Johnny Mosquito Tjapangati
Johnny Mosquito Tjapangati
1920 - 2004
Johnny Mosquito was born in the Great Sandy Desert c.1920 and walked into the old Balgo mission when in his twenties. A Kukatja/Walmatjari speaker, his country lay south west of the current Balgo community beyond Yaga Yaga toward Lake MacKay in the vicinity of Wagulli and Kurtel (Helena Springs). During his lifetime he became the most senior ‘rainmaker’ in the Balgo Hills community and was responsible for all of the Dreamings associated with rain including rainbows, thunder, clouds, lightning and frogs. He was known to ‘bring on the monsoon each year with the aid of ritual and song, and on occasion provoke a downpour when people were (sic) over-electrified by late summer’s dryness‘ (Cowan 1995: 5). Balgo Hills is known by its Kukatja, Ngardi, Walmatjari, Warlpiri and Pintupi inhabitants as Wirrimanu, literally meaing ‘ dirty wind ‘ a powerful force in an area that cusps the Great Sandy and Gibson Desert. In this arid dry hot landscape there is a particular gravitas attached to stories concerning permanent water sources, referred to by the inhabitants with whispered reverence as ‘living water’. These precious watercourses, rock-holes, and clay pans of Johnny Mosquito’s country were the dominant motifs in his art. He and his inseparable Wangkajunka wife Muntja Nungurrayi painted together from the earliest days of the Warlayirti Art Centre at Balgo Hills. Although they collaborated closely on all of their paintings until 1994, soon after James Cowan arrived as art coordinator he encouraged the male and female artists to paint their own individual works. The paintings that Johnny and Muntja created prior to this intervention were infinitely more complex than those that came after, but all were credited to Johnny alone. The collaboration between the two ensured that each individual painting contained a broader range of information and often depicted larger tracts of land than the individual specific sites Johnny preferred to paint when painting by himself, as he did between 1997 when Muntja passed away, and 2002 when he stopped painting altogether, two years prior to his own death. During the early days of the Warlayirti artists cooperative, prior to Cowan’s tenure, cheep cotton duck was stretched and primed in a mid-grey by mixing black and white gesso as a ground, and artist’s worked on this with brilliantly coloured, but inexpensive, student’s acrylic paint. Adopting this new medium could be seen as an extension of a long tradition amongst Indigenous artists to represent the intense colour seen in their natural environment by collecting and using materials, sometimes trading with other indigenous people across vast distances. Indeed the full colour revolution at Balgo was in large part due to women painters like Muntja, Suzie Bootja Bootja and Tjemma Freda Napanagka, in their daring desire to evoke the luscious colours of the plants and flowers of their desert landscape. This taste for luminosity spread amongst the art community in its early painting days, as the male and female painters worked alongside each other. Blue, in particular, was the first acrylic colour employed by Balgo artists from a brighter spectrum. Time however, has seen the cheap materials, applied originally as brilliant reds and yellows degrade against the grey backgrounds to affect an autumnal palette. Despite this and the aesthetic difference between the works Johnny painted pre 1994 and those created thereafter, there was continuity in the iconography of