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Shorty Lungkata Tjungurrayi


Born: Walukuritji, Northern Territory, Australia circa 1920

Died: 1987

Language group: Pintupi, Western Desert region


Shorty Lungkata Tjungurrayi was a man of quiet self-assurance and extraordinary presence. He grew up in the desert before travelling to Ikuntji (Haasts Bluff) around 1950. While he had a longer period of contact with non-Aboriginal people than some other Pintupi men of his age, he made little attempt to assimilate culturally or to learn English.

In 1960 he moved over the MacDonnell Ranges to Papunya, where the new settlement had been created. By the 1970s he was a powerful and sometimes feared ngangkari (traditional doctor). At Papunya, the Pintupi were marginalised, and there was almost continuous conflict between the people of various language groups clustered around the settlement. Lungkata was a forceful advocate for his people and more than once would proclaim his rights in a dance with spears in front of a large crowd in the community canteen. Because of the dire living conditions, he and his family chose to live on successive outstations to the west of the settlement, towards his traditional country.

Lungkata began painting in the Australian summer of 1971–72. His paintings are intensely concentrated; their energies are contained and inwardly focused. Women’s Dreaming (Two women), 1972, is a magnificent example of his earliest work. It is spare and powerful, but with subtle details such as the interlocking of the dotted white lines that ensure the eye cannot rest completely on the imposing red ochre ‘U’ shapes representing the two women. Despite its pared back simplicity, this work resonates with the power of song – it is a moment of ephemeral ceremony enduring miraculously on hardboard.

From the mid-1970s, Lungkata’s works became increasingly elaborate. His paintings often featured multiple sets of looping crescents building from a steady centre. In some instances he employed subtle modulations of tone and colour to support the pulsing rhythm of a work. During this phase, he was the only Papunya Tula artist to begin his roundels with ovals rather than circles, giving his painting an attenuated, slightly convex feel. By the end of the decade, he was creating monumental, authoritative works that were comprehensive representations of the several Tjukurrpa that cross his traditional country. His greatest works were created when the market demand for Western Desert art had not yet been realised and, consequently, Lungkata’s significance as an artist should not be underestimated by the relative scarcity of his work.

John Kean in 'Tradition today: Indigenous art in Australia’, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2014

Other works by Shorty Lungkata Tjungurrayi