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The Purple House

A complex patterning of lines in shades of yellow, brown and white.

Bobby West Tjupurrula Tingari sites around Kiwirrkura 2015, Art Gallery of New South Wales © Bobby West Tjupurrula, licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd

The Purple House is a non-profit Aboriginal, community-controlled health service whose mission is ‘Making all our families well’. It began in response to the increasing number of Pintupi/Luritja people with chronic renal disease from the Western Desert region who were forced to leave their Country and families to access dialysis – a situation which was fracturing families and disrupting important knowledge transfer and community leadership. To keep families together and culture strong, the Purple House was conceived to provide dialysis care to patients on Country and within their remote communities.

In 2000, alongside the major exhibition Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius, the Art Gallery of New South Wales worked with several organisations to realise the Western Desert Dialysis Appeal. Leading Papunya Tula artists including Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula, Naata Nungurrayi, Bobby West Tjupurrula and Patrick Tjungurrayi were the driving force behind the appeal and more than $1 million was raised through an art auction held at the Gallery. This money led to the establishment of Western Desert Nganampa Walytja Palyantjaku Tjutaku Aboriginal Corporation, which is now called the Purple House.

Most of the funds raised at the auction came from four major collaborative works created by artists of Papunya Tula at Walungurru, NT, and Kiwirrkurra, WA, in 1999: two men’s and two women’s canvases. Three of these special paintings will be on display in The Purple House exhibition celebrating 21 years since the Purple House’s inception, where they will feature alongside major works and archival material drawn from the Gallery’s collection.

A gallery space hung with six Aboriginal paintings with 'The Purple House' written one one wall.

The Purple House installation view

Interlocking saw-toothed lines in shades of orange, pink, red and yellow.

Patrick Olodoodi Tjungurrayi Untitled 2004, collection of Peter and Agnes Cooke © Patrick Olodoodi Tjungurrayi, licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd

A multitude of horizontal lines in varying patterns of orange, yellow and white with a bisected section in the centre of dots.

Helicopter Joe Tjungurrayi Wangkardu 2001, Art Gallery of New South Wales © Helicopter Tjungurrayi / Copyright Agency

Many densely spaced white dots on red form the background on which are interconnected rectangulars formed by lines of white dots on red.

Morris Gibson Tjapaltjarri Untitled 2010, collection of Peter and Agnes Cooke © Morris Gibson Tjapaltjarri, licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd

Two Aboriginal men sitting cross-legged on the floor on top of a large artwork that they are painting with small brushes.

Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula (left) and Billy Nolan Tjapangati working on Kintore men’s painting 1999. Photo: Paul Sweeney

An Aboriginal men sitting cross-legged on the floor on top of a large painting, with jar lids of paint in front of him.

Barney Campbell Tjakamarra working on Kintore men’s painting 1999. Photo: Paul Sweeney

Four Aboriginal women on the floor on top of a large artwork that they are painting with small brushes.

Tjunkiya Napaltjarri, Pirrmangka Napanangka, Naata Nungurrayi and Nancy Nungurrayi working on Marrapinti, Umari, Tjintjintjin (Kintore women’s painting) 1999. Photo: Paul Sweeney

Two Aboriginal women on the floor on top of a large artwork that they are painting with small brushes.

Naata Nungurrayi (left) and Nancy Nungurrayi working on Marrapinti, Umari, Tjintjintjin (Kintore women’s painting) 1999. Photo: Paul Sweeney

Two Aboriginal women stand with a large painting on a gallery wall.

Irene Nangala (left) and Yuyuya Nampitjinpa with Marrapinti, Umari, Tjintjintjin (Kintore women’s painting) 1999 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2000. Photo: Paul Sweeney

Three Aboriginal people stand on steps in front of tall columns, between which hang two banners. One banner has a logo consisting of the five Olympic rings with 'arts' written underneath, and a logo consisting of 'Art Gallery NSW'; the other says 'Papunya Tula Genius & Genesis 18 August - 12 November'..

From left to right: Cameron Brown, Irene Nangala and Yuyuya Nampitjinpa outside the Art Gallery of New South Wales with exhibition banners for Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius in 2000. Photo: Paul Sweeney

The Purple House has continually defied expectations and the constraints of mainstream Western systems to develop a highly successful, culturally appropriate model of care centred around compassion, family and doing things the ‘right way’ culturally and clinically. The bravery, foresight and business innovation of those involved has contributed to the mental, physical and spiritual health of their communities immeasurably. Their all-Indigenous board of directors literally changed laws in 2018 following more than a decade of lobbying, demanding that remote areas be added to the Medicare Benefits Scheme.

This in turn has provided stable funding, securing the future of Purple House services and enabling significant growth, which sees them operating permanent dialysis units in 18 remote communities across the Northern Territory and remote Western Australia and South Australia. Their story highlights how we can listen to Aboriginal peoples and their communities so that they can continue to keep their culture strong – culture that they share openly with the world and which is celebrated and cherished by the Gallery and art lovers alike.

You can find out more about the Purple House in these videos, and join us online for an In the Frame conversation with Pintupi artist Bobby West Tjupurrula and Purple House CEO Sarah Brown

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A five-minute introduction to the Purple House and its work.

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This half-hour episode of ABC-TV's Australian story recounts how the Purple House saved the life and career of actor Jack Thompson, who needed dialysis while shooting a film in the Northern Territory.

A version of this article first appeared in Look – the Gallery’s members magazine