Menzies Art Brands



Papunya has now achieved mythic status in the countrys cultural psyche for its place in the history of the Western Desert Art Movement, eclipsing its earlier symbolic place in the annals of white exploration of the interior; that of being the nearest town to the Australian continental pole of inaccessibility, a geographical construct identifying significant remoteness.

The painting movement that emerged from this remote place stunned the world, and continues to entrance nearly fifty years later. The genesis gospel of the movement, despite near contemporaneous corollaries at Yuendumu (NT), is irrevocably formed around the chronicles of Geoffrey Bardon, a young school teacher who brought contemporary western art materials to Papunya in 1971 for children to use in an act supporting cultural continuum.

Pintupi painter Uta Uta Tjangalas friendship with Bardon has been recorded as catalysing interest in painting by other male community elders1, which was quickly recognised as a way to communicate their law and culture to outsiders in an act of revelation or, in Pintupi, yurtininpa.2

Western society has absorbed the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity and the transubstantiation of Christ and yet, for many, the Aboriginal concept translated as the Dreaming remains elusive. The Dreaming is a metaphysical coalescence of past, present, future, creation ancestors, law and country; a concept the anthropologist Edwin Stanner termed everywhen. In Pintupi, this concept is called Tjukurrpa, which is often translated by the Pintupi themselves as business and law.

Desert paintings have been called mediated memories of Dreaming narratives, ritual events, legal and kinship disputes, dispossession and repossession, friendship, aesthetic influences, marketing strategies and exhibitions.3 From the outset, the artists at Papunya, who hailed from different peoples, recognised paintings for their potential as membranes between cultures4 and in 1972, after fourteen months of feverish painting activity in a defiant assertion of the enduring place of their own cultural traditions5, they established their own company, Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd.

Uta Uta Tjangala was among the founders and is regarded as an important innovator in the period 19721975, during which time Pintupi painting underwent rapid change.6 Former Papunya Tula Artists advisor John Kean records that Tjangala pushed hardest at the boundaries of the very conventions he helped establish, disrupting a formal reading of his painting with incursions of idiosyncratic visual elements or vibrant non-traditional colours.7

Tjangala commenced painting large canvases in 19758, after moving to Yayayi outstation, 40 km west of Papunya, and was only one of a handful of artists to do so at that early date.9 The present work which exhibits certain stylistic and iconographic ties to the artists genesis boards from 1972 was executed in Keans period of rapid stylisation, which Vivien Johnson characterises as an outbreak of painterliness a phase of intense experimentation with the properties of paint and canvas, including colour combinations.10

Bardons view of Tjangalas painterly vitality is evident in the present work: his vigour with the brush and unselfconscious patterning produce[d] a seemingly endless stream of loved and honoured imagery [in] intuitive rhythms and pattern without ornamentation.11

Keans description of Tjangalas oeuvre as exhibiting explosive energy is also evident in the present work, wherein symbolic elements appear restlessly on the surface of the painting12; it shimmers and pulsates with symbolic effervescence. This is, in large part, due to the dotting, which was not symmetrically imposed and controlled as in later works from the Papunya artists, including the artist himself, but organised in clusters, an effect that Bardon has suggested enabled them, and the grounded colour beneath, to breathe.13 This approach to dotting was typical in Tjangalas early boards, such as Old Mans Story from 1972.14

In Aboriginal life, the bodys skin is a place of mediation between realms of existence: physical, as part of the environment, and metaphysical, as part of Tjukurrpa. Howard Morphy describes the metaphysical heart of Aboriginal society as centred on the relationship between deep and surface forms15. The deserts sand operates in a similar way, as skin on the earth, upon which the power and life forces of ancestral beings in the realms above and below the earth can be called upon in ceremony. Fred Meyers proffers a similar thinking about how best to come to an understanding of the Western Desert paintings, suggesting we explore how they relate to the perception or experience of the landscape of living, acting bodies.16

Classic Pintupi ceremonial designs and iconography drawn from sand painting is evident in the present work, whose surface designs or outside story are associated with Tingari sites related to teaching and initiation ceremonies of young men. The work references the transformative power of ancestral creatures, wartunuma (watunuma/watanuma) or flying ants, which, like the boys at initiation, undergo metamorphosis. Several months of instruction follow, with time spent travelling and learning the stories of the area. One of the sites referenced in the Tingari narrative is Wartunumanya, a cave that opens to the sky, from which the ants emerge.17

In Tjangalas Tingarri Dreaming, a board from c. 1973-74 (Australian Museum), irregular swathes of black marks similar to those in the present work represent people coming in for ceremonies to a central significant site18; the same irregular black marks dominate the central composition of another of his early boards, Special Pintupi Travelling Ceremony, 1972.19 In Boys Corroboree Dreaming, 1972, one sees the same deployment of six tightly-grouped parallel lines (white on black) denoting travel between sites,20 which are also used in Young Man's Travelling Ceremony, 197221, the central design of which is two enclosed arcs emanating from a central site in opposing directions. And precursor figuration iconography can be found in other early boards, such as Womens Dreaming for the Wallaby Spirit,22 1972, in which body parts (brown/black leg impressions in the sand and feet) are depicted in conjunction with conventional U shapes.

