Print this page

Pintupi Nine artworks

The Pintupi Nine, Papunya Tula and the Tingari Cycle Works.

Welcome to the Ann Harding Centre and a display of very special and highly significant works of art from some of Australia's leading Indigenous contemporary artists. The  works of art being shown here represent culture that stretches back over 60,000 years, a time-span that dwarves any comparison with western culture and by a people that have held and managed their lands and culture in a sovereign state for time immemorial. The many patterns and styles in part represent the Tingari dreaming or foundation stories of the Pintupi  language  peoples.

The Pintupi artists represented here  lived a traditional hunter-gatherer desert dwelling life in Australia's Gibson Desert until 1984 when they made contact with their relatives near Kiwirrkurra. The group roamed between waterholes near Lake Mackay, near the Western Australia-Northern Territory border  naked except for hair-strung belts and armed spears, spear-throwers and boomerangs. The family consists of two  co-wives and seven children. There are four brothers (Warlimpirrnga, Walala, Thomas (Tamlik) and Yari Yari) and three sisters (Yark, Yakultji and Tjakaraia). They ranged in age from their early to late teens with the two wives in their mid thirties.

Following their contact  with relatives at a well,  the  family members became involved with the Papunya  Tula art movement and became highly  respected and influential artists in their community. Their particular styles are  highly acclaimed and are both sought after and represented in many  international collections. (Ultimate art: https:/ultimateart.com.au/aboriginal-themes/ )

Making contact, October 1984.

The Pintupi were some of the very last indigenous peoples to make contact with the ‘Western World’ when a family of nine walked out of the Gibson Desert in 1984. According to an article written by the BBC, the Pintupi Nine lived just as their ancestors had done. Waterholes in the area around Lake Mackay are often 40km apart and every day was spent walking in the relentless heat from one to another. Yukultjji, the youngest member of the family says that 'sometimes there was no water, so, we would hunt for goanna. The blood of these monitor lizards provided vital moisture when a water soak was dry.

The discovery of the group caused a media sensation but headlines referring to the 'lost tribe' annoyed them- they were not lost, just separated from other clan relatives.

The Nine consisted of two sisters and their seven teenage children- four brothers and three sisters, who shared one father. So how had they become isolated?

In the 1950s, the British began conducting tests over the Western Desert for their Blue Streak Missile project and the Australian government decided to 'round up' the desert nomads and move them into settlements. All of the Pintupi were taken away apart from this one family, which was overlooked. From then on, suddenly alone in the desert, they saw very few signs of anyone else's existence.

Yukultji remembers seeing aircraft when she was very young. The plane would fly over and we would hide in the tree. We would see the wings of the plane and we would get frightened. We thought it was the devil and so we kept hiding under the tree. When the plane had passed, we would climb down from the tree.

Their father may have been aware of the settlements- the children remember him describing what must have been a sheep, but when they asked to be taken to see such a strange thing, he refused.

In the 60s and 70s Aboriginal people were allowed to move back to their land, but Kiwirrkurra community where the Pintupi live was only built in 1984 when a borehole was sunk there for the first time. It is the most remote community in Australia- a two -day or 700km drive from Alice Springs along a red sand track lined by Spinifex grass and Mulga trees.

The creation of the settlement brought the Pintupi closer again to the family that had remained alone for up to 20 years. those most closely related to the Pintupi Nine had often spoken about family members who were still 'in the bush' and had not been accounted for - they had always wondered what had happened to them.

Warlimpirrnga, the eldest brother, and the head of the family after their father's death, remembers the day that the family stumbled across other members of the clan.

"We had just speared a kangaroo. We could smell the faeces of other humans in the air - they were probably a couple of kilometres away and we saw smoke in the distance.

We moved closer and stood on a rock and could see people camping down below. So I began to move closer to their camp. I ran towards where they were standing. The I snuck over closer. I coughed. The people heard me. It looked like they were scared out of their wits.'

The campers were a Pintupi man, Pinta Pinta, and his son, Matthew who had decided to set up an outstation at a place named Winbargo, 45km from Kiwirrkurra. The young man panicked and fired a shotgun in the air- all parties scattered and the two men drove off at speed despite a flat tyre. We heard the sound of that car long into the distance.

This was also the first time Warlimpirrnga and his brother had experienced running water, clothed people or a motor car.

Pinta Pinta and Matthew raced back to tell the others what they had seen. We know their of the for story from the diaries of Charlie McMahon, now a well-known musician but back then the only 'whitefella' helping 60 to 80 Pintupi to establish the community at Kiwirrkurra. They called him Murrahook because he had a hook for an arm.

"Saturday 13th October, Pinta Pinta and many others come to my camp late at night very excited; they relay the story of meeting two naked men," McMahon wrote. "They said one of the men, the tall one, came towards him at the hand pump, laying his spears on the ground as he approached and asked Pinta Pinta for water. Pinta Pinta worked the hand lever pump to fill up a billycan. Then his son Matthew fired a shotgun, blasted into the air. Pint Pinta and son where startled by the two naked, wild-men with spears... they thought they were kaditcha or evil spirits.'

By the following day, the community had calmed down sufficiently to realise the men were probably long-lost relatives. McMahon records the moment they decide to track them down. "A decision to go out on Monday to find them and 'give them trousers' is made."

A three-day chase through the bush followed. One of the members of the search party, Joseph Tjapaltjarri, was sure he recognised the footprints they were tracking- he remembered the shape of the foot from his childhood and knew it belonged to his 'skin-brother', Walimpirringa.

Yukultji, a young teenager at the time, was the first to be found, together with her sister Yalti- she says it was a frightening and bewildering experience. " we had nowhere to go. My mother hid in the Spinifex. the men grab us and put us in the car, leaving Takariya's mother behind, they didn't see her in the bushes. The men took off their shirts and give it to us."

Yalti says her senses were overwhelmed by the experience of travelling in a car for the first time. " We were frightened and we covered our faces. As the car kept moving, we looked up and the trees and Spinifex were moving around us and we kept hiding. When the car stopped I jumped off all frightened and dizzy, my head moving. It was the first time I had been in a car. I didn't know what was happening."

Warlimpirrnga tracked the car and there was a confrontation - he was the leader of the Pintupi Nine and a man of strength and determination. Armed with a spear, he was preparing to defend his family, but as he took aim his mother yelled out: "Stop that, that's your brother, you mate, leave him, that's your brother."

At this point Joseph Tjapaltjarri and Freddy West explained who they were and the fear and tension evaporated. Warlimpirrnga could see that the men were not hurting the women and he slowly began to identify the relatives standing in front of him.

The Pintupi Nine's experience of first contact was less traumatic than it could have been. Unlike the Pintupi who were rounded up 30 years earlier, they were met by relatives who spoke the same language, and it was a whole day before they met a white man.

The works of art on display here represent a group of paintings created by members of the Pintupi Nine family and as such is the first time in Australian history that they have been brought together and exhibited in the same space. The works illustrate aspects of the ancestral landscape known to the family and clan. Following their exhibition at the University of Canberra, the works will be toured across a number of cities in Europe to promote Australian indigenous art and culture.

The Papunya Tula Story

Papunya Tula Story central  to the Pintupi  Nine art story and should be explained a little further. Papunya is a small settlement about 240 kilometres west of Alice Springs. It was founded in 1959 as part of a program by the Federal Government to resettle and assimulate Aboriginal people (forcibly removing them from their homes) in order to provide services and promote their integration into white society.  The settlement was made up of about 1400 mainly Pintupi and Luritja people by 1970, almost double the size of the population  that  it was designed to  accommodate.  As well as  trying to comprehend  the traumas of  being forcibly removed from their  ancestral lands, the initial years at the Papunya settlement were tough. Almost half the community died from disease  during an outbreak  between 1963 and 1964.  Such is the backdrop to  the  artists that  founded the Papunya Tula movement.

According to the National Museum of Australia,  the menfolk  in small groups away from the women and children began to paint their stories through designs directly in the sand and designs on carvings. When some of the designs were transferred onto the side of  some buildings in 1971 they became noticed. Although  no thought of commercial gain were in their minds  designs such as Men's Ceremony for the Kangaroo by Kaapa Tjampitjinpa  drew  significant attention  to the community when it won the Caltex Golden Jubilee Art award. Encouraged by arts teacher Geoffrey Bardon,  who became interested in the patterns his students were drawing in the playground sand and their deep societal meanings that he firstly encouraged the  group to paint a mural for the local school using these images. The design was based on the honey ant dreaming and was considered an acceptable design by the community elders. Bardon then went onto  promote and sell almost  six hundred paintings by the  Papunya community.

The  art movement was gathering pace  as more  people took an interest in painting and by October 1971, the Papunya Artists Cooperative was formed within the Papunya School. Shortly thereafter in the spring of 1972, a gathering of painters at Charley Creek near Alice Springs agreed upon the name Papunya Tula as a name for the company. The name comes from the name for a hill outside the town that means 'a meeting place for all brothers and cousins. At that point Papunya Tula became a living idea and everyone was happy according to  Geoffrey Bardon. In fact  it is with a sense of irony that the movement that came out of a push for assimilation shifted to one of self determination.

What do the designs mean?

Many of the designs and patterns you seen refer to the Tingari which is the Dreaming and laws of the Pintupi language group o the Central Western Desert. Tingari is the Creation ear when the Dreamtime Ancestors moved across the lands and created features of the landscape and all the aspects of the natural world.

According to David Wroth, The Tingari Ancestors stopped at specific sites on their journey and the events that occurred at each site as they camped there gave rise to all the features of the surrounding environment and the animals and plants that were found there. These creation events have been embodied in the song cycles learned by initiated Pintupi elders and these long narrative songs provide the laws and social structures that the traditional Pintupi people have lived under. As younger people are initiated in the Law, they are taken through gradual stages of knowledge of traditional matters which becomes a life-long process.

The  custodian and management roles of the Tingari sites are handed down along family lines. They are tied to the kinship groups (skin) that are aligned to family groups. Often two skin groups will have custodial roles for a Tingari site which binds them together by their custodial obligations. The cohesion of traditional society is reinforced by strong laws and beliefs that are found in the Tingari song cycles.

The Pintupi artists have painted representations of Tingari sites and Tingari Law as it applies to their country. Generally this has been created as a n abstract series of structures and linear formations that show the power and relationships of Tingari  as it applies to the artist's country. Tingari Law is considered both secret and sacred, so no aspects of the deeper meanings can be identified or elaborated on. In fact  many aspects in the designs  help to blend in and hide many of the sacred motifs  and designs used in  the ceremonies. It is not for us , non-initiated to know or understand aspects of their culture  but to acknowledge, respect and view .

The  Works of Art:

The works of art by three brothers and two sisters  represent designs that  represent

  • Untitled 2020 by Yalti Napangati  is painted using acrylic  onto  linen and depicts aa series of white patterns onto a black background.
  • Tingari 2020  & Untitled 2020 by Thomas Tjapaltjarri  is again painted using acrllic onto  linen.  It depicts a series of red patterns onto a black background.
  • Tingari  2020 & Untitled by Walala Tjapaltjarri
  • Untitled by Walala Tjapaltjarri
  • Marrawa & Untitled  by  Warlimpirringa Tjapaltjarri. This  work of art is  based on  a swamp site, Marrawa,  west of Wilkenkarra, Lake Mackay. There are also rockholes and soakage waters at this site. During ancestral times a large group of Tingari men travelled to Marrawa from the west, and after arriving at the site, passed beneath the earth’s surface and continued travelling underground. It is also said that a huge ancestral snake sleeps in this swamp.  There is a second smaller work of the same design located in the hallway
  • Untitled by Yukultji Napangati

A moment of personal reflection

As  a curator and collections manager I feel very humbled to  have been  asked to write  interpretive text and labels for these works of art. I feel, as a 'white-fella' that it is not my place to interpret someone else's culture. This culture  as  Paul Carter,  in his introduction to 'Papunya , A place Made after the Story',  reflected that the works of art and designs are like finding a missing Titian or  Giorgione masterpiece  or a missing wing of the lost library of Alexandria. They are that significant   More so,  as  these designs link  humanity with  a culture that has existed in its sovereign state for over 60,000 years. I am therefore in this small way reflecting and acknowledging the country and peoples past present and future whose culture  we are sharing.