NMA collection record

'Honey Ant Hunt' by Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, 1975


This acrylic painting depicts the three hills at Papunya that form an important Dreaming site, representing the body of a huge ancestral honey ant. They also indicate where ancestral honey ants returned to the ground after travelling during the Dreaming. The underground network of ant chambers is regarded as a tula (meeting place). On the surface above these chambers, corroborees are performed to re-enact the ancient journey and revitalise the supply of honey ants and human honey ant children (children conceived at Honey Ant Dreaming sites). Honey ants are regarded as ideal ancestors and to express their perfection, Tjapaltjarri has given the chambers and passages a soft symmetry in this painting, which measures 1,995 mm x 1,710 mm. This resource includes a line diagram illustrating the symbols used in the painting and a map showing sites of significance.

Educational value

Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri (c1934-84) applied techniques such as wash-overs, derived from his earlier experience with watercolours, to obtain unusual effects in his work. He is from the Anmatyerr language group. He was born at Napperby Creek, north-west of Alice Springs, and grew up on his traditional Anmatyerr/Arrernte country. Like Clifford Possum and Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri, he was a skilled woodcarver. He moved to Papunya with his wife Daisy Leura Nakamarra and their young family to work on the construction program for the new settlement.

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.