5: The University Thesis


Why I went to University

My two main expectations about going to university were: I would get better resources for my research and I’d be in a more disciplined environment, both of which would improve the quality of my research and writing.

From a cursory glance at different universities’ offerings, and from what I had heard from friends and colleagues, it seemed that Melbourne University and the Australian National University (ANU, Canberra) were two of the better options for Indigenous art and biography. ANU had in its favour that I could catch a bus or drive there from Sydney, whereas the compulsory attendance aspects of attending Melbourne would mean the added expense of flights.

I contacted the Research School of Humanities at ANU and made an appointment to see Dr Paul Pickering in about August 2008. I had a productive meeting, which indicated I could get into the PhD program in the School. He introduced me to Professor Howard Morphy, a visual anthropologist with deep connections to the Yolngu people, who would be my supervisor. I left the meeting confident that my qualifications and experience would see me accepted and that the School would be a positive environment for me.

I spent quite a deal of time getting application documents and details in order. As I wasn’t applying for a scholarship Paul had indicated that my application could proceed quickly. After a slight administrative delay I was accepted as a student in the Doctoral program of Interdisciplinary Studies, commencing December 2008.

Getting started

I was really keen to get underway, reasoning I had already done much of the necessary research. But before I could do anything further, I needed to get the University’s approval from its Human Research Ethics Committee to conduct research with Indigenous people. This was a more detailed and complicated process than I had imagined. There were research and writing protocols to take into account too that I had not learned enough about (The master from Marnpi, p. 237).

One of the benefits of undertaking the ethics clearance process was it made me review my whole research approach and outline a research plan. During the application process in early 2009 I reconsidered and refined what I intended to do. For example, I needed to specify questions I might ask Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants, and outline what kinds of benefits could accrue to the people who were assisting me. I also needed to guarantee I had the formal support of Namarari’s family and Papunya Tula Artists (PTA).

In January and February of 2009 I met the ten or so other students in my PhD intake. It was very stimulating to share numerous conversations about our various research projects, both in class and over a glass of wine in the university bar. Having to explain what I was doing, on so many occasions, to people who knew very little about my project was a challenging and stimulating way to get my ideas clearer about what I was doing, why, and how. Even more so, having the support of an enthusiastic bunch of younger fellow researchers made me more determined to do a better job with the preparation of Namarari’s biography. The project became more important in my own mind.

In my first year I wrote an action plan outline for three years, having confidently told one of my supervisors that I would finish in that time. My optimism was admirable, but misguided. I had regular discussions with my research supervisors about my progress and they provided guidance on my methodology and feedback on my drafts about Namarari’s life and art. This was what I had been missing for too long.

One of the regular highlights of my visits to Canberra during my studies was seeing my friend Norma, who I first met in the early 1980s when working in adult education in Sydney. We became great pals. Along with another close mate from Perth (Brian, or ‘Boppa’), she was one of several people to whom I would one day proudly show my book about Namarari. Norma had followed my interest in Aboriginal art from the mid 1990s and was thrilled that I was writing an artist’s biography. Each time I visited she invariably greeted me with a big smile, ‘Hello darling! How’s the book going?’ We would chat for hours about art, travel and families. 

Dedicated research

 [Alec, Papunya Tula, Alice Springs]

I conceptualised my key roles as: the researcher, the writer and the project manager. The manager planned my schedule, organised my routine and kept an eye on my budget. The researcher gathered, analysed, recorded and organised data, and the writer pieced together a story that made sense. It was a slow process: ideas into words, words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into chapters.

From the second half of 2009 and through 2010-2011, I concentrated on field work visits to Western Desert communities. In retrospect, I wish I had spent a solid three-month block ‘out west’, but I tended to do trips of one-to-two weeks only. Using Alice Springs as a base, I visited Hermannsburg, Haasts Bluff, Papunya, Mount Liebig and Kintore. During these visits I made side trips to Kiwirrkura, Marnpi, Nyunmanu, Putarti, Iranytji, Browns Bore, Glen Helen, Ngankirritja, Alalpi and Kulpitarra (The master from Marnpi, pp. 8-9). These were places that Namarari had lived at or included in his paintings.

 [Alec and Leo, Mount Liebig]

I was especially fortunate to have been taken to some of these places by Namarari’s relatives, including Elizabeth Marks Nakamarra, and their grandsons, Leo Peterson Tjampitjinpa (at Mount Liebig) and Tommy Conway Tjapangati (at Kintore). The one place I regret not seeing was Tempe Downs cattle station, where Namarari worked as a stockman in the late 1930s (The master from Marnpi pp. 48-54).


