Uta Uta Tjangala
Pintupi c.1926–1990

Introduction

The history of Indigenous art in Australia is marked by stories of great artists who have inspired other close or extended kin to follow their direction, resulting in a number of distinct schools or lineages. The story of one such artistic lineage connecting Uta Uta Tjangala, his first wife Walangkura Napanangka and their son Martin (Maatja) Tjampitjinpa, and their significant contribution to the field of Aboriginal art, are captured within the Indigenous collection of the National Gallery of Victoria which, since its inception, is equally as groundbreaking as the paintings themselves.

In 1987 The Art Foundation of Victoria (now the NGV Foundation), provided funds to purchase Pat Hogan’s seminal collection of ten early Papunya boards. This landmark acquisition formed the basis of what is now regarded as a pre-eminent collection of Indigenous Australian art. In seeking to establish an Indigenous collection with a singular character, the NGV decided initially to focus on the Western Desert where a phenomenal new way of painting was being forged.1See Judith Ryan, ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Newsletter’, National Gallery of Victoria, 2004, unpaginated. That which occurred in Papunya in 1971 is now deeply etched into Australia’s art history. With the encouragement of Geoffrey Bardon, a young, idealistic school teacher from Sydney, a group of Aboriginal men transcribed in paint their ancestral stories onto scraps of composition board, thereby forever changing the way we view our continent, its history and its art.

Uta Uta Tjangala and the beginnings of Western Desert art

One of those senior figures, Uta Uta Tjangala, was a towering cultural figure, an archetypal patriarch who was to spark an artistic lineage that has left an indelible mark on the history of Western Desert painting. After having lived a nomadic existence in the desert country west of the Northern Territory border in Western Australia, Uta Uta and his family arrived at the government settlement of Haasts Bluff, 230 kilometres west of Alice Springs, in 1956. Eventually they settled in nearby Papunya, which had been constructed to cope with the continuing arrivals of family groups from the surrounding deserts. Anthropologist Fred Myers2Fred Myers, Silver Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology at New York University, has been a guiding inspiration throughout my time working for Pintupi people in the Western Desert regions of the Northern Territory and Western Australia. described Uta Uta as ‘an excitable sort of man, wildly expressive and playful’,3Fred Myers, ‘Aesthetic function and practice: A local art history of Pintupi painting’, in Howard Morphy & Margo Smith Boles, Art from the Land: Dialogues with the Kluge-Ruhe Collection of Australian Aboriginal Art, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1999, p. 245. but for him and his family, life in Papunya, separated from their country, was troubling. In 1971 the concept of Indigenous people’s mutually exclusive connection to land was swept aside by the prevailing assimilationist view. Isolated and silenced by the horrendous cycle of death and dysfunction, the inhabitants of Papunya increasingly felt defeated. Eventually the Pintupi strongly desired to return to their homelands, establish a community and again distinguish themselves as the ‘people from the west’.4Prior to the label ‘Pintupi’, people from this region of the Western Desert distinguished themselves from others as ‘People from the West’ (see Fred Myers, Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self, University of California Press, 1986).

The beginning of the painting movement intervened and gave voice to a generation of disaffected Aboriginal men and their enduring presence in the land. It was an opportunity to animate the stories of their home country and alert others to its social and cultural value. Uta Uta produced a startling succession of epiphanies; each loaded with designs, previously confined to the body, ceremonial objects, rock or ground constructions, which revealed a universe of ritual and death previously unknown to kartiya (outsiders). Painting, like the land it represented, was an expression of his identity, and the exhibition of its secret and ‘dangerous’ places was a deliberate attempt to ‘look after’ it, by warning kartiya away from its sacred sites.

A number of Uta Uta’s early works were representations of a series of water sources around the Western Australia/Northern Territory border, particularly the claypan site of Ngurrapalangunya and the rock hole site of Yumari. Strong visual emphasis was ascribed to the varied details of place and story, resulting in diverse compositions of object and form, as Bardon stated: ‘[Uta Uta’s] vitality was apparent in his art where his vigour with a brush and unselfconscious patterning were to produce a seemingly endless stream of loved and honoured imagery’.5Geoffrey Bardon & James Bardon, Papunya, A Place Made after the Story; The Beginnings of the Western Desert Paintings Movement, Miegunyah, Melbourne, 2004, pp. 69–70.

