Minimalist Masterworks from the Desert Painters of Australia

Minimalist Masterworks from the Desert Painters of Australia

The most ambitious auction of Aboriginal art ever held outside of Australia features over 100 dynamic and diverse artworks produced by the world’s oldest continuous culture.
The most ambitious auction of Aboriginal art ever held outside of Australia features over 100 dynamic and diverse artworks produced by the world’s oldest continuous culture.

S otheby’s annual sale of Aboriginal Art features major masterworks by the “Desert Painters of Australia,” painted by contemporary Indigenous artists living in the remotest regions of Central Australia. These spiritual images are abstracted visions reflecting the activities of ancestral beings, infused within landscapes as viewed from above. In recent years, these artists have captured the attention of the international contemporary art world, and examples of their work are increasingly being acquired by the world’s leading institutions and private collections.

Meet some of the most significant figures from this dynamic art movement, contemporary artists from the world’s oldest continuous culture.

Joseph Jurra Tjapaltjarri

Photo courtesy Papunya Tula Artists

Joseph Jurra Tjapaltjarri was born in the desert interior of Western Australia in 1952. At the time his family lived in country west of where the Kiwirrkurra community now stands, with only intermittent contact with the increasing number of kartiya (non-Indigenous people) who were beginning to circulate in the region.

Over a decade later, Jurra and his extended family group encountered a Northern Territory Welfare Branch patrol and were brought into the Government settlement of Papunya, 250 miles east. Here, in the company of relatives they’d not seen for many years, they were required to adapt to the sedentary lifestyle of community life. In 1971, Jurra witnessed several of the settlement’s Aboriginal men painting their ancestral stories onto scraps of composition board to be sold in the nearby township of Alice Springs. This was the beginning of the of the Western Desert Art movement, a moment in time now etched into Australian art history. Continue reading Luke Scholes’s text

Ronnie Tjampitjinpa

Photo courtesy Papunya Tula Artists

At not yet thirty years of age, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa was the youngest member of the first group of desert artists who translated their traditional graphic lexicon from ceremonial ground paintings and body decorations into acrylic paint on board, and later canvas, at the remote government settlement of Papunya in 1971. Surrounded by senior ritual leaders and artists, many of whom had only recently been in contact with non-Aboriginal people, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa and his cohorts revolutionized Aboriginal art, and in turn the history of art in Australia. Unto that moment, the public and academic perception of Aboriginal art focused on paintings and sculptures made from natural ochres and timbers, mainly from Arnhem Land and surrounding regions in the Northern Territory. The pictorial art of the desert was and continues to be made of ephemeral materials in ceremonial contexts, hence not seen by the public at large. Never before had ancestral designs been laid down in portable permanent media and made accessible to a wider public. Continue reading Wally Caruana’s text

Tjumpo Tjapanangka

Tjumpo Tjapanangka was one of the doyens of the art movement at the community of Balgo in the Tanami Desert, on the southern perimeter of the eastern Kimberley. He played a fundamental role in the emergence of Balgo artists into the public domain, commencing in the 1980s. Tjapanangka was a gifted painter, an elder of the Kukatja people, a ceremonial leader, a hunter, a warrior and a maparn (traditional healer). He brought his prodigious ancestral knowledge and ritual authority to bear in his art, which he regarded as a means of bridging the social and cultural chasm between Aboriginal and kartiya (non-Aboriginal) societies. As the anthropologist Professor Fred Myers remarked in 1984, Tjapanangka was regarded by his peers and beyond as one of the eminent “cultural authorities of the Western Desert.” Continue reading Wally Caruana’s text

Willy Tjungurrayi

Photo by Grant Rundell

The exacting minimalism of Kaakuratintja is characteristic of Willy Tjungurrayi’s mature style of painting. The younger brother of the renowned Pintupi painter Yala Yala Gibbs Tjungurrayi (circa 1928–1998), who was one of the original group of Papunya painters in 1971, Willy Tjungurrayi first emerged as an artist in the public domain in 1976. A decade later he became one of the leading exponents among the Pintupi painters of the matrix of circle and line compositions that map out the sacred sites and pathways of the great ancestors, the Tingari. The Tingari are described as creator beings who traversed vast stretches of what we now know as the western deserts of Australia. Continue reading Wally Caruana’s text

Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri

Photo by Matt Frost

Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri’s painting depicts designs associated with Wilkinkarra (Lake Mackay). In mythological times a large group of Tingari Men started from this site and travelled in a large circle eventually returning to Lake Mackay. Since events associated with the Tingari Cycle are of secret nature no further details was given. Generally, the Tingari are a group of mythical characters of the Dreaming who traveled over vast stretches of the country, performing rituals and creating and shaping particular sites. The Tingari Men were usually followed by the Tingari Women and accompanied by novices and their travels and adventures are enshrined in a number of song cycles. These mythologies form part of the teachings of the post initiatory youths today as well as providing explanations for contemporary customs.

