Ronnie Tjampitjinpa: focus works

This education kit was produced for the exhibition Ronnie Tjampitjinpa (Art Gallery of NSW, 4 April – 1 November 2015). It presents a selection of focus works with questions and activities for students in Years K-12.

Click on an image for more information (including medium and dimensions) and to view the work in the Gallery collection.

Born in 1943, Pintupi artist Ronnie Tjampitjinpa is one of Australia’s most visionary artists. He is most recognised for his bold, graphic paintings that explore the Tingari ancestors and their travels over vast areas of the Western Desert region. Over his 40-year career he has presented innovation within the traditions of Pintupi visual language to create works that can be appreciated for both their aesthetic appeal and for their effectiveness in capturing the dynamism and intensity of ancestors who shaped country and continue to inform landscape in the present.

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.

Questions and activities

Locate Papunya on a map and look at satellite photos. Find photographs of this country to make a collage. Find out about the climate, vegetation and bush foods of this region. Look at images of artists making ground paintings in the desert. Create a map of the Central Desert which includes the location of key desert communities Wirrimanu, Yuendemu, Lajamanu, Ikuntji and Utopia.

Investigate the Papunya Tula painting movement and its enormous impact on the Australian and International art scenes. Examine Ronnie Tjampitjinpa's place in the birth of this movement, the establishment of the arts centre and the role he played in the subsequent return to country of the 1970s and '80s.

Survey Ronnie Tjampitjinpa’s body of work and identify recurring motifs and characteristics. Discuss how his use of line, the intricate patterning and grid configurations, relate to ceremonial wood incising practiced by Pintupi men. Research the debate on whether Western Desert painting can be meaningfully described as minimalist. Outline your findings and explain your own opinion.

AGNSW collection Ronnie Tjampitjinpa Untitled (Tingari Story at Walunguru) (1981) 338.1998
AGNSW collection Ronnie Tjampitjinpa Untitled (Tingari Story at Walunguru) (1981) 338.1998

Untitled (Tingari story at Walungurru) was painted in September 1981 and celebrates the move of the Pintupi back to their homelands, following the establishment of Walungurru in August 1981. This classic painting follows the familiar and formal Tingari style of concentric circles interconnected with lines of travel and infilled with fields of dots of varying colouration and intensity. In soft, subdued colours the work relates to the travels of the Tingari from the site of Mitukatjiri (Ligertwood Cliffs) towards Pinari, specifically as they walk through the creek at Walungurru, where Tjampitjinpa was living at the time. The Tingari feature heavily in the art of the Western Desert and are a group of people who travelled over vast stretches of country, shaping particular sites. Their travels are enshrined in a number of song cycles and form part of the teachings for youth today as well as providing explanations for contemporary customs.

Questions and activities

Watch the video and discuss what you have learned of the Tingari travels. Think about the relationship of painted Tingari designs to ground designs, the importance of particular sites in country and how the paintings may relate to maps.

Look at Tingari story at Walunguru and consider how the idea of travelling is represented.

AGNSW collection Ronnie Tjampitjinpa Untitled (1994) 215.1994
AGNSW collection Ronnie Tjampitjinpa Untitled (1994) 215.1994

From the late 1980s Tjampitjinpa began to experiment with scale, producing macro views of particular sites, rather than aerial overviews of vast terrain. This is evident in Untitled 1994, where the body designs for the large claypan site of Ngurrapalangu, to the west of Walungurru are depicted larger than life, resonating across the canvas imbued with the power of the Tingari and their actions at this location, and the movement of dancers celebrating this within ceremony.

The abstract nature of such works was admired and saw Tjampitjinpa being awarded the 1988 Alice Prize, his first solo exhibition at Gallery Gabriella Pizzi, Melbourne in 1989, and his inclusion in the exhibitions Dreamings, Asia Society Gallery, New York in 1988 and Australian perspecta, Art Gallery of NSW in 1993.

Questions and activities

Look closely at this painting. Do you think it matters which way is up? List words to describe the patterning and overall feel of the work.

How does this image relate to Tjampitjinpa's Untitled (Tingari story at Walungurru) 1981?

Choose a surface from the natural or built environment and study it closely using a magnifying glass. Make a detailed drawing of what you see then enlarge it on a photocopier. Create multiple copies and glue them onto a large sheet to make a field of patterning. Discuss how this image relates to your original observational drawing.

AGNSW collection Ronnie Tjampitjinpa Untitled (Tingari motifs) (1997) 355.1997
AGNSW collection Ronnie Tjampitjinpa Untitled (Tingari motifs) (1997) 355.1997

From the early 1990s, Tjampitjinpa accentuated the bold, graphic qualities within many paintings by employing squared elements to represent the Tingari, rather than standard concentric circles, and eliminated the use of connecting lines, as seen in Untitled (Tingari motifs) 1997. This reductive approach was also applied to his palette, employing only two or three colours for optimal interplay.

