In 1976 a BBC documentary crew traveled deep into Australia’s Northern Territory to watch Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and his brother Tim Leura paint a masterpiece. Tjapaltjarri was 44, and one of the founders of a flourishing art community in the small aboriginal village of Papunya. The artwork he would create, called Warlugulong, would be the largest the Papunya artists had ever attempted, and combine nine events and locations of the Dreaming—the mythic cosmology of the Aboriginal cultures.
Tjapaltjarri had been a part of the Papunya art community for four years and was one of their most successful and respected artists, but it was his previous career as a stockman working on central Australia’s pastoral stations, or ranches, that made him uniquely qualified for the project. On the stations, Tjapaltjarri roamed the land that had been home to 50,000 years of aboriginal people, displaced by the rapid colonization of the early 1900s. Tjapaltjarri worked alongside many of Australia’s discrete indigenous cultures, mastering six Western Desert languages and absorbing a vast swath of the traditional stories of the Dreaming.
Warlugulong was Tjapaltjarri’s first monumental canvas, and became the template for a series of large-scale paintings made through the late 1970’s. Each artwork featured an intricately detailed surface of dots and lines in rich reds and ochres. At first appearing abstract, small human and animal footprints reveal them as maps combining landmarks of Tjapaltjarri’s country of Tjukurrpa with metaphysical symbols, events and characters from the Dreaming. Intimate knowledge of the land had been passed down through generations of indigenous Australians through ephemeral sand drawings, but Tjapaltjarri’s transfer of these traditional maps to canvas with the paths and stories they contain can be read as deeds of title, reclaiming ownership of ancestral land.
In 1988 and 1990 Tjapaltjarri’s work was featured in London galleries, bringing an international audience to Papunya’s flourishing art practice. In June of 2002, Tjapaltjarri traveled to Alice Springs to receive the rank of Officer in the meritorious Order of Australia for ‘Distinguished service of a high degree to Australia or to humanity at large.’ But on the 21st, the day of the award ceremony, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri passed away. His work lives on through his daughters Gabriella Possum Nungurayyi and Michelle Possum Nungurayyi, successful artists in their own right, who continue to evolve and expand contemporary Australian indigenous art with their own layered maps of the Dreaming.
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Reed Enger, "Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Reclaiming the land," in Obelisk Art History, Published January 16, 2020; last modified September 04, 2020, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/clifford-possum-tjapaltjarri/.