Tjangalas monumental canvases are rare compared to his surviving oeuvre of early boards, which number fifty or more,23 and his transitional canvases, even more so. The present work is a forerunner to his later, masterful epic narratives of archetypal journeys on similar scales, which centre on his birthplace, Yumari, an important rockhole site in sand dune country (Dovers Hill) of Western Australia: Yumari (1981) was exhibited in the XVII Sao Paulo Bienal (1983) and Old Mans Dreaming (1983), along with Yumari, featured in Dreamings: Art of Aboriginal Australia, held at the Asia Society Galleries in New York (1988-89).

Yumari now resides in the collection of the National Museum of Australia, along with a 1976 precursor on the same scale, which exhibits the artists progression to conformity of dotting and composition, a mere year after the execution of the present work. Old Mans Dreaming was acquired by The Art Gallery of South Australia in 1984. That same year, Tjangala, along with Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri (c1932-2002) and Paddy Carroll Tjungurrayi (c1927-2002), were showcased by Papunya Tula Artists in the Adelaide Arts Festival exhibition, Painters of the Western Desert; the first time their artists were presented as individual stars.24 And in 1985 Tjangala was joint winner of the 2nd National Aboriginal Art Award with another large canvas, Tjanangkamurramurra.

Uta Uta Tjangalas large and monumental canvases his personal deeds of title are considered to be among the greatest triumph of the first decade of Papunya Tula artists history25, and have been exhibited in other important exhibitions such as Aratjara: Art of the First Australians. Traditional and Contemporary Works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Artists (Germany, Denmark and London 1993-94), Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius (2000), Colliding Worlds: First Contact in the Western Desert (2006-2008), Desert Country (2010-11), and Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation (British Museum, London, 2015).


1. Johnson, V., Aboriginal artists of the Western Desert: A Biographical Dictionary, Craftsman House, 1994, p.198 and Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists, IAD Press, Alice Springs, 2008, p 25

2. Meyers, F.R., Exhibiting Culture at the Boundary: the Fetish of Early Papunya Boards, in Tjungunutja: From Having Come Together,  Museum and Art Gallery of the NT, Darwin, 2017, p.201

3. Dussart, F., Mediating Art: Painters of Acrylics at Yuendumu (1983-2011), in Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, New England, USA, p.72

4. Rothwell, N., Introduction, Pintupi: 20 Contemporary Paintings from the Pintupi Homelands, Hamiltons Gallery, London, 28th June11 August 2006

5. Johnson, Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists, op.cit., p.1

6. Kean, J., Uta Uta Tjangala, in Tradition Today: Indigenous Art in Australia, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2013 (revised ed.), p.156

7. Ibid., p.156

8. Kimber, R.G, in Johnson, Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists, op.cit., p.218

9. Kimber, R.G., Recollections of Papunya Tula 1971-1980, in Perkins, H. and Fink, H. (eds.), Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2000, pp. 213-14

10. (1973-196). Johnson, V., Seeing is Believing: A Brief History of Papunya Tula Artists 1971-2000, in Perkins, H. and Fink, H. (eds.), op.cit., p.191

11. Bardon, G. and Bardon, J., Papunya: A Place Made after the Story. The Beginnings of the Western Desert Painting Movement, The Miegunyah Press, Melbourne University Publishing, 2018, p. 70

12. Kean, op.cit., p.156

13. Bardon, G. and Bardon, J., op.cit., p.45

14. Painting 185, ibid., p.260

15. Morphy, H., The Laverty Collection: Exploring the Qualities of Aboriginal Art, in Beyond Sacred: Australian Aboriginal Art, The Collection of Colin and Elizabeth Laverty, Edition II, Kleimeyer Industries, Melbourne, 2011, p.17

16. Meyers, F.R., Graceful Transfigurations of Person, Place and Story: the Stylistic Evolution of Shorty Lungkarta Tjungurrayi, in Benjamin, R. and Weislogel, A.C., (eds.) Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, New York, 2009, p.54

17. The Papunya Tula Artists certificate for this work references witchetty grubs rather than flying ants (referenced in the site name), which are also transformative beings. It also refers to flying dingoes forming part of the landscape

18. Painting 41, Kate Khan, K., Looking Back: The Story of a Collection. The Papunya Permanent Collection of Early Western Desert Paintings at the Australian Museum, Technical Reports of the Australian Museum, Online, No. 25, 2016, pp. 36, 52 (illus.)

19. Ryan, J. and Batty, P., Tjukurrtjanu: Origins of Western Desert Art, National Gallery of Victoria, 2011, p.142

20. Bardon, G., Papunya Tula: Art of the Western Desert, Gecko Books, SA, 2006, p.97

21. Sotheby's, Important Australian & International Art, Sydney, 26 August 2014, lot 58

22. Painting 319, Bardon, G. and Bardon, J., op.cit., p.368

23. Johnson, Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists, op.cit., p. 3 indicates at least fifty, and in many cases closer to seventy for a select group of artists, including Uta Uta Tjangala, without specifying further

24. Ibid., p.34

25. Ibid., p.75


Jane Raffan BA Hons. (Fine Arts); Grad.Dip. Environmental Law
(Ethical Dealing Art & Cultural Heritage


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