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BY GEORGE: article on Australian Aboriginal Artist George Tjungurrayi, first published in POL OXYGEN by Siobhan O’Brien. What fun I had writing and researching this story! I could barely understand a word he said, but somehow the very famous George and I managed to have a great conversation with a few laughs! I adore his work and what a life!

To most people George Tjungurrayi still lives in the bush. But that’s not how George sees it. Although George lives in Kintore, a remote community with 300 residents, located 520 kms west of Alice Springs in Central Australia, it is not as isolated as the Gibson Desert where George grew up. As George sees it, life in “..the bush..” was when he wore “ trousers, no shirt..” and was “…just a naked young fella..” who roamed one of the most unhospitable and arid places on earth with his nomadic father, his two mothers and his countless brothers and sisters. It was a time in his life when the blood-red sands stretched on for weeks and weeks; before he and his family came into contact with Europeans.

These two phases of George’s life (before and after meeting white fella’s) are apparent when you talk to him, but precise details from a Pintupi tribe elder are rare moments when you’re a thirtyish Celtic female who doesn’t understand a single syllable of the Pintupi tongue. But I persevere, (with the generous help of Michael Stitfold, a field officer who works at the arts centre in Kintore), because George is not your average Indigenous Australian. He is one of Australia’s biggest art exports whose exhibitions sell out (at $28,000-$50,000 a pop) even before they’ve been mounted. But, while this talented artists’ work might appear in prestigious collections worldwide — the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; Musée National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie, Paris; the Groninger Museum, Groningen, The Netherlands; the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory, Darwin and the Robert Holmes à Court Collection, Perth — his world and the “..white fella’s world..” could not be further apart.

According to George (who was born sometime between 1943 and 1947, depending on whose press release you believe), the first time he saw “..white fella’s..” was sometime in his late-teens. And like all good storytellers, our hero starts at the beginning, in Mukula, 100 kms west of Kiwirrkura, in the Northern Territory. It was here that George, his uncle and three other men from the Pintupi and Luritja tribes, were hunting kangaroos “..for tucker..” when they spotted (for the first time in their lives) a graded road and tracks left by motor vehicles. Armed with spears and rumours about Yuendemu, a government settlement 300 kms north-west of Alice Springs, the five inquisitive men decided to follow the tracks in search of this make-believe nirvana. They continued walking for the next 700kms. “Yeah long way, long way,” George quips animatedly, before reeling off the many waterholes, rocks and sacred sites that marked the boundaries of their life-changing journey. He even recounts spearing kangaroos, hunting snakes and eating goannas.

At some point along their trek, the group stumbled across four aboriginal men at a waterhole. The men were clothed and carrying supplies such as flour, sugar and tea. As George explains, they had “..been to Yuendemu..” and were “..out lookin’ for family..” to bring into the settlement. They gave a naked George his first outfit and taste of “..white fella’s tucker..” and together, the two groups continued their journey to Yuendemu, where George first clapped his eyes on Europeans. While language perimeters don’t permit me to ask George how he felt when he saw them, nor how he felt when he arrived, these early settlements (established under the Australian Federal Government’s assimilation policy in the late 50s) were according to Michael Stitfold “little more than ration stations” where residents, from diverse language and tribal groups, not only lost their traditional lands to pastoralists, but were unable to pursue traditional activities. Forced to rely on government handouts, the results were catastrophic with repercussions still being felt in aboriginal communities today. Luckily, the agenda has largely changed, with the contemporary settlement focusing on health, education and maintaining heritage and tradition.

Doubtless, George lived at Yuendemu for a while, but as he cheekily points out there were “no women (at) Yuendemu.” So he and a friend left to go to Papanya, another settlement, located further south. It was here that two events dramatically changed the course of his life: the first was in the 1960s when he met and married the love of his life, Nanapa Nangala (together they have five children: Jake, Jennifer, Lisa, Rose and Brendan, who came as a surprise 18 months ago); while the second event was in 1976, when George started painting his tribal country, including significant ceremonial sites north-east of Kintore across the Western Australian border. George describes the inspiration for his work in different terms. “Mother dreaming…father dreaming. George dreaming. Sister, brothers. Country, my country, my family,” he says.