The high esteem in which Uta Uta was held among his ritual peers enabled him to depict with authority objects and designs which were considered by some to be of a secret/sacred nature. The painted ceremonial hats, tjurunga and various other ceremonial regalia were a primal display of his ceremonial knowledge and experience, visual flirtations of cultural taboos. As Myers expresses it, he and others ‘worked on the edge’ of what was considered ‘safe’.6Fred Myers, conversation with the author, 2009. Some considered this a deliberate tactic intended to provoke a reaction from others in the Papunya community who had ridiculed the ‘New Pintupi’ (the most recent Pintupi to come out of the desert) for their lack of dealing with and understanding of white people. Others questioned the ability of the painters to comprehend the permanence and portability of their newly created cultural objects and their potential social impact. Undoubtedly, however, it was a potent expression of the cultural lives of the men who created them, who were caught in a dramatic state of flux.

Iconography associated with Yumari and Ngurrapalangunya

In 1989 Margret Carnegie gifted three significant Papunya boards to the NGV’s growing collection. One of those was Uta Uta’s Yumari 1972 (fig. 1). Yumarinya, or mother-in-law place, where Uta Uta lived prior to contact with kartiya, was filled with his cultural memories of experience, historical events and was very important to him.7Myers, Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art, Duke University Press, 2002, p. 112. When Geoffrey Bardon documented this work in Papunya in 1972 it was recorded as containing the story of a mystery cross ceremonial Dreaming. The dominant cross in this work depicts the unusual X-shaped rock hole at Yumari which is said to have been created by an old ancestral man, Yina, as he lay down on the large rock platform. The old man arose in the night to copulate illicitly with his mother-in-law, hence the name of this place. The ovoid shape atop the cross may well represent a headdress worn by Yina.

The dramatic cross motif, enlivened by an echo of multiple parallel lines in alternating colours divides the surface of the picture in much the same way that the rock hole determines the layout of the ceremonial ground it depicts. Highly decorated ceremonial objects, perhaps belonging to Yina himself or to ancestors that followed, lie scattered nearby, heightening graphically the ritual potency and ultimately the mystery of the surrounds. A constellation of roundels hang like satellites in a sea of dotted stars, positioning seated men, sand drawings and rocky outcrops that erupt from the desert floor.

The delicately delineated plant-like shape in the lower right may be mungilpa, a small succulent plant which grows off the fringe of the claypans at Ngurrapalangunya just to the east of Yumari. It provides small seeds which are collected, ground into seedcakes, roasted and eaten. Its growth is associated with the actions of the kungka kutjarra (two women) who had danced for Tjuntamurtu and in so doing created the claypans at Ngurrapalangunya. Uta Uta said his mother ate these seedcakes and that he was conceived, therefore his conception Dreaming is said to be Tjuntamurtu, connected to both the Yina (Old Man) story and the two women Dreaming. The painted mungilpa is Uta Uta’s image of himself and its inclusion in this image connects him physically to Yumari.

Uta Uta’s legacy

Nearly forty years after its completion Yumari remains a deeply compelling image, a giddy assemblage of icon and object that details an epic chapter in Western Desert ritual life and its transformation into art. It possibly appears as foreign and unfathomable to most viewers as it did when it was first hung in the Stuart Art Centre in Alice Springs a few months after its completion. Though in part closed and esoteric, it is impossible to view such a profound image and not be confronted by its maker’s attempt to bridge time, space and our differing world view.

Uta Uta’s compulsion to paint was driven by a concern for his sons to gain knowledge of their distant homelands. During this time many children were born in Papunya, separated from the land they were to inherit culturally. Uta Uta and his first wife, Walangkura Napanangka, had four sons, three of whom were born in Papunya, and it was partly through the recently acquired cultural activity of painting that such an education could be provided. This exposure undoubtedly influenced their sons, all of whom became competent painters – none more so than their second youngest son, Martin (Maatja) Tjampitjinpa who, years after Uta Uta’s passing in 1990, became a shining light of a new wave of Pintupi male painters.

