Published  02/09/2009

Patrick Tjungurrayi and Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri

Patrick Tjungurrayi
Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri

Scott Livesey Galleries, Armadale, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.
1–25 July 2009. by Dr JANET McKENZIE

Since 1999 Scott Livesey Galleries has mounted an annual exhibition of work from Aboriginal communities, accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue. As a tenth anniversary, the gallery director, Scott Livesey has instead chosen the work of two senior Kiwirrkura men: Patrick Tjungurrayi (c.1940) and Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri (c.1959), both Papunya Tula Artists. The exhibition is a rare chance to see the outstanding work from two great figures of the Western Desert tradition.

Patrick and Warlimpirrnga are artists and shareholders of Papunya Tula Artists, both live in the tiny community of Kiwirrkura, 700 kilometres west of Alice Springs in Western Australia. As well as being highly respected as artists, both have an extraordinary knowledge of the land. Within their community they are highly regarded for their immense experience of the desert geography. The works in the exhibition “transcribe in paint the power and mystery of Pintupi ceremony and ritual. Significantly, every painting in this exhibition bares a veiled transposition of secret and sacred designs that are inscribed onto pearl shells and eventually traded into the closed realm of male Pintupi culture. The work of both artists provides a powerful example of the continuing presence and influence these designs have in contemporary Western Desert art. The contrasting variations within their works present a unique opportunity to behold the compelling visions of two artists bound by a deep cultural thread within a phenomenal desert tapestry”.1 There is naturally a solemn tone to the telling of the stories of Pintupi culture, indeed all of Aboriginal culture, for while it is easy to be excited about the sheer visual virtuosity of these superb art works, they represent an ancient culture that has been seriously damaged and threatened by white settlement, as Luke Scholes points out in his catalogue essay: “In his telling of the travels and deeds of his ancestral creators, the voice of Patrick Tjungurrayi assumes a solemn tone. For this is not a simple recital of a time now past; it is a personal account of the continuing cycle of Pintupi existence. His softly spoken words leave the impression of a life well lived, of a commitment to ritual not merely adhered to, but fulfilled with a full heart.”2

Art is a central force in Aboriginal culture and a critical political tool for the communities. Aboriginal art has provided a focal point for the profound changes that have taken place in attitudes and policy in Australia regarding its indigenous population. Such is the burgeoning nature of the industry that exhibitions and publications now proliferate. Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, Gerard Vaughan, observes: “The visual art of Indigenous Australia has a stronger presence, diversity and dynamism than ever before in its history. Many Australians have been looking at, thinking about, and – consciously or unconsciously – absorbing this new art for at least twenty years. It is impossible to deny that Aboriginal artists have transformed the way we see our land and the history of Australian art. In fact, Aboriginal art, in all its diverse forms, has become the mainstream of contemporary art practice”3

A pivotal force in the development of contemporary Aboriginal art has been the establishment of art communities, by art coordinators and administrators (following work by key anthropologists) to create an industry conceived as a unifying force to heal and nurture disparate and damaged communities. Each community has its own story. Papunya Tula is also known as the Western Desert Art Movement. It was formed in 1972, “at a hellish, dysfunctional settlement forcibly created by racist government policies”.4 The settlement was officially opened in 1960. Papunya Tula Artists’ Cooperative has been the subject of numerous publications, exhibitions in Australia and abroad. It has been argued that these paintings are the most significant group of works or product of an artistic phenomenon in the history of Australian art. The Western Desert art movement, which originated in the small community of Papunya, some 250kms west of Alice Springs, started after Bardon, a local schoolteacher encouraged the children there to use the motifs and symbols of their own traditions. The senior men of the community took the opportunity to paint a mural on the school wall. They began to make small paintings as well of their ancestral stories or Tjukurrpa on a range of surfaces. Painting was a relief to the hardship and dire poverty of their lives. Given a choice of menial and other itinerant work, painting was a welcome option. In spite of their meteoric success over thirty years, the first decade of the community’s life was met with certain resistance and little market success.

