Lives of the Artist: Patrick Tjungurrayi by John Carty

Patrick-TjungurrayiReaders who followed this blog for a long time know already of my admiration for John Carty’s work.  John is an anthropologist trained at the Australian National University under Howard Morphy.  He has long had an interest in art history, and has practiced both discipline throughout Western Australia for well over a decade now*.

Art and anthropology  have rarely met so fortuitously and happily as when John went out to Balgo in 2002 to begin to learn about the art of the Western Desert.  As he explained recently in a wonderful radio interview, he arrived in Balgo speaking not a word of the languages in use there and immediately fell to feeling quite lost.

As fate would have it, heavy rains farther south in Western Australia had flooded out the community of Kiwirrkura in 2001 and many of those residing there had relocated with relatives in Balgo.  Among these was a man who had spent a good deal of his adult life in both communities.

Patrick was sitting down in the art centre taking a break after completing a large painting by indulging in the creation of a few small canvases.  John recalls the older man man working on a little pink painting when he was invited by the artist to sit down.  Patrick proceeded to explain to John, in a mixture of Kukatja and English, the story he was painting, and how it was being represented on the canvas.  Thus began a friendship that has ripened into the publication of a lovely new book, Patrick Tjungurrayi Beyond Borders (University of Western Australia Press, 2015), John’s biography of—and a bit of an homage to as well—Patrick Alatuti Tjungurrayi.

When I first received an advance copy of the book, I did what I always do with a new art book: I flipped through the pages and looked at the pictures.  The first thing to note is that Beyond Borders is visually stunning—and beyond.  It is full of beautiful, high-resolution reproductions of paintings that span Patrick’s career from his first exhibited canvases in the 1986 Balgo exhibition, Art From the Great Sandy Desert, through his most recent work for Papunya Tula Artists.

But I found myself skipping over the paintings quickly, which surprised me.  Rather I was entranced by the photographs of Patrick himself.  I wanted to study the many sides of this man that his portraits revealed.  It’s rare to find an artist’s monograph that offers so many pictures of the artist himself; John says that the rich trove of photos he came to gather made him want to use them to present man and the life, as well as the art.

In truth, this book is as much biography as art history.  It demonstrates that with an artist of the Western Desert and of Patrick’s stature, it is impossible and pointless to disentangle biography from art history.

The books opens with an amusing and affecting recounting of John’s first encounters with Patrick; on the radio broadcast, he claims that he met Patrick for the first time twice.  The earlier was the encounter in the art centre I retold above, the latter occurred six months later, during a period of strife at Balgo, when Patrick flew in from the skies, dreadlocks covered in ochre, carrying spears.  There’s a funny aspect to that story, too, but you’ll have to read (or hear) it for yourself.

The first part of the book details Patrick’s early life out in the country that lies near the Canning Stock Route.  Illustrated with paintings that depict this country and with historical photographs from the 1950s and 60s as well as from the Canning Stock Route Project in 2007, this section summarizes the education and growth of the young man and his first encounters with whitefellas.  Some of these stories are part of the familiar lore of the Balgo community, especially the medical rescue mission that gave Helicopter Tjungurrayi his long-lasting soubriquet.  But there is more detail about those early encounters with helicopters (or dragonflies) that is sometimes amusing, sometimes wonder-inducing.

In 1958 Patrick walked out of a solitary life in the desert and into the mission at Balgo, where he lived for decades afterwards.  Although he helped to build the Christian church there, and had to make his accommodations with the priests, he maintained his stature and dignity.  As John tells it:

Patrick interprets [Father] McGuire’s actions not as those of a man in charge, but of a man frightened by Aboriginal authority, of Law. This may be a perceptive insight into the psychology of the missionary, but it is an even more illuminating insight into Patrick himself. He does not recount the conflicts, prejudice and bureaucracy of the white world he experienced from 1958 onwards as a victim, but as a man for whom these concerns are a secondary consideration to his own standing in, and understanding of, another Law (p. 48).

