NMA collection record

'Trial by Fire' by Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, 1975


This acrylic painting shows a Dreaming story about the testing of a newly initiated Tjapaltjarri man. After initiation, a novice must prove his bushcraft skills. In the painting, the novice's Tjungurrayi teachers tested him by lighting a bushfire while he was out hunting. As the menace of the fire built, two terrifying figures emerged from the smoke haze to test the novice to the point of endangering his life. The Tjapaltjarri man used the fire to kill a kangaroo and avoided danger by burning an area downwind to act as a break. The burnt ground is represented by the ash-coloured pattern. The painting is by Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri and measures 1,694 mm x 3,385 mm. This resource includes 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 came from the Anmatyerr language group. Born at Napperby Creek, north-west of Alice Springs, he 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 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.