Martin Tjampitjinpa

Each of Tjampitjinpa’s paintings was punctuated by the presence of Uta Uta himself who, even in death, was the pivotal figure in his son’s life.8Due to his recent passing, in this article I will refer to this artist as Tjampitjinpa. The journey and actions of his father, in the shadow of the creation heroes, or Tingari ancestors, took precedence over those of the ancestors themselves. Often while painting he would speak aloud to his father in much the same way that he and other Indigenous people do as they approach sacred sites to alert the ancestors of their presence. It was as if the physical plain of the painting provided an emotional platform upon which Tjampitjinpa could commune with his dear father.

It is rare for Pintupi artists to instil in their depictions of the tjukurrpa (Dreaming), the actions and identity of relatives from the recent past.9One similar preceding example of this practice is the Pintupi artist Lynda Syddick Napaltjarri who, after the death of her own father, was given the right to paint the country of her adoptive father. Her father’s death and the place where it happened were absorbed as part of her cultural life and the various painted representations of these events and this place provided her with the ability to articulate and resolve her identity. Tjampitjinpa’s insistence to do so may have been partly due to his disjointed relationship with the country for which he claimed ownership. A ‘Papunya baby’, he was not born or even conceived in the country he was considered to ‘own’. Rather, he based his rights of identification with that country through the adoption of his father’s conception site, Ngurrapalangunya.

The dramatic social change endured by the Pintupi which saw them distanced from their homelands would have further complicated this established social norm. Uta Uta’s presence in each work was relied upon and integral to its making, and provided Tjampitjinpa with the opportunity to resolve his fractured sense of place through the process of painting. Aware of the expectations of tradition, but aesthetically unencumbered by its demands, he broadcast in paint his social and geographic identity, unclear as they may have seemed in a world troubled by the demands of rapid change.

Tjampitjinpa adopted Uta Uta’s tendency to combine multiple locales in one image, as seen in Tingarri Dreaming at Muyinga 2005 (fig. 2). As the Papunya Tula movement evolved and larger paintings were possible, artists began to create complex maps of country, depicted by line and circle configurations of their sites of significance. Combining stories in one painting obviously raises questions of how to fill the space and also questions of balance and colour that customary ceremonial decoration lacks.10Myers, Painting Culture, p. 61. Although Tjampitjinpa’s work is entitled Tingarri Dreaming at Muyinga, the field notes collected by Papunya Tula also record that the work’s prominent concentric square depicts the claypan at Ngurrapalangunya, which is connected to Muyin through the travels and activity of the old man, Yina. It is unknown whether Tjampitjinpa ever assisted Uta Uta in the completion of any of his paintings; however, his father’s visual influence is ever present. Tingarri Dreaming at Muyinga reveals irregular contortions of concentric squares that sit poised in defiance of the flat surface of the canvas, echoing the deep, irregular incisions once made on stone and on the patterned contours of wood. His skeletal marks are suspended by teeming droplets cast from the desert floor, their ebb and flow, further creating a sense of a troubled space. The linkage of circles cuts a deliberate path, suggesting a travelling map of coded landmarks to follow and connect. Far from sentimental, Tjampitjinpa’s paintings reaffirm the inherently philosophical and political dimension that informs all Papunya Tula art, one that speaks of land, loss and identity.

Tingarri Dreaming at Muyinga was exhibited at the 23rd Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award in Darwin in 2006, where it bucked the current fashions of the time and struck many as an unprescribed anomaly. For the NGV’s Senior Curator of Indigenous Art, Judith Ryan, it appeared as a poignant marker of an emerging artistic linage that Uta Uta Tjangala had triggered many years earlier.

