NMA collection record

'Carpet Snake Dreaming' by Toby Brown Tjampitjinpa, 1976


This acrylic painting depicts the rock hole site of Alcootha, represented by the central circle in this painting. It sits on top of a hill on Napperby Station in Anmatyerr country, north-west of Alice Springs. The green horseshoe shapes around it are waterbirds. From Alcootha, the Carpet Snake travelled west to Yuendumu and then turned back to his own country, searching for one of his countrymen with whom he could share some food. Eventually he met another countryman, exchanged ceremonial greetings and then they went their separate ways. The other circular markings suggest the tall conical headdresses worn by the men. The painting by Toby Brown Tjampitjinpa measures 725 mm x 570 mm. This resource includes a line diagram illustrating the symbols used in the painting and a map showing sites of significance.

Educational value

Toby Brown Tjampitjinpa (c1920-86) came from the Anmatyerr language group and was a member of the Aboriginal Arts Board and an artist for Papunya Tula in the mid-1970s. From 1975 or possibly earlier, he lived in town camps on the fringes of Alice Springs and was an important figure in campaigns to improve camp amenities. Most of his paintings for Papunya Tula Artists date from 1976 to the late 1970s.

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.