NMA collection record

'Wanatjalnga' by Charlie Tjaruru (Tarawa) Tjungurrayi, 1974


This acrylic painting represents a woman called Walinngi who travelled alone during the Dreaming towards the Gordon Hills in Western Australia. In the claypan and hill country near Wanatjalnga she tracked a small bird to its nest, a hole in the ground, into which it disappeared. Walinngi made a wana (digging stick), cutting the wood and removing the bark. The discarded bark formed the rocky hill of Wanatjalnga. Walinngi killed and ate the bird, then climbed the hill and saw emus heading towards Pakupurunya. The hole in the ground is now a claypan where water gathers and is named Malpuntarrinya after the bird. The painting is by Charlie Tjaruru (Tarawa) Tjungurrayi and measures 760 mm x 605 mm. This resource includes a line diagram illustrating the symbols used in the painting and a map showing sites of significance.

Educational value

Charlie Tjaruru (Tarawa) Tjungurrayi (c1925-1999) was one of the founders of Papunya Tula Artists. He came from the Pintupi language group and was born west of the Kintore Range in the Northern Territory, near present-day Kintore. In the 1930s, his family were among the first Pintupi people to migrate east to Hermannsburg. Tjungurrayi was well known for taking supplies to his people still living on their traditional lands. His long acquaintance with non-Indigenous people made him a spokesman for the Pintupi group, mediating their interactions with the various Papunya Tula managers.

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.

All works are copyright the artists or their estates and are licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency.