anthony, since 1978; and wouldn’t be where we are today without the guidance and sage advice of our sentinel associate, Aboriginal Artists Agency. From all of us at PTA, we wish to convey our sincere and enduring gratitude for this special, creative and important partnership.

Back to blog