Walangkura Napanangka

Another catalyst in Tjampitjinpa’s development as an artist was the return to Walungurru (Kintore) of his beloved mother, Walangkura Napanangka. Her vital presence and authority, and her inspiring, raw artistic ability perhaps provided him with a reminder of the artistic legacy of not only his father but also his entire family.

Walangkura had spent a number of years living in the Tjukurla community west of Uluru. It was while visiting family in Walungurru in the late 1990s that she created a series of small paintings for Papunya Tula Artists.11Papunya Tula Artists, the Aboriginal-owned and directed art centre was established in 1972. It has 49 shareholders and now represents around 120 artists. This experience was shared by her sister-in-law Walangkura Reid Napurrula who, between 1999 and 2002, also lived between Walungurru and the Ngaanyatjarra communities to the south. Walangkura Reid was an action painter whose gestural flourishes of roundels, line and ‘U’ shapes chronicled the travels of the Seven Sisters. Seven Sisters Dreaming at Dale Creek, near Warakurna 2002 heavily references petroglyphic designs that litter the rocky outcrops anchored throughout the open plains of her homeland. The speckled shimmer of her white dotting invokes the surface of the rock, highly polished by the varied actions of her ancestors. Both artists share an exuberant style which roams free – untrammelled and assured in its attack. Perhaps its source is the mutual geography that binds their practice, inspired by the energy and intent of the ancestral women whose actions they cast and recount in paint?

Walangkura Napanangka began her artistic practice by assisting her husband to infill areas of the background of his paintings. This collaborative process, evident since the early period of the Papunya Tula movement, was instrumental in the development of future generations of painters. This practice was initially restricted to younger male relatives of the ‘author’ of the work; however, as the collaborators themselves became artists in their own right, the role of women as assistants began.12See Luke Scholes, ‘Kiwirrkura women: The shifting shape of Western Desert painting’, Art & Australia, p. 46, no. 3, Autumn 2009, pp. 498–505. Uta Uta’s tutelage had obvious incarnations in Walangkura’s first works (fig. 3). Like Uta Uta’s, these emotive compositions are singular in their vision and voice. Both artists are in command of the power of linear design and use it to create works of unique energy and vigour.

After Tjampitjinpa’s untimely death in 2006, in accordance with cultural convention, Walangkura left the Walungurru community, where the presence of her son could still be felt. She retreated east to Mparntwe (Alice Springs) with her niece, Kumanytjayi Reid Nakamarra, and dear, aging friend, Tjunkiya Kamayi Napaltjarri, to continue the ritual cycle of mourning. Dark winter mornings began in sorrowful song until the sun rose gently into the sheer blue sky and her grief was briefly distracted by her kin. Kumanytjayi Reid and Tjunkiya Kamayi, both established Western Desert artists, absorbed their communal loss in the act of painting as Walangkura watched, solemn and distant.

Idle weeks passed until Walangkura, usually a habitual painter, expressed a desire to work again. To everyone’s surprise she requested a length of linen on a scale she’d never previously attempted. Upon its arrival she immediately crawled to its centre to speak of the stories of her birthplace amongst the rock holes near the lake site of Tjukurla. Words became song, a chorus of all three, soon smiling and upright, Walangkura, in a deep mars black began to mark and articulate with signs and symbols the great expanse surrounding her.

This painting’s beginning signalled Napanangka’s poignant re-entry into the social fray and occasioned a positive shift in the emotional paradigm. Tears came now for the country of her birth and its geography of stories that gave her life. Thus she continued in defiance of the sorrow that consumed her to create a pinnacle in the short history of Papunya Tula women’s painting.

As if it were meant to be, Judith Ryan and Stephen Gilchrist, NGV Curator of Indigenous Art, were visiting Mparntwe with NGV Multimedia staff. They were on an excursion to document the Indigenous artists of the vast desert expanses of Western, South and Central Australia. While visiting the women to pay their respects, they encountered Napanangka as she continued to work in defiance of her sorrow, as Judith Ryan recalls:

Taken by her strength and swept up by the rhythm of her song, I sought out her monumental canvas which stretched out beneath her, a tangle of interconnected lines drawn compulsively across the entire surface, without formulaic repetition. Each part of the composition had a distinct energy and pulse which contributed to an organic whole. Her palette is a quadripartite harmony of maize yellow, cadmium orange and burnt orange, heightened by black … I felt that I was looking at her masterwork, one that emanated from her whole being, her belonging to ngurra [country].13Ryan, email to author, November 2010.

