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Tiger Palpatja Wanampi Tjukurpa

Tiger Palpatja Wanampi Tjukurpa

Wanampi Tjukurpa by Tiger Palpatja Rainbow Snake Dreaming

Tiger was born around 1920 (though the exact year is not known). He was born near Nyapaṟi in north-west South Australia. His family were Pitjantjatjara, and they lived a traditional, nomadic life in the bushland around Piltati. When he was a teenager, Tiger's family settled at Ernabella, which at the time was a Presbyterian mission and a sheep station. Tiger grew up on the mission, and learned to speak a little English in school there. He eventually got married to a woman named Nyalapanytja, and they lived in Ernabella for many years. Tiger worked on the station, shearing sheep and building fences.

In the 1970s, Tiger and his family moved to Amaṯa, closer to his homeland. When he got older, Tiger became a ngangkaṟi (traditional healer), an important and respected role in traditional Pitjantjatjara communities.  In 1997, the women at Amaṯa began a community art centre, originally called Minymaku Arts. The word minymaku means "women's", and they called it this because, at the time, Pitjantjatjara men did not like to paint. After several men began painting in the early 2000s, the centre's name was changed to Tjala Arts.

Tiger started painting in September 2004, less than eight years before his death. He had never painted before this, and was better known for woodworking, especially making spears. Although he only began painting in his final years, his work quickly became recognised by critics. In 2005, Tiger was a finalist for the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award. He became a finalist three more time before his death, in 2006, 2010, and 2011, but he never won. He was also a finalist in the Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards in 2009, and again in 2011. Tiger mainly painted for Tjala Arts, but from 2009 he also began working for Tjungu Palya in nearby Nyapaṟi.

Wanampi Tjukurpa is one of a series of works by Tiger Palpatja using synthetic polymer paint on canvas (measurements). The painting tells the story of the ‘rainbow serpent dreaming’. There are a number of variations to this story.  Essentially, this story tells of two water snake brothers and their wives who were sisters. The brothers and their wives lived near Piltati, west of Amata. Every day the women went out hunting  and every evening they bought home kuka (meat) for the men, who did nothing but perform ceremonies. After a while the sisters became annoyed at the men’s laziness and decided to eat the food they caught, leaving the men to fend for themselves. The Snake brothers were angry and decided to punish the women. After a lot of talking, the brothers agreed to change themselves into a Wanampi, a giant water serpent, with the power to travel above and below ground and play a practical joke upon the women that would cause them a great deal of futile hard labour.

The brothers went to the hole of a marsupial rat, a place where the women had been digging, and imitated the tracks of a large snake by rubbing the back of a spear-thrower (miru) on the ground. Then they entered the hole, and one of them left just enough of his tail for the women to see. The younger sister became very excited when she saw the track of such a large snake and its tail poking out. She began to pull the snake from its burrow, but the tail kept slipping from her grasp. The Wanampi teased the younger sister by allowing himself to be dragged out a few feet before wriggling free and back into the hole.

Again and again he let himself be caught before wriggling free once more. Eventually the younger sister became tired, gave up and returned to her sister.

In the evening, when they were eating next to the fire, the younger sister told her elder sister how she had almost caught  a carpet snake as big as a Wanampi, but could not pull it from its burrow as it was too strong. The big sister said she would help her to catch it the next day.

The next morning the women set off with their wana (digging sticks) and piti (large wooden bowl). They dug all day long, then the next day and the next, occasionally glimpsing the snake. Sometimes they caught a small carpet snake, enough for their evening meal.  The small carpet snakes were created by the Snake men so the women wouldn’t lose heart or go hungry. They continued to dig after the Wanampi, they never caught him.

In their pursuit the women dug a trench from Aparatjara to Piltati now a watercourse approximately 25 kilometres long. Their burrow became deeper and the women dug many subsidiary branches in their pursuit, creating the gorge at Piltati with its creeks and piles of rock that clutter the valley floor.

Finally, the elder sister changed her tactics. She dug a pit ahead of the entrance to the burrow (now the largest rock hole at Piltati uncovering the Wanampi before he could get away. She was so frightened by his huge coils slithering around her feet that she threw her digging stick, piercing the side of the Wanampi. The younger Wanampi left the burrow, chased and swallowed his wife, the younger sister. The injured snake , the older brother, was angry and in great pain, so he caught and killed and ate the elder sister at the mouth of Piltati gorge.

The big brother Wanampi is now a bloodwood tree with a dry limb sticking out at one side, and the trunk is covered with lumps and excrescences. The dead limb is the digging stick with which the snake is speared; the excrescences are the body of the woman still showing through the skin of the snake.

The University of Canberra has another work by Tiger Palpatja, which is displayed in the restaurant area Level C, Building 1 and is also titled, Wanampi Tjukurpa.