Yala Yala Gibbs Tjungurrayi was born c.1924 at Iltuturunga and first left his homelands west of Lake Macdonald in 1962 with his wife Ningura Napurrula in order to seek treatment of their son Mawitji who was suffering from severe burns. Following this first taste of community life during which Mawitji was treated in the newly established Papunya community hospital they returned with welfare patrols to their desert homeland. In July 1963 they returned to live at Papunya where their second son was born and Yala Yala became one of the founding members and shareholders of the artist group that began painting in 1971. Geoff Bardon remembered him as a solemn man who spoke little, but who gave himself wholeheartedly to his work, quickly developing fine technical craftsmanship and a particular style characterized by a strong linear quality. Bardon had the difficult job of choosing the core group of artists from the enthusiastic crowd that regularly gathered at his small flat to experiment with the art materials he provided. As one of the inventors of the ‘Tingari’ painting style Yala Yala became one of the six artists who received a government allowance to paint full time in the very first years of the painting movement. During this time, his distinctive line drawings helped to point Bardon towards some comprehension of the ‘hieroglyphic-like language’ that underscored the Dreaming stories. Bardon was fascinated by the weaving relationship between circular forms and traveling lines. He realized that between the principles of stillness and movement, an entire worldview could be articulated. The circle was the completed line of the traveling principle, curled up in a campsite, yet also the origin of the traveling line, ongoing in its many modes and modifications. Traveling itself was an expression of life, a response to the seasons and the need to find food, but also intrinsic to the people’s understanding and mythology of the earth.
The interaction and collaboration between the artists at Papunya was intense and provided impetus to the increasing momentum of the Western Desert art movement. However, it was not without its moments of contention. There was disagreement between groups as to what sacred objects and designs could be included. In 1975, forty-four paintings out of forty-six, in a Perth exhibition, were turned to the wall in response to the demands of a visiting group of Pitjantjatjara men. They were deeply disturbed by overt references to their secret beliefs and ceremonies. Papunya Tula painters were forced to pay compensation and a process of abstraction and stylisation ensued. Sacred elements were veiled, and Pintupi painting in particular took on a strong design focus. With his natural talent for conceiving uncomplicated yet arresting arrangements, Yala Yala’s paintings were at the forefront of this classic Tingari period. His mind-maps of his vast, desert homeland emanate a simple grandeur. Loops, spirals and roundels are linked by traveling lines and held in unity with, often diffuse, background dotting. A restricted range of ochre colours conveys his sense of tethering to the earth, which was also reflected in his working manner. With the other Pintupi artists, he would often sing traditional chants while painting and always use a sense of touch through hands and fingers, to bring the work into being.
He returned to the Western Desert with several of his countrymen in 1974 and moved to KIntore to establish an outstation at Mantardi in 1981. In a move that was interpreted as signalling the acceptance of contemporary Aboriginal art by the Australian art establishment, his work was included in an exhibition of large acrylic canvases shown at the Art Gallery of NSW that same year. This was due in part to the then art manager at Papunya Tula, Andrew Crocker, who promoted the paintings as a form of contemporary art rather than ethnographic imagery that belonged in a museum. Crocker did much to set the whole enterprise on a sounder business footing as growing international attention focused on the artists. In accord with market demand, the Papunya men broadened their experimentation with abstraction and painterliness, loosening the restrictive rules and patterning that had helped to consolidate the earlier phase of their painting, each responding with increasing confidence in their own signature styles. After a period during the late 1980’s, when Tingari paintings became moribund and fell out of favour in a market already embracing an ever-growing number of regional styles, several senior men managed to make the conceptual leap to less descriptive, abstracted designs based on their traditional patterns. This was especially so of Mick Namarari, Turkey Tolson, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa and a small number of others. To some degree however, Yala Yala’s work remained unchanged. His son, a spirited young man who was often away, would write to his father in the English that he was being taught at school and Geoff Bardon would read Yala Yala the warm and reassuring letters. But even this would not raise a smile. The outer circumstances of Yala Yala’s life had caused him to withdraw from those beyond his small community yet inwardly his spirit continued to burn brightly through his art and ceremonial obligations. Having moved to his outstation Mantardi, he was far happier to be close to his traditional lands midway between Kintore and Kiwirrkurra. He was a senior custodian of Pintupi sacred sites and knowledge, and painted devotedly until his death in 1998.