Aware of the significance of the work in progress, Ryan maintained close contact with Papunya Tula Artists, making clear her interest in acquiring the work for the NGV collection.

Women’s Dreaming at Tjukurla 2007 (fig. 4) represents the lake at Tjukurla, alongside the rock hole of her birth site, with spectacular narrative complexity and artistic assurance. This multi-dimensional work describes the lake’s creation and the subsequent stories of pilgrimage for the Ngaanyatjarra people. Here a ceremonial snake entered the earth, leaving upon the surface its dry ribbed skin, thereby transforming this previously open plain into a large, iridescent salt lake. Walangkura illustrates the ancestral women, represented by ‘U’ shapes, who tracked the path of the snake to this newly created water form. Various marks depict the activity of the women as they prepare for ceremony, manufacture hair-string skirts and collect and prepare various bush foods. The women’s beloved tjandu (dingoes) keep them company, joining a variety of animal life that inhabits the landscape. Tjikaka (black ducks) skim across the surface of the lake, splashing and playing as kuurrkuurrpa (owls) watch from nearby trees and lungkata (blue-tongue lizards) shift methodically through the spinifex in search of food.

With its entry into the collection of the NGV, as a gift of the Felton Bequest, Women’s Dreaming at Tjukurla joins a selection of works that chronicles one of the great artistic lineages of the Western Desert. The artistic practice of this family, almost more than any other, maps the history and trajectory of the Aboriginal-owned and managed Papunya Tula Artists. The NGV’s holdings of this amazing family of artists articulates an evolution from its precarious beginnings on discarded scraps of timber left among the squalor of the government settlement of Papunya to its current masterworks on Belgian linen, created in a purpose-built studio in the Pintupi homeland of Walungurru.

Luke Scholes, Project Officer, Indigenous Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2011).

Notes
1      See Judith Ryan, ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Newsletter’, National Gallery of Victoria, 2004, unpaginated.

2      Fred Myers, Silver Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology at New York University, has been a guiding inspiration throughout my time working for Pintupi people in the Western Desert regions of the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

3      Fred Myers, ‘Aesthetic function and practice: A local art history of Pintupi painting’, in Howard Morphy & Margo Smith Boles, Art from the Land: Dialogues with the Kluge-Ruhe Collection of Australian Aboriginal Art, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1999, p. 245.

4      Prior to the label ‘Pintupi’, people from this region of the Western Desert distinguished themselves from others as ‘People from the West’ (see Fred Myers, Pintupi Country, Pintupi Self, University of California Press, 1986).

5      Geoffrey Bardon & James Bardon, Papunya, A Place Made after the Story; The Beginnings of the Western Desert Paintings Movement, Miegunyah, Melbourne, 2004, pp. 69–70.

6      Fred Myers, conversation with the author, 2009.

7      Myers, Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art, Duke University Press, 2002, p. 112.

8      Due to his recent passing, in this article I will refer to this artist as Tjampitjinpa.

9      One similar preceding example of this practice is the Pintupi artist Lynda Syddick Napaltjarri who, after the death of her own father, was given the right to paint the country of her adoptive father. Her father’s death and the place where it happened were absorbed as part of her cultural life and the various painted representations of these events and this place provided her with the ability to articulate and resolve her identity.

10      Myers, Painting Culture, p. 61.

11      Papunya Tula Artists, the Aboriginal-owned and directed art centre was established in 1972. It has 49 shareholders and now represents around 120 artists.

12      See Luke Scholes, ‘Kiwirrkura women: The shifting shape of Western Desert painting’, Art & Australia, p. 46, no. 3, Autumn 2009, pp. 498–505.

13      Ryan, email to author, November 2010.