The Pintupi lands that span the Western Australia‒Northern Territory border are home to Ronnie Tjampitjinpa. As a child he travelled this country with his family, gaining intimate knowledge of the landscape and the presence of ancestors. In his early teens Tjampitjinpa and his family group walked nearly 400 kms eastward to Ikuntji (Haasts Bluff), then a government-run ration depot that offered reprieve during an extreme drought. Tjampitjinpa reached Ikuntji in December 1956 but did not stay. He returned to his home country before making his way to Yuendumu and then Papunya.
Papunya was the last settlement to be established in the Northern Territory under the government’s policy of centralisation and assimilation of desert peoples. Officially opened in October 1961, by the 1970s the majority of Pintupi people had been brought in from the Western Desert. In the confines of this tumultuous environment, and living on the lands of others, the Pintupi felt an immense longing for home. In May 1969, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies took a group of Pintupi men to the important site of Yumari to film ceremony. In subsequent years, this experience inspired Tjampitjinpa to advocate for the return of the Pintupi to their country.
The connection to country was evident to school teacher Geoffrey Bardon, who assisted the men at Papunya to share stories of their homelands through art. The outpouring of artistic activity by the men saw the formation of the Papunya School Painters Co-operative in 1971, incorporated as Papunya Tula Artists a year later, forever changing Indigenous and Australian art.
One of the original shareholders of Papunya Tula, Tjampitjinpa was one of the youngest of the group of men who began painting at Papunya in 1971. Tjampitjinpa recalls that he began working with pencil on paper: ‘I had seen the other men painting, my brother-in-law, Tjapangati [Timmy Payungka] and my uncle [Uta Uta Tjangala], but I didn’t start with paint, only pencil. Those first ones were miserable, messy.’
Tjampitjinpa produced only a handful of paintings in the 1970s, with many of these works being of a sensitive nature. At this time Tjampitjinpa advocated for the return of the Pintupi to their homelands in the Western Desert resulting in the establishment of Walungurru (Kintore) in 1981, allowing the Pintupi to finally return westward. Tjampitjinpa then established an outstation at Ininti (Redbank) in 1983, followed by Muyinga and Yinintitjarra. During this time he was chair of the Kintore Outstation Council.
Back on his own country and with increased cultural knowledge, Tjampitjinpa began to paint in earnest from the late 1980s. By the mid 1990s he had received wide acclaim for his recognisably unique style. In 2004 Tjampitjinpa became chairperson of Papunya Tula Artists and he is now their longest-serving artist.