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'Mala and the bad uncles at Tjikarri', painted by Johnny Warangula Tjupurrula, 1976


'Mala and the bad uncles at Tjikarri', painted by Johnny Warangula Tjupurrula, 1976

Object information

Physical description

An unframed painting on canvas board. The painting depicts ten sets of concentric circles in black and brown with twin sets of short lines protruding from each. Also three brown rectangles, seven parallel white lines, numerous large black spots and black footprints. Background is pink-orange with uneven dots of black, white, yellow and brown.

Educational significance

This is an acrylic painting of events at Tjikarri, a place in the Northern Territory associated with a group of ancestral beings who travelled together during the Dreaming. In the painting, the ancestors are depicted through their respective track marks. Matingpilangu, the Dingo Man, was an uncle of the Mala hare wallabies, but he sometimes killed and ate them. Luurnpa, the Kingfisher Man, was also an uncle, but he often drank all their water. The Mala eventually speared Matingpilangu to death, but Luurnpa, who was a doctor-man, brought him back to life. The painting is by Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula and measures 610 mm x 455 mm. This resource includes a map showing sites of significance.

Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula (c1918-2001) was an energetic and expressive man who loved to regale audiences in Pintupi with the stories of his paintings. He is from the Pintupi language group and was born north-west of Ilpili in the Ehrenberg Range. In the 1930s Tjupurrula and his family went to Hermannsburg Mission, where Tjupurrula worked as a labourer. He later moved to Papunya, where he joined the painting group and rapidly developed his distinctive style of over-dotting.

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.

Object information

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