But it wasn’t until the early 80s that George (and the rest of the world) started to take his new hobby seriously. It was then that he became a shareholder of Papunya Tula Art (PTA), which helped kick-start his reputation as an international artist of note. Entirely owned and directed by traditional Aboriginal people, PTA (which has 49 shareholders and represents approximately 80 artists) is an Alice Springs based company made up of predominantly of the Luritja/Pintupi language groups. As PTA’s manager Paul Sweeney explains, “The company extends its operations from the Northern Territory into Western Australia, spanning a massive area 700km west of the red centre. But, the art sector of PTA is a small part of the whole company whose aim it is to promote the individual artists, provide economic support for them and their communities and also to assist in the maintenance of a rich cultural heritage.”

Today the movement (which was set up in 1971 by school teacher Geoffrey Bardon) is highly regarded around the world. And along with Makinti Napanangka, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, George’s brother Willy Tjungurrayi and George’s sister Naata Nungurrayi (yes, he comes from a very talented family), George is one of the top selling artists. And although he has exhibited regularly in group exhibitions since the early 1980’s — (the retrospective exhibition Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius, held at Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales; the Meridian Focus on Contemporary Australian Art exhibition at Sydney’s Museum of Modern Art; and in the touring exhibition Aborigena which was shown at Palazzo Bricherasio, Turin; Museum of Aboriginal Art, Utrecht; the Antiche Stanze di Santa Caterina, Prato; while the exhibit under the title of Mythology and Reality, was also showcased at the Jerusalem Theatre for the Performing Arts in 2003.) — he had his first solo exhibition at the Utopia Gallery in Sydney in 1997, with a recent follow up at the Museum of the exclusive Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, Melbourne in 2003. It was at this 2003 show that George made a rare appearance with his son Jake, (now 22-years-old). They both flew for the first time in a large aircraft to attend the event, and watched a Collingwood and Fremantle AFL football clash at Victoria Park, as a special treat.

But as Judith Ryan, the senior curator of indigenous art at the National State Gallery of Victoria (which has acquired two of his paintings) points out, being part of an organisation such as the PTA is no substitute for great talent: “George is a trailblazer. He has single-handedly created an entirely new form of iconography for aboriginal artists that is linear, minimal and graphic with a subtle application of colour. When I first came across his work in 1996, it took me completely by surprise, I hadn’t seen anything like it before. It has a mesmerising spatial impact which makes the work look as if it is moving. For example, we have a painting called Snake Dreaming (2002), where a snake moves along the ground and more snakes spring from the same spot. It is simply wonderful.”

Today, the extended Tjungurrayi clan are based 300 kms west of Papanya, at Kintore that comprises a canteen, a school, an Arts Centre and not much else. Here George spends his days either at the Arts Centre, which is open through the week for artists to use at their leisure, or at home because as Michael Sintore explains “the women artists have taken over the shed and kicked the men out.” It is chock full of paints, charcoal, pencils, canvases and other painting paraphernalia. According to Michael: “Between here and Kiwirrkura (a settlement another 190 kms to the west of Kintore) there are about sixty artists and between three settlements there are four fulltime field officers whose job it is to encourage the artists to keep the traditional elements in their work. But, we can’t teach these people what to paint, we can only support them. They know exactly what they are doing.”

It is at the Kintore Arts Centre that I talk to George who is currently focusing on painting Mungilypa (Tecticornia Verrucosa), an edible bush plant with tiny black seeds. “Mungilypa,” he says, “in swamp country (where there is) bush tucker too much.” Michael offers some clarification, “I’m not sure where their swamp country is, but it’s about a three day walk from here and after it rains the area is flooded with Mungilypa around the edges of the swamps. The men still go walking out there and when they come back they paint canvases filled with millions of black dots.”

According to Judith Ryan, George’s painting can be defined in two phases: before 1995 and after. As she points out: “In the mid 90s, he really turned a corner stylistically. Before that time he was doing the usual thing, tracks of land, travelling paths, ancestral beings, snakes, Tingari men’s business (mythical characters that perform rituals and create sites) – all painted in red, yellow and white. But then something happened and he created this new iconography of sandhills and the country where he grew up, using different tones of one shade, such as violet, cream and orange. I’ve watched him paint and he paints exceptionally deliberately. He knows exactly what he is doing. I would compare his work to some of the great masters of aboriginal art such as Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula and Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri”

So, when I ask this modern day master if he is very happy that his work is represented in collections around the world, the pitch of his voice changes discernably. It is the same animated tone he uses to describe his days in the bush. “Yeah,” he says, “long way, long way.”