John moves from this simply biographical perspective into the next phase of Patrick’s life, when he begins to paint.  Patrick remembers being at Yayayi, near Papunya, in the early 70s when the painting movement was beginning; he himself made his first paintings at Balgo in the late 70s.  Later, he moved to Kiwirrkura, closer to the country he came from.  His travels between the two communities led to him becoming fluent in both the hot-color style of painting practiced at Balgo and the cerebral designs and muted colors of Papunya Tula.  During the early years of the 21st century, following the Kiwirrkura floods, he traveled even more frequently between the two communities and emerged with a style all his own, grounded in his immense knowledge of the Law and of broad ranges of  Country.


His leadership and authority were clearly manifest in the days of the Canning Stock Route Project, and were captured in Nicole Ma’s video, That Long Way I Been Travelling.  In the large painting shown above that Patrick deploys in telling the story, parallel lines of concentric white square represent the wells of the Stock Route (above) and the camps of the Tingari (below).  John describes its importance:

The painting folds the history of the 20th century into the desert’s narrative architecture.   It subjugates white myths into a bigger kind of history. And it does it all through the prism of one man’s epic journey. In holding biography, cross-cultural history and the Dreaming together on the same plane, without collapsing their differences, this painting asserts itself as a significant poetic achievement in Australian art. This big pink Country marbled in parallel visions.

The latest chapters in Patrick’s life are co-narrated in Beyond Borders by John and by Sarah Brown, CEO of the Western Desert Nganampa Walytja Palyantjaku Tjutaku Aboriginal Corporation, or The Purple House, as it’s more commonly known.  Patrick was among the leading artists who produced a series of paintings for auction in 2000, raising over $1 million in the Western Desert Dialysis Appeal.  Machines purchased and installed in Alice Springs and Kintore meant that many desert people were able to stay near country or family while undergoing treatment for end-stage renal disease.

The success of the program in meeting a widespread and growing need led the Territory Government to impose restrictions, barring the entry and treatment of people from surrounding states—including, in a cruel irony—Patrick himself when he became ill several years ago.  Undaunted, Patrick refused treatment and started a media campaign.  Ultimately, he was allowed to go to Alice for treatment, and the Purple House raised funding to expand their services.  They first provisioned a mobile dialysis unit known as the Purple Truck that serves communities throughout the desert.  Last year a two-chair dialysis unit opened in Kiwirrkura.

Patrick Tjungurrayi Beyond Borders is a worthy addition to the library of anyone interested in Indigenous art, the history of Western Australia, medical and social issues affecting Indigenous people, and the anthropology of the Western Desert.  That’s a lot to claim for a mere 125 pages, but thanks to John Carty’s insight and skill, it’s a claim well justified.  It’s a consistently surprising and informative read, and a sheer visual delight, both as documentary and as fine art.  The book is a profile of a great artist and Law man by a marvelous anthropologist and art historian.  And John will be donating all proceeds from sales of the book to benefit the Purple House, as if you needed another reason to buy a copy.  That’s a powerful combination all around.  Don’t miss it.


*John was a prime mover in the Canning Stock Route Project, which resulted in books that show off in some sections the art historical approach to an anthropology of desert art that John has undertaken: Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route (National Museum of Australia, 2010), and Ngurra Kuju Walyja / One Country One People: stories from the Canning Stock Route (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).  He was also deeply involved with the exhibition and publication Purnu, Tjanpi, Canvas: Art of the Ngaanyatjarra Lands (University of Western Australia Press, 2012).  He was among the editors of Desert Lake: art, science, and stories from Paruku (CSIRO Publishing, 2013), has published a monograph on the Martu artist Billy Atkins (Martumili Artists, 2010), and has written about the Spinifex People in Spinifex: People of the Sun and Shadow (Curtin University John Curtin Gallery, 2012).  I am especially pleased that he contributed an important essay, “Rethinking Western Desert Abstraction,” to Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art at the Hood Museum of Art (University Press of New England, 2012).

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