[Approaching Kintore]

[Field trip gear, Kintore]

[Morning tea among desert oaks, near Marnpi]


I had limited experience of formal archival research and had a lot to learn. I drew on oral histories, government documents and art records. Locating Namarari’s artworks in major institutions was relatively simple – they could be accessed online. Approvals could then be sought for images and documentation to include in my thesis. (Further approvals would be needed, sometimes with the payment of fees, to incorporate images into the book.)

I scanned the internet for sources and clues, especially in the National Archives of Australia. I spent days and weeks in the Papunya Tula archive, the South Australian Museum, the Northern Territory Archive Service and the National Library. Finding a missing piece of the jigsaw, an informative note in a file, or a photograph of someone who belonged in the story was always a delight. The authorisation of my project by Namarari’s family and PTA made access to several public archives and private collections possible. I can’t imagine how this project could have been completed as an ‘unauthorised’ biography.

University life provided me with opportunities as a post-graduate student to speak at conferences and seminars, requiring me to prepare and write succinct twenty-minute papers to deliver to my peers. Such exercises were another way of refining what I was doing by having to reflect on my research, synthesise ideas, address research questions and make sense of issues I was addressing. Conferences were fun to attend because I met people who were enthusiastic about their projects and interested in mine. 

Focus on biography

To better understand how I was writing about Namarari, I read Aboriginal autobiographies and Aboriginal artists’ biographies. I made a study of four artist’s biographies: Queenie McKenzie, Yirawala, Darby Jampijinpa Ross and Wenten Rubuntja. Through such books, and other oral histories, I appreciated much more about the Aboriginal perspective through first-person accounts that are not so apparent in generalised histories. I returned to Namarari’s interviews (with Kean and Batty) with new questions and renewed insights. I re-read the transcripts closely, I listened to the tapes over and over, and I watched the video (Batty’s interview) repeatedly to study Namarari’s mannerisms and tone.

Unsurprisingly, the writing process forced me to engage more closely with the author’s role – what is my perspective, what is my relationship to my subject, where do I stand? While I had been preoccupied with my writer’s view toward Namarari, I realised through reading Aboriginal autobiographies and biographies that, as a reader, I focused on the relationship between each author and their subject. And in stark contrast to virtually all those books, I had never met my subject, so my project was not a collaboration between author and subject. I could not write about Namarari through direct experience; I could only see him by reflection. The issues of his visibility and identity became much more important than the timeline of events, people and places, though I maintained that chronological timeline as a basis of my unfolding narrative.

One thing a thesis must do is focus, to address a question or delve into a problem. It is not a matter of ‘write 100,000 words about something that interests you’. The research question that I developed in my first year of study carried through to the end: What can a study of Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri’s life and art career tell us about him as an individual, and then, how does that illuminate our understanding of the Pintupi people and the development of Papunya Tula art?

That question led me to place borders round my topic. I would only make a concerted study of Namarari’s Papunya Tula art, not the works he did for numerous other dealers and outlets. Not only was his PTA-provenance art a substantial body of work, produced continuously from the early 1970s until the late 1990s, but I had been granted access to PTA’s archive, meaning that I could assemble his catalogue raisonnè (some 600 paintings). Additionally, I catalogued his pre-PTA art for 1971-72. That was sufficient to describe and analyse his career, practice and output. Another border I imposed on my research was that I would not seek to inquire into the private world of his ceremonial life as a wati, an initiated man.

Refine, submit and graduate

After endless rounds of drafting, refining, feedback, reflection and feelings of exhaustion, my finished thesis of 373 pages was ready to submit in mid 2013: ‘The Life of Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri (c1923-1998)’. The School’s staff had been pivotal in getting me to that point (John Carty and Paul Pickering in particular). I had assembled the images that I needed and the formal approvals from archives and art institutions. I had checked and re-checked my layout (with printouts from my local Officeworks). I engaged a copyeditor to find typos I had missed and correct my grammar. And so, much to my relief, three copies were sent off to three examiners in late June. The structure was simple: an Introduction, Body (of 10 chapters), a brief Conclusion, and numerous Appendices.


[The Thesis]

[Thesis abstract]

The months of waiting passed. The examiners’ reports required me to attend to numerous items before I could get the all-clear. I attended to these in about a month and submitted the changes, for approval, to Prof. Howard Morphy. I was then very fortunate to just make it into the ANU’s final graduation ceremony for 2013, the week before Christmas. What a thrill! I graduated along with three of my original cohort (Julie, Elen and Hamish). My wife Helen and daughter Anna attended too; it was the long-awaited day where everyone had the best time.

With this major milestone ‘done and dusted’, I knew another major challenge was staring me in the face. The thesis, after all, was a stepping-stone and the real prize was around the corner. Actually, beyond quite a few corners… and potholes… and hurdles.  It was time to start working on the book, which I figured would take me about one-to-two years.

See you in March for BLOG #6!

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