Papunya was itself a mixed community drawing on Aboriginal people from their traditional lands, including the Pintupi, Anmatyerre, Luritja, Aranda and Warlpiri. During the 1970s, the difficult years, the core group of Papunya artists, “laboured in obscurity, inventing a secular language, inventing a secular painting language based on the circles, lines and tracks of ceremonial sand and body painting, in which hundreds of desert artists have since painted their Dreamings for the art market”.5 It was not until the 1980s that their work was recognised and seized upon by the art world at large. Through the 1980s too, more artists became involved, each bringing to the works on canvas, their own language, their own traditional stories. The range of imagery is varied, complex and sophisticated. In the 1980s as the movement flourished, other artist’s communities were also established, including Utopia, Yuendumu and Balgo with organised marketing of their works. Papunya Tula has been the most distinctive and successful of all the groups, and it has remained strong. Oriented to the communities it serves, it remains true to the original objectives, voiced in 1986, at a meeting of its members: “We are not ‘turning our heritage into cash’ – we want the whole world to know our culture… Now our art is recognised worldwide for itself. We keep our ‘sacred heritage’ for ourselves, for our ceremonies, for our children. We Papunya Tula artists have our culture and we want to pass it on to our children… The style has changed but not the message”.6

Patrick Tjungurrayi was born at a soakage water site west of Puntujarrpa (Jupiter Well), the centre of a vast area where he grew up. In the later 1960s his family moved to the mission at Balgo (Wirrimanu). Soon after his father died. His death precipitated Tjungurrayi’s departure from the community, and to embark on years of relentless exploration of the desert regions of Western Desert and the Northern Territory. He travelled vast distances, prompted by the need to locate his extended family. He took the opportunity to observe the cultures and languages and take part in the communities he encountered. His knowledge is regarded as definitive. Returning to Balgo, permanently in 1986, Tjungurrayi, with his brother Brandy Tjungurrayi began to paint at the Adult Education Centre. Patrick had an introduction to painting as early as 1978, just seven years after the establishment of Papunya Tula. On his travels he had maintained a discreet painting practice, returning from his travels with a small number of works. Between 1986 and 1990 Patrick worked with a number of the most senior Warlayirti artists, in spite of being much younger, his exceptional knowledge of the land meant that he was regarded as belonging to the cultural hierarchy of the senior men. A Balgo art movement began to evolve; the opportunity to use a broader range of colours to the traditional ochres had great appeal for Patrick. New colour characterises his work from this period onwards. He returned to a subdued palette for a short period after moving to Kiwirrkura, but soon returned to a rich palette that is characteristic of his work. As Scholes describes, “Late sunset pinks comfort cool blues, all structured within a desert orange brown of jagged corners and concentric squares. In Kiwirrkura Patrick works to produce a small number of measured works every year. Each are an assemblage of interlocking pearl shell and body paint designs detailing the rules and strictures of desert life and its vital elements: water in the form of clouds, lightning and thunder – the rain’s arrival on earth, gathering in rock holes and soakages of their ancestors; light in the form of fire, streaking across the desert floor and into the path of unsuspecting Tingari ancestors, ferociously burnt and killed”.7 Patrick Tjungurrayi’s paintings extend the boundaries established by the Papunya Tula artists in the 1970s. He infuses his exquisite patterning with a remarkable gift for storytelling, based on a passionate respect for his ancestral identity, “They’re my designs but they don’t belong to me. They are for all the men, they just have to learn it”.8 The work has had a profound impact on numerous commentators, for their sheer power and scope. Nicholas Rothwell, writing for The Age, Melbourne in ‘Ancient and Modern’, wrote, “The great indigenous work of the Centre, the Kimberley and Top End lies before our eyes: unreachable, irreducible, unknowable, by the great collectors, or by any other outsider. It stems from a closed, mysterious space, it speaks of ritual and beliefs communicated in concealed language; it has a core beyond its visible heart”.9   

There are Aboriginal artists in Australia’s Western Desert who are among the very last indigenous groups in the world to encounter Europeans. In October 1984 a family of nine, including Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri made headline news in Australia by walking out of the desert. They were described by international press as ‘The Last Nomads’ or the ‘Pintubi Nine’. They were brought in from the Great Sandy Desert in Central Australia and reunited with their extended family at Kiwirrkurra.

Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri was born c. 1958 east of Kirwirrkurra, Western Australia. Warlimpirrnga came to Kiwirrkurra with his family in 1984. This family group was considered to be one of the last Pintupi who made contact with modern Australia. His art is of great significance as a testimony to the time-honored way of living and the beliefs that sustained the Aborigines for centuries. Warlimpirrnga began painting for Papunya Tula Artists on canvas with acrylics only three years after emerging from his traditional country around Wilkinkarra (Lake Mackay). When Warlimpirrnga first saw a European he said, “I couldn't believe it. I thought he was the devil, a bad spirit and was the colour of clouds at sunrise." According to the story told by Warlimpirrnga to journalist Nigel Adams10 in 2007 the nine nomads were persuaded to travel to the community at Kiwirrkurra where they were reunited with their extended family. There they were found to be in excellent health, having lived a traditional life hunting wild life, such as goannas, rabbits and other bush food. As Luke Scholes points out, the discovery of the nomads served as an awkward reminder of the indigenous population’s enduring connection to the land. “The community of Kiwirrkura closed ranks around the new arrivals, protecting them from increasingly intrusive government officials and journalists; a series of infringements during this time was perceived as a challenge to the social and cultural integrity of the Pintupi. This ultimately invigorated the new struggle to re-establish their autonomy on the land most had vacated two decades previously”.11

