I want to conclude my trilogy of posts about the artists of Papunya Tula on a personal note, by paying homage to a man whose work has resided in my heart for almost the entire span of my interest and involvement in Aboriginal art, Willy Tjungurrayi.
Willy was born around 1930 at a place called Patjantja, which lies southwest of Kaakuratinja (Lake MacDonald), which itself lies southwest of Walungurru (Kintore). His father was Pulpalpulpalnga Tjapaltjarri, whose other sons, by different women, were Willy’s older brother Yala Yala Gibbs Tjungurrayi and younger sibling George Ward Tjungurrayi. He grew up on the western side of Kaakuratinja; his first contact with white men reportedly came on one of Jeremy Long’s welfare patrols in the area. In 1956, Charlie Wartuma Tjungurrayi, Pulpalpulpanga’s brother, led a large party of Pintupi into Haasts Bluff with Willy among them. Willy moved to Papunya in 1959 with the rest of the Haasts Bluff community, eventually relocating in the 1970s to Yayayi.
In 1974 Willy was a member of the party of men, including his brother Yala Yala, John Tjakamarra, and George Yapa Tjangala, who traveled west to Kulkuta and Yawalyurru, a journey that is partially chronicled in Dick Kimber’s biographical sketches in the catalog for Tjukurrtjanu. Two years later, in 1976, Willy began painting for Papunya Tula, and according to the official curriculum vitae compiled by the company, began participating in group shows in 1983. His first solo exhibition took place in 2000 at William Mora and was followed two years later by a second solo show at Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi. In the past decade he has spent much time in Alice Springs, but returned to live in Kintore in 2011. ¹
My own first encounter with Indigenous Australian art took place at the Asia Society in New York City in November of 1988, on the occasion of the Dreamings exhibition there. To be honest, my memories of the show are impressionistic at best; I remember being stunned by the vitality of the art, the color, the abstract beauty of the desert works, the spooky intimations of art from the north. But no single painting remains imprinted in my mind.
Two years later, I arrived in Sydney for the first time as a tourist, and although I’m sure the Opera House was the first site I visited, it didn’t take me long to make my way to the Art Gallery of New South Wales and, on arrival, straight to the Yiribana Gallery on the lower level. There I saw a painting whose image has never deserted me in more than twenty years; I can even recall its placement in the gallery precisely. The painting was Willy Tjungurrayi Tingari Story from 1986 (inset above), a massive 240 x 360 cm in span ². I’m sure that at the time I first encountered it, I did not understand the way that Pintupi painters were using massed, radiating, concentric circles whose black and white forms pulsated against a muted but still dynamic ochre background to deliver the power of the ancestral Dreamings straight to the optic nerves.
But my lack of understanding didn’t much matter. I was transfixed by the majesty of this painting, the way it radiated energy, the speed with which incident moved across its surface network of long lines, the illusion of three dimensionality as sections pushed their way into the room, straight at me, or bent the frame outwards in places and bent the design inwards in others. Like many of the large-scale masterpieces of its time, Tingari Story was created under the guidance of a single artist, but with assistance from others, in this case the great John Tjakamarra, one of the company’s founders, and Simon Tjakamarra, whose large Tingari paintings of the period were powerful but simplified and schematized interpretations of the motifs developed in Willy’s work.
Leaving the Gallery, I bought a small postcard reproduction of the painting to take home with me, and for years afterward it hung by my desk at work. In 1998, I found a painting depicting a Snake Dreaming at Patjantja, Willy’s birthplace, in Christopher Hodges’ Utopia Gallery to hang on the wall of my office at home. A few years later I became entranced by Willy’s simple, sinuous sandhill paintings, the first major shift in his style since he began working. But I was dismayed to learn that many of these paintings were being produced in Alice Springs. It was there that I met Willy briefly in one of the saddest and most disheartening encounters of my pursuit of understanding this complex and brilliant art.
And so it was with great delight that I first heard the news that Willy had returned to Kintore earlier this year and was painting there for the company again. He’s a regular at the studio most mornings, where he sits and paints with the other tjilpi (old men) including his brother Yala Yala’s son Morris Gibson Tjapaltjarri and Charlie Wartuma’s son Hilary Tjapaltjarri. The thought of the three of them together, a reunion of sorts, a circling back for Willy to the connections of his youth, made me smile. The smiles turned to wonder when I saw one of Willy’s new works on the wall. Painted in June of this year, the picture shows the rockhole site at Lintjinya, west of Kaakuratinja in the country where Willy grew up, and where the Tingari men camped and held ceremonies on their way eastward towards the lake.
It may be that I am more attached to this little work than to any of the many other paintings of Willy’s that I’ve seen over the years, and explaining that attachment is going to take me back into the realm of the impressionistic and the personal. This will be less a real interpretation of the work than a story about feeling.