Untitled (Tingari motifs) 1997 refers to Tarkul, a rockhole north of Mt Webb, Western Australia and each squared form within the work is a man painted for ceremony, standing side-by-side with other men. The use of colour and strong geometry within the work create a mesmerising optical image, oscillating between squares and diamonds as the work is viewed from different angles.

Questions and activities

Look at the painting and find shapes and patterns that repeat. Focus on the squares. Do they seem to be still or moving? Can you find any two that are the same? Squint your eyes and notice directional lines and patterns that appear. Describe this optical sensation.

Develop a geometric symbol to stand for an important place or event on a journey you have made. Use bold, contrasting colours and lines to make optical effects. Repeat the shape to create a grid that extends to the edges of the page. Using a viewfinder, choose a section to copy onto a new page. Repeat using one colour until it takes up the whole page. Tell the story of the journey from the abstracted image.

AGNSW collection Ronnie Tjampitjinpa Untitled (2001) 140.2002
AGNSW collection Ronnie Tjampitjinpa Untitled (2001) 140.2002

In Untitled 2001 Tjampitjinpa returns to the classic Tingari iconography of his earlier works ‒ concentric circular elements connected by lines of travel ‒ rendered in his unique bold, linear style. The work depicts the ground design associated with Wilkinkarra (Lake Mackay). Ground designs or sand paintings for ceremony are created by drawing the design for a specific location in the ground and then delineating this with burnt red and white wamulu. Wamulu is made from the down feathers of birds or crushed wild cotton.

When Tjampitjinpa viewed this work at his solo exhibition at Utopia Art Sydney in 2002, he recalled walking around the country west of Wilkinkarra (Lake Mackay) depicted in the painting as a young boy.

Questions and activities

Count the number of circles in this painting. Are there the same number of large and small circles? How many lines does each shape contain?

This painting relates to a ceremony which includes singing and dancing. Look at the painting and imagine the kind of music that suits it. Choose a song or dance that you like and create an abstract painting using line, pattern and repetition to suggest rhythm and melody.

Study this painting and describe its mood. Is it static or dynamic? Analyse the way composition and use of repetition create rhythm and energy. Discuss colour, space, balance and line. Discuss how the visual power of this image embodies the power of country and Tjukurrpa. Create an artwork that employs line and pattern to express the idea of travel. Think about how you will represent topography and movement.

AGNSW collection Ronnie Tjampitjinpa Tingari fire dreaming at Wilkinkarra (2008) 612.2014
AGNSW collection Ronnie Tjampitjinpa Tingari fire dreaming at Wilkinkarra (2008) 612.2014

From the mid 1990s Tjampitjinpa began to produce works consisting solely of maze-like line work, which he has since intensified, as seen in this seminal work Tingari fire dreaming at Wilkinkarra 2008, which was recently acquired for the collection. Within the work Tjampitjinpa cleverly morphs the intricate 'key' design characteristically found on incised objects from the region, including pearl shells and wooden objects, into a mesmerising web compositional complexity that expands and contracts across the canvas. Optically charged, the work denotes both the importance of the site being represented and Tjampitjinpa’s cultural standing, as a senior Pintupi man.

The work refers to Wilkinkarra (Lake Mackay), a large salt lake within Pintupi country that is of particular importance to the Tingari. Two men were hunting kangaroo at Wilkinkarra and set fire to spinifex to aid this. However, the kangaroo escaped, leaving the men to contend with the flames. This subject was also painted by Tjampitjinpa’s brother-in-law, Timmy Payungka Tjapangati and can be seen in Tingari cycle at Wilkinkarra 1996.

AGNSW collection Timmy Payungka Tjapangati Tingari cycle at Wilkinkarra (1996) 318.2000
AGNSW collection Timmy Payungka Tjapangati Tingari cycle at Wilkinkarra (1996) 318.2000

Questions and activities

Devise a secret code. Replace each letter in the alphabet with a picture symbol and write a letter containing information about yourself to send to a friend. Provide them with the key to your code and see if they can decipher your communication.

Trace the development of the Papunya style from early experimental and gestural work to the conceptually complex work of the late 1980s-2000s. Contrast Tjampitjinpa's Untitled (Tingari story at Walungurru) 1981 with his Tingari fire dreaming at Wilkinkarra 2008 and Tingari cycle at Wilkinkarra 1996 by Timmy Payungka Tjapangati. Describe differences in style, iconography, brush work and composition. Outline how these works exemplify the evolution of painting style at Papunya.