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Guest ArticlesObituary: John Warangkula Tjupurrula


Obituary by Susan McCulloch-Uehlin (reproduced with permission); first published in the Australian 21 February 2001 (page 14).

Luritja elder John Warangkula Tjupurrula's painting career is one of the most extraordinary of modem Aboriginal artists. In 1997 the artist's painting Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa set the world auction record for an Aboriginal art-work when it sold at Sotheby's auction for $210 000. Three years later the same painting set another record in its resale at Sotheby's for $486 500.

Like all artists whose works sell on the secondary market, Warangkula received none of the proceeds of this sale. But its effects on the then 72-year-old were twofold. First, it brought attention to the state of abject poverty in which Warangkula lived. Second, it sparked an interest in, and demand for, any paintings this former great master of the early Papunya school may wish to paint.

Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula was born south of Lake McKay about 1925 and lived his early life In traditional manner on the land, never attending European school. Vivien Johnson describes in Aboriginal Artists of the Western Desert: A Biographical Dictionary that Warangkula recalled his first contact with white people as one of fear, when he hid in a tree from a plane which his people took for a mamu or devil.

In the early 1940s, Warangkula's family moved to Hermannsburg mission, where the young man undertook traditional manhood ceremonies.

In youth he worked as a road and airstrip construction worker in a number of Central Desert communities including Haasts Bluff (where he lived), Mt Liebig and Yuendumu. In 1960 he, along with most members of Haasts Bluff community, were moved to the new settlement of Papunya, 40km south, when water at Haasts Bluff became short of supply.

Papunya, where Warangkula became a council member, was the last of the Central Desert Aboriginal communities to be set up as part of the federal government's assimilation policy for Aboriginal people. Most of Papunya's population of several hundred were Pintupi but also comprised Amnatyerre, Arrernte, Luritja and Warlpiri people.

After his arrival there in 1971, teacher Geoffrey Bardon described Papuya as a "hidden city, unknown on maps because of the shame felt by its Aboriginal Inhabitants" . "I found a community of people in enormous distress," he wrote in Papunya Tula, Art of the Western Desert, "oppressed by a sense of exile from their homelands and committed to remain where they were by direction of the commonwealth government. Papunya was ... a place of emotional loss and waste with an air of casual cruelty."

Christianity, through the Lutheran Church, was an aspect of community life, and Warangkula was a staunch Christian and regular churchgoer.

In 1971, through Bardon's encouragement and negotiation, tribal elders painted a mural on the school walls depicting the honey ant dreaming story. Soon, painting on any surface - tin, cardboard and plywood boards - was practised enthusiastically. Warangkula was one of the 20 original "painting men".

Photographs of the time show Warangkula, a big imposing man, sitting with a slight frown as he concentrates on his painting. Bardon described him as a "happy, expressive man with a slight stutter and tremor'. He was "modest but exquisitely confident", and worked in his own style with intense concentration. "To overcome his difficulty with brushes, he used extensive dotting and overdotting, together with widely varied linear effects," says Bardon.

Aware of the popularity of his art, his output, says Bardon, was prodigious and he would paint on any surface, including matchboxes.

Warangkula's paintings from this period are among the most striking and lyrical of modern Aboriginal art, and rightly deserve the often misused nomenclature of masterpieces. Although others exist, two in public collections stand out - the magical Rain Dreaming in the collection of the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory and A Bush Tucker Story in the collection-of the National Gallery of Victoria.

Finely dotted in numerous overlays and, In the case of the latter painted over a period of months, each displays a, great freedom of individual expression. National Gallery of Victoria curator Judith Ryan says the "rhapsodic layers" create "a masterpiece of three-dimensional illusion".

A similar quality, although in lesser detail and layering and of bolder design, is seen in the record breaking Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa. Kalipinypa 400km west of Alice Springs, was the main site over which Warangkula had authority and is a storm centre or water dreaming site. Most of his paintings are based on stories of this area.

Warangkula's paintings remained popular and sold through the artists cooperative Papunya Tula (of which he remained a member until death) until the mid 1980s. However, during the mid to late 1980s health problems, which included a badly broken arm and increasing blindness, caused a decline in quality of his work. A further factor was that he spent more time in Alice Springs than on his family's Papunya outstation of Kintore. For years he eked out a living selling painted artefacts and some smaller paintings to the shops at Alice Springs's Todd Mall.

With the landmark first sale of Water Dreaming at Sotheby's in 1997, Warangkula was again encouraged to paint. The art world didn't quite know ho these new works. Increasingly large black-primed canvases with huge swirls of reds, yellows, oranges and purples, they we alternately regarded as the reflowering of a former genius or daubs created for a greedy market keen to buy anything by a name artist.

If the art world remains undecided on these, their creation at least helped restore this fine artist's sense of self-worth.

Stories abounded about Warangkula's exploitation - of him being locked in a hotel room until a certain number of paintings were produced and paid a pittance for works selling for many times more - but the man I met in Alice Springs at one of his dealer's houses in 1999 arrived very much as the boss, demanding in no uncertain terms that canvases be primed and that paints be at the ready.

Last year Warangkula's health failed and he spent some months in a nursing home which, according to Papunya Tula coordinator Daphne Williams, he disliked intensely. He discharged himself to the care of his family at Kintore where he died on 12 February 2001.

Warangkula is survived by his wife, Gladys Napanangka who is also a painter; eight daughters (two from his first marriage); and two sons, one of whom, Dennis, also paints.

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