Helicopter Tjungurrayi: Finding water, finding life - Art Collector

Issue 61, July - September 2012

Sasha Grishin travels through the sand dunes and soak holes of Helicopter Tjungurrayi's sweeping canvases.

Helicopter Tjungurrayi earned his name after he fell seriously ill in 1957 and was rescued by pilot Jim Ferguson, who was flying the first helicopter to be seen in the area. Tjungurrayi later recalled: “They took us to the old mission [at Balgo in Western Australia]. It was the first time they saw a helicopter too; even me, first time they seen me too. They were asking who my parents were. I told them then they knew me through my parents. Then I went to Derby [hospital]. After I got better they took me back to Balgo and I’m still here today.” Although the relationship between the Indigenous peoples and the white settlers is frequently characterised through conflict, for this artist it was a lifesaving experience.

Tjungurrayi, a Kukatja artist who still lives at Balgo Hills, has through his art attained a national and international standing. His paintings, through their chromatic brilliance and confident line work, are immediately recognisable and highly prized.

But while there is a long history of female Indigenous artists assisting their husbands or male relatives and then, after their death, branching out on their own, Tjungurrayi followed a very different path in his emergence as an independent artist.

When Tjungurrayi was about 17 he met his future wife, Lucy Yukenbarri, a woman some 13 years his senior. Yukenbarri commenced painting in 1989 and became a renowned Balgo artist. He assisted her with her paintings for several years, using the name Joey Tjungurrayi. Five years later, after this apprenticeship, he started to paint by himself in a distinctive linear style which was quite different from that of his wife. Yukenbarri moved from the somewhat traditional Balgo style, of forms being articulated through dots, to creating a mass of fine dots placed very closely together, a technique called kinti-kinti (close-close), so that they optically converge. On this background, she would paint bold icons that marked waterholes and soaks. These became very distinctive paintings in the whole of Western Desert art tradition and were highly sought after through to her death in 2003.

For his part, Tjungurrayi developed a much more rhythmic, dynamic and linear style which frequently depicts parts of his traditional country, his father’s country, which is located far to the south-west of Balgo in the Great Sandy Desert. As he later observed of the Waruwiya [soak] and Pilalyi rock hole: “I lived around here with my mother and father. Nyirla is our country. I was walking around everywhere in that country, that was the last time. [Then] we travelled to them waterholes on the Canning Stock Road, until we came closer to Natawalu.”

These paintings are often dominated by the vast sand dunes with their windswept, articulated ridges executed in a range of ochres, reds and whites. Hidden within these expanses of dunes are the life-giving soaks, or living water, around which people would camp, hunt and gather bush tucker, especially kumpatja (bush tomato) and kantilli (bush raisin). It is in this country that the adolescent artist travelled and hunted before doing various jobs on missions and travelling to Broome, Alice Springs and Wyndham to collect supplies.

In the 18 years in which Tjungurrayi has been exhibiting his work, there has been a growing intensity of vision and while many Indigenous artists later in life develop a looser, more cursive and expressive painterly language, with this artist the lines have got tighter and the articulation finer in his developing, meticulous technique. The careful underpainting of lines gives some of the paintings and prints a pulsating three-dimensional effect, with the images appearing to hover within an intense blaze of heat and light, optically pierced by the dark sources of water.

In a recent series of brilliant paintings and prints, Tjungurrayi frequently develops a focus around one or more soaks or waterholes, which are rendered as black ovals or circles, and these are surrounded by the rhythmically organised, swirling lines of the sand dunes which have a sonorous chromatic intensity. Although on one level these images relate to an actual physical topography, denoting sources of water and food, on another they chart a metaphysical and sacred topography which is preserved in law. These have become some of the most memorable paintings to emerge from Balgo in recent years. •

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