George Tjungurrayi

Photo by Matt Frost

George Tjungurrayi developed the extraordinary, graphically minimal renditions of country associated with the Tingari Ancestors around 1996. This painting is one of the first in this breakaway style that the artist continues to explore. The field of narrow parallel lines, which “warp” towards the edges of the lower-left register relates to designs engraved on shields in the Western Desert, as well as to a conceptualisation of the physical appearance of the country around Wilkinkara (Lake Mackay) with its parallel ridges of sand dunes.

The original Papunya Tula Artists documentation on Tjungurrayi’s Mamultjulkina reads:

“This painting depicts the large swampy area at Mamultjulkina, north west of Lake Mackay. Edible grow in profusion in this area. Amongst them Mungilpa, a small black seed, and Lukarrara, a grass seed. These seeds are ground and formed into a type of damper.”

Makinti Napanangka

Photo by Paul Exline

Makinti Napanangka’s Lupulnga is sold with its original Papunya Tula Artists documentation that reads, in part:

“This painting depicts designs associated with the rockhole site of Lupulunga, south of the Kintore community. The Peewee (small bird) Dreaming is associated with this site. A group of women visited the site before continuing their travels north to Kintore. The lines in the painting represent spun and hair-string which is used in the making of hair-belts worn during the ceremonies associated with the area.”

Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri

Photo by Paul Sweeney

Mick Namarari was a founder of the contemporary painting movement at Papunya in 1971; he continued to paint with understated intensity until his death in 1998. Recognized for his consistent brilliance, Namarari was the “featured artist” in “Genesis and Genius,” the first large-scale survey of Papunya Tula painting presented at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2000. He was also the inaugural recipient of the Australia Council’s Red Ochre Award, an acknowledgement of his “outstanding contribution to the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Culture at a national and an international level.” Notwithstanding the acclaim with which he is held, Namarari remains an enigma, for he was a quiet man who, for the most part, held his own council. His paintings possess a reserve characteristic of the man, yet one always senses the layers of meaning that animate his vision. Like much art from Australia’s arid heartlands, Mick Namarari’s paintings are more autobiographical than a simple gloss of their “story” may suggest. Notwithstanding their apparent abstraction, Namarari’s paintings reflect the arc of the artist’s life. Continue reading Dr. John Kean’s text

Naata Nungurrayi

Photo courtesy Papunya Tula Artists

Considered one of the most important artists to emerge from the group of women at Kintore and Kiwirrkurra who began painting for Papunya Tula Artists in 1996, Naata Nungurrayi’s artworks have continually held the attention of curators and major collectors. Her powerful and distinct paintings have been included in many of the most significant museum exhibitions, including “Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2000. Major paintings have been acquired by the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Art Gallery of New South Wales and other leading institutions. Consigned from an American collection, Marrapinti is one of the artist’s most significant and breathtaking paintings to come to auction in recent years.

Kanya Tjapangat

Since his untimely passing in 2006, the stylistic innovation of Kanya Tjapangati and his remarkable oeuvre remains unheralded. Largely overshadowed by Western Desert luminaries such as Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri (circa 1927–1998) and Ronnie Tjampitjinpa (born circa 1943), Kanya created paintings of controlled dynamism and integrity. However, within his home community of Kiwirrkurra, situated over four hundred miles west of Alice Springs in Central Australia, his unique practice was highly revered. In the absence of many senior women artists at Kiwirrkurra, it was Kanya’s minimal aesthetic that inspired a generation of female Pintupi artists. Yukultji Napangati, Doreen Reid Nakamarra and Mantua Nangala have all, to varying extents, been influenced by Kanya’s austere paintings. Continue reading Luke Scholes’s text

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