Though he began painting at the late age of 85, Tiger Palpatja had much energy and experience to convey to the world. His colourful, lively compositions immediately attracted acclaim from the art world and saw him included as a finalist in national art awards and in exhibitions across the country, as well as overseas. His blood reds, delicate pinks, lilacs and molten yellows give his work a lovely gentleness but encircled and held within the strong lines of his writhing serpentine forms. It reflects the austere power of his red desert country that is threaded through with sudden oases of breathtaking beauty. The Wanampi water snake (the main focus of his work,) created this country and is believed to be the ancestor of the Pitjantjatjara people. The non-poisonous snake lives in the Piltati waterholes, found in the lower hills of the Mann Ranges, South Australia, close to where Tiger was born and where he spent his early years, living a traditional nomadic life with his family.
With the advent of European settlement of the area, when Tiger was in his mid-teens, the family settled at the Presbyterian mission and large sheep station at Ernabella. Tiger learnt basic English, began working on the station (becoming a top shearer), married his wife Nyalapanytja and started a family. Unusual for the time, the mission allowed the traditional beliefs and ceremonial rituals of the area’s Indigenous inhabitants to continue alongside church and work duties. Tiger gained a reputation as a traditional healer (ngangkari) and ceremonial leader as well as a carver of objects and spears. When, during the 1970’s, the mission closed and small communities were established, he moved to the township of Amata closer to his own Country. A small Art Centre was established there, at first encouraging and supporting women artists only. Over time, the Pitjantjatjara men, initially resistant and disapproving of the endeavour, were included and the name changed from Minymaku Arts (meaning belonging to women) to Tjala Arts (meaning Honey Ant). Tiger was one of the first to begin.
In later years Tiger moved further towards his home country, to Nyapari, where Tjungu Palya Arts also became agents for his work. This saw a further freeing up of his style. His painterly flair revelled in the physicality of paint texture and the vibrant effects of colour against colour. He was a senior custodian for the Wanampi creation story, which has been central to his identity and still instructs people in the reciprocal relationship between men and women. The story tells of the frustration between two brothers and their wives. The men were spending too much time on their ceremonial activities so the women stopped providing food for them. The men then tricked the women by turning themselves into snakes and leaving enticing snake trails nearby which prompted the women to start digging vigorously and deeply, after the food. When one sister eventually speared a snake, the injured and angered men swallowed the women whole and retreated forever into the holes, channels and gullies that the women had dug throughout the country. Tiger is considered a leading artist from the Southern Desert area (APY Lands). He offers us a window into the soul of the earth, forged from his own song cycles and feel for the land. His work is held in Australia’s national and state galleries as well as other major collections.
Profile author: Sophie Pierce