Warlimpirrnga was the most senior male of the group and became the conduit for interaction between his own people and the outside world. He is a unique individual in Aboriginal culture, a fully initiated man, coming into contact with White Australia, as a senior man, in full command of desert law and ritual. He and his son are known to have healing powers (‘doctor-men’) – members of his extended family came from afar to reacquaint themselves with Pintupi culture. Scholes describes the effects on Warlimpirrnga of the extraordinary events of his recent life, and the implications for him personally and his extended community: “Warlimpirrnga is a charismatic, if enigmatic, figure of infinite appeal. His soft voice whispers through an arresting smile; the deep glimmer in his eyes reveals a distinct, yet familiar otherness. Centred on the law and landscape of his ancestors, he stands tall, strong, resolute. There is, however, a troubled disjunction to his person, suspended between the desert universe and the new life he continues to confront. With him comes a shade of the harsh reality of his traditional desert existence, which on occasion implants itself upon the life of the community, often driven by his need to express the distinction between the self and the man that time created”.12 A mere four years after coming out of the desert, Warlimpirrnga had produced enough paintings for a solo exhibition at Gabrielle Pizzi Gallery in Melbourne in 1988. He had requested materials from Daphne Williams, then the director of Papunya Tula, who was making a routine trip to Kiwirrkura. He has since become one of the most important Aboriginal artists, having absorbed influences from other significant artists of the Western Desert movement. The extraordinary speed at which he became an authoritative exhibiting artist is one facet of Warlimpirrnga’s career that is extraordinary.

The exhibition at Scott Livesey Galleries presents paintings that depict designs associated with the area around Lake Mackay, northwest of the Kiwirrkura community. Referring to the events associated with Tingari Cycle, which are of a secret nature, only limited details are given. In mythological times a large group of Tingari men camped at the swamp and soakage site of Ngamurruluya before traveling to Lake Mackay. The Tingari were a group of ancestral beings of the Dreaming. They traveled vast distances performing rituals and shaping particular sites. The travels are enshrined in a number of song cycles. In relation to Patrick Tjungurrayi’s work (Certificate number PT 0901010, painted at Kiwirrkura, 2009) Scholes explains, “In ancestral times a large group of Tingari men camped at this site before traveling south-east to Ngarru. At Ngarru they performed the dances and sang the songs associated with the area. Upon completion of the ceremonies at this site the men continued their travel northeast toward Kiwirrkura, eventually traveling to Wilkinkarra (Lake Mackay) via the lake site of Pinari. As they traveled they drank from various water sources found among the rocky outcrops. The jagged lines represent water designs that were painted onto men’s bodies for ceremonial purposes”.13  As abstract patterning, these works possess a rhythmic subtlety that is compelling. A palette using the colours found in the land is used, although introduced materials – acrylic paint on Belgian linen – is used. The white dots that make up the linear patterning of the whole picture plane have been meticulously applied to form an intriguing image of mystery and vitality.

Visually the range of Patrick Tjungurrayi’s work is quite different in spite of the fact that both artists depict the Tingari Cycle, the ancestral beings of their Dreaming. Geometric forms are used to create the effect of journeys of a physical and spiritual dimension. Traditional body paint designs have been adapted from ceremonial purposes to works on canvas. The richness of the ritual associations is made in a carefully construed language that alludes to the complex and remarkable culture without revealing sacred and secret aspects of ritual.


1 Luke Scholes, Patrick Tjungurrayi, Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, Scott Livesey Galleries, Melbourne, 2009, p. 2.

2 Ibid, p.2.

3  Gerard Vaughan, “Foreword”, in Judith Ryan (ed.) Colour Power: Aboriginal Art post 1984 in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2004, p.7.

4 Charles Green, ‘”Papunya Tula”, Review of Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Artforum, New York, 12 January 2000.

5 Vivien Johnson, “Papunya Tula Artists”, The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Culture, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2000, p.668.

6 Ibid, p.669.

7 Scholes, op.cit., p.3.

8 Ibid, p.3.

9 Ibid, p.2.

10 Nigel Adams, “The Last Nomads”, Herald Sun, 3 February 2007,

11 Scholes, op.cit., p.4.

12 Ibid, p.4.

13 Ibid, p.24.

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