My first reaction to the painting was elation just at the sight of it on the walls of Papunya Tula’s gallery and the realization that Willy had returned to Kintore from Alice Springs. When I saw him in Alice six years ago, he looked tired; he moved slowly; his eyes bothered him. I couldn’t be sure what kind of care he was receiving and what he was doing in return for bed and board. It was, as I said, a disheartening experience, and I was glad to think of him now resting in the courtyard of the PTA studio in Kintore in the morning sunlight, surrounded by old friends.
My second reaction was one of pleasure at the vitality of the work, the energy swirling around the large central roundel. There were echoes of the great Tingari Story in the torque of the outer set of interconnected lines, the bending left at the center of the painting. And in its black and white simplicity, it recalled aspects of ceremonial painting–both on bodies and on cave walls–that I had never before seen in Willy’s work.
This simplicity and power, and the echoes of cave paintings, brough to mind another painter who has recently undergone an amazing renaissance in a similar return to a sort of “first principles”: Johnny Yungut Tjupurrula. Both men seem to have found fresh inspiration to animate these old circle-and-line motifs. Their compositions appear uncomplicated, and yet both men’s designs have the tendency to leap off the plane of the canvas into the viewer’s space, pushing and pulsing, pulling back, never in stasis. As I put my face closer to the canvas to inspect its details, I saw that in Willy’s execution, some of this spin came from tiny trails of paint that attached to his dotting. You could see the motion of his arm as he swung his brush from paint-pot to canvas leaving minuscule traces of movement circling across the support. And like Yungut, Willy has adopted a technique of intentionally blurring the dots in certain parts of the canvas. I don’t know exactly how the two men achieve the effect. In another studio I might think they had taken a palette knife to the dots and scraped them along the surface; perhaps they are just using the blunt end of the paintbrush to achieve the effect. In an odd way, these variations in technique recall the way in which different hands infilling the background of Tingari Story add depth and incident to the painting’s negative space.
As I stepped back to admire the new painting from a distance again, another shadowy memory began to awaken. I was thinking about old men. There’s no denying that the precision of Willy’s younger hand is gone from this painting. Dots blur unintentionally as well as intentionally; dribbles and smudges of paint reveal a certain shakiness in the motion of the artist’s hand on parts of the canvas. In the lower left corner of the painting, some of the underpainted black circles have been intentionally obscured, in part or in whole, by white over-dotting, almost as if some ghostly drift of sand were being blown over the edges of the image, submerging the detail. My initial joy at discovering this tiny gem was suddenly alloyed with the realization that this is an old man’s painting. The return to country was undoubtedly a good thing in preference to continued residence in Alice, but might it also be a indicator of the artist’s awareness that his last days were approaching.
The whiteness of the canvas and the sense of a halting but centrifugal motion in the work made me think of a painting by Willy’s brother Yala Yala that has haunted me since I first saw it reproduced in the catalog for the Genesis and Genius show many years ago (p. 52). Entitled Old Man Dreaming, it was made on composition board in 1974 and relates to the story of an old man who has been left behind, too weak to travel any farther with his relatives, in a rudimentary bough shelter. As he lies there, a huge whirlwind blows up and scatters the branches of the wurley. The black and ochre lines show the pattern of the remnants of the shelter in the sky³. As a metaphor for death, the breaking up of the shelter is not hard to read. Once I returned home and looked up the image again, I saw that the two compositions are, of course, quite different. But somewhere, if only in my head, there’s a link between Willy’s painting and Yala Yala’s story from nearly forty years ago. In the whirling whiteness, I see intimations of mortality.
I thought again of Willy painting out at Kintore with his brother’s son Morris Gibson nearby, and with Hilary Tjapaltjarri, the son of the man who grew Willy up, Charlie Tjungurrayi. Just to make all these connections that much spookier, at the Papunya Tula booth in the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair a week later, I saw a gorgeous new painting by Hilary in which he had reverted to a composition featuring straight lines, rather than his more customary arcs, connecting the circles, all against a background of white dots. The spirit of Yala Yala, Papunya Tula’s premier painter in white, seems to be hovering around all of these works.
A few weeks ago, when I first began contemplating the fortieth anniversary of the founding of Papunya Tula Artists and the celebration of that event in the Tjukurrtjanu exhibition, I found myself thinking most of all about the continuity in the midst of change that has characterized the company during its existence. Quite independently, I had been considering, for several months now, writing about this lovely little work of Willy’s that has moved me so deeply since I first saw it. I hadn’t quite realized that my affection for his paintings has been one of the threads that has anchored my own continuing involvement with Papunya Tula over the decades. Nor had I given thought to the many artistic and biographical links between the early days of the Pintupi’s encounters with white Australia and this little white painting that now hangs, instead of a postcard, in my office. But when I put all these strands together, I once again realized what extraordinary tales there are to tell about these artists of the Western Desert.
¹ Biographical details have been compiled from personal communications with Papunya Tula staff, Papunya Tula documentation, Yiribana: an introduction to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Collection, the Art Gallery of New South Wales by Margo Neale (AGNSW, 1994), Vivien Johnson’s Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists (IAD Press, 2008), and Johnson’s Aboriginal Artists of the Western Desert: a biographical dictionary (Craftsman House, 1994).