Pintupi people from the Western Desert
Pintupi is the name of a Western Desert language spoken by Aboriginal people who belong to a large stretch of country in the Gibson Desert of Western Australia and the western edge of the Northern Territory. When the Pintupi arrived in the government settlements east of their traditional lands between the 1930s and the 1950s, they adopted the term 'Pintupi' to distinguish themselves from the surrounding Aboriginal inhabitants as the 'people from the west'. They were among the last Aboriginal people in Australia to abandon their nomadic lifestyle, the last family arriving into the newly established community of Kiwirrkura in 1984. In Papunya, the Pintupi, bound to each other by their dominant loyalties of relatedness and kinship, were ostracised due to their lack of conversance with kartiya (non-Aboriginal) customs and their perceived lack of sophistication.
It is useful to separate the initiatives of Kaapa Tjampitjinpa and his Anmatyerr countrymen – workers on cattle stations who were influenced by the example of the Namatjira School – from another group of founding artists, the Pintupi. These 'people from the west' were different from the Anmatyerr and Warlpiri artists linguistically, geographically and in terms of their limited experience in dealing with Europeans. They were also unacquainted with watercolour painting or figurative carving. In April 1971, the Pintupi began to congregate on Bardon's verandah where they made pencil or watercolour drawings on paper. Their drawings of archetypal and raw simplicity recall Tjapanangka's cartographic incisions on the spear-thrower collected by Donald Thomson in 1957. This rendering of their primal vocabulary in pencil – linear and cerebral, rather than painterly or pictorial – is in contrast to the virtuoso image-making, bilateral symmetry and subsidiary elaboration of Kaapa, Clifford Possum and Tim Leura. Yet the rhythmical linearity and sobriety of their elemental drawings and of their earliest works on board produced in the Men's Painting Room can in retrospect be seen as critical to the development of an enduring Papunya Tula art form. Their artistic vocabulary has been in the ascendant from the mid 1980s until now, and is largely produced in the Pintupi homeland centres of Walungurru and Kiwirrkura.
The title identifies this painting within the corpus of works associated with the Old Man's Dreaming. This ancestral being, yina who travelled from Kampurarrnga in the Henty Hills, through Ngurrapalangu and Yumari and on westwards – traversing almost precisely the plains area through which Pintupi people moved back and forth in pre-contact times. The ‘Old Man’ is known particularly for having had intercourse with a tabooed category of relative, his ‘mother-in-law’ at Yumari, ‘mother-in-law’ place, for which transgression he suffered an attack of ants on his penis. There are, of course, many distinctive sites on the Old Man’s path. This painting is connected to the site area of Yumari, but not so much to the rockhole itself. The figure in the upper left corner is likely the Old Man himself. The meandering black line below him connected to a concentric circle in the lower left corner is the mark left by him dragging his penis towards the mother-in-law’s vagina, a feature of the rock outcropping. In the centre of the painting, the six oblong features probably represent the ‘standing rocks’ that stand to the south of the Yumari rockhole – a formation called Tilirrangarranya (light the fire and stand) where the Old Man stood by the fire and decorated himself the morning after. This feature was often represented in the overt form of ritual objects in early paintings.
Wartanuma is the Pintupi word for a particular species of flying ant and is also the name of a claypan and soakage water site northwest of Walungurru. The Wartunuma (Flying Ant) Dreaming travelled west from Wantungurru on Alcoota Station to Kilpirrnga south east of Jupiter Well, in the Gibson Desert. Kilpirrnga is a hill site with a large cave, which is represented by a rectangular shape towards the bottom. The concentric circles towards the top show the camps of three old men who had gathered for ceremonies and were sitting on the crest of the hill.
This work shows the daring simplicity and expansiveness of Tjampitjinpa’s mature style, in which flat blocks of colour are dominant and one or more geometric motifs are writ large, resulting in work of power and muscular presence. In Tjampitjinpa’s work, the scale and iconography of a ritual object or body design is transformed into that of a monumental ground painting.