Ronnie Tjampitinpa: Untitled
Untitled by Ronnie Tjampitjinpa
The best source of information about Ronnie Tjampitjinpa comes from the Kate Owen Gallery, NT. According to this source, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa was born around 1943 at Tjiturrunya, about 100km west of the Kintore ranges in Western Australia. Following an extended drought in the 1950s, Ronnie's family moved to Haasts Bluff and then on to Papunya where he grew up.
Papunya was a government experiment under the policy of assimilation where mixtures of tribes were thrown together into one community. It was hardly an ideal way to grow up and gave rise to the desire of Ronnie and many other Pintupi artists and residents to move back to their home lands. Whilst in Papunya, Ronnie started painting in the early 1970s. He was among the first of the Pintupi men to embrace art as a means of recording culture and thus took part at the genesis of the western desert art movement. He appeared in his first exhibition in 1974 and had his first solo show in 1989. He moved to Kintore in the 1980s, shortly after its establishment, fulfilling his dream of returning to his homelands.
Ronnie's style tends towards simple, geometric shapes and bold lines. He explores the themes of water dreaming, bushfire dreaming and the Tingari cycle. Tingari are the legendary beings of the Pintupi people that travelled the desert performing rituals, teaching law, creating landforms and shaping what would become ceremonial sites. As far as we can know, the meanings behind Tingari paintings are multi-layered, however, those meaning are not available to the uninitiated.
Ronnie Tjampitjinpa was the winner of the 1988 Alice Springs Art Prize and has been a finalist in numerous prestigous art prizes in the intervening 30 or so years. He is regarded as one of Aboriginal art's most collectable artists, appearing in over 30 major collections worldwide.
The Work of Art:
This untitled work of art is a typical example of the Ronnie Tjampitjinpa's style. Here he uses the repetition of geometric shapes and patterns to create effective optical illusions. The use of reds, oranges and ochres and the repeated use of patterns provides a plan view of the western desert and a very ancient landscape. Although the work of art is untitled, it resembles closely other works by Ronnie that portray Dream-Time stories such as Tingari Fire Dreaming and Water Dreaming
The work of art was created using acrylic paint onto stretched canvas and was acquired by the University of Canberra in 2006. This is the only example of Ronnie's work within the collection. However, the University of Canberra acquired a similar work by Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri that uses a similar style but on a much bigger scale.
As mentioned above Ronnie Tjampitjinpa is one of the Pintupi people. 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. Whe the plane had passed we would climb down from the tree.
Their father may have been aware of the settlments- 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 hwo 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 started by the two naked, wild-men with spears... they thought they were kaditcha or evil spirits.'
By he 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. Wen 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.