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'Possum Men of Yirtjurunya', painted by Anatjarri Tjakamarra


On display

'Possum Men of Yirtjurunya', painted by Anatjarri Tjakamarra

Object information

Physical description

A painting on particle board, featuring nine concentric squares arranged in a grid pattern, with a single row of animal tracks around the outer edge on three sides of painting. The squares are painted with a dot design in pinks, yellow, black and white. Handwritten text on the reverse of the board reads 'A-AB 788' and 'Yanyatjari tjakamara / (for Canberra)'.

Educational significance

The story represented in this acrylic painting - and its related song - is part of the Tingarri ritual cycle in which initiated young men receive instruction during long periods of seclusion. Yiitjurunya is claypan country. In the Dreaming it was where Kurninka (Native Cat Man) met with a group of Wayurta (Possum Men). While the Wayurta were singing on their cleared ceremonial grounds, which formed the claypans, Kurninka appeared, decorated in ceremonial regalia. The Wayurta were terrified. After running up a sandhill, Kurninka roared and headed westward using a ritualised high-stepping motion, making more claypans as he went. The painting by Anatjari (Yanyatjarri) Tjakamarra measures 765 mm x 610 mm. This resource includes a line diagram illustrating the symbols used in the painting and a map showing sites of significance.

Anatjari (Yanyatjarri) Tjakamarra (c1938-92) was part of the original 1971 group of Papunya painters, and he produced meticulous works of great precision. He came from the Pintupi language group and was born in remote southern Pintupi country. Tjakamarra was one of the last of his compatriots to leave his traditional lands. Tjakamarra moved to Tjukurla, Western Australia, in the early 1980s and was based there for most of that decade. In the late 1980s after a break from painting he resumed work for Papunya Tula Artists in Kiwirrkura.

The Papunya artists explain that their paintings come from the Dreaming. Like the natural features that mark out the journeys of ancestral beings and the ceremonies that re-enact these journeys, the paintings are both part of the Dreaming and part of the physical world. Papunya artist Benny (Pinny) Tjapaltjarri says, 'The Dreaming is our explanation of how the landforms appeared. A Dreaming character would come along and stay at a place and then turn into a hill or stone. Sometimes his tracks would become a soak or perhaps a rock hole ... People were also created by the Dreaming. You see, we are all born from our mothers ... but we still come from the Dreaming ... the Dreaming came first'.

By painting the designs and stories that represent their particular Dreaming places, the artists assert their rights and obligations as Central and Western Desert landowners, entrusted with the ritual re-enactment of the events that occurred at these sites. As part of these ceremonies, elaborate ground paintings are constructed using a symbolic language of U shapes, concentric circles, journey lines and bird and animal tracks. This unique visual language is also used in designs painted on the skin, and is the same language made familiar by the Papunya painters.

The Western Desert art movement, which began at Papunya, is considered to be the genesis of contemporary Aboriginal art. Geoffrey Bardon, a young art teacher who worked at Papunya School from 1971 to 1972, is often credited as the founder of Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd, which was incorporated in 1972. He encouraged the senior men of the various language groups living at Papunya to develop ways of adapting their traditional art to Western materials.

The Australian Government played a crucial role in supporting the painting movement in the years following Bardon's departure from Papunya. In 1973 the Whitlam government formed the Aboriginal Arts Board, with members who were all Indigenous Australians. It fostered Aboriginal arts, literature, theatre, dance, music, painting and craft, and also provided grants for Aboriginal communities to employ managers and to help preserve and sustain Aboriginal culture, arts and crafts. Many large Papunya works were commissioned by the Aboriginal Arts Board during the 1970s as part of its exhibition program in Australia and overseas. This collection was transferred to the National Museum of Australia in 1990.

Physical description

On display at the National Museum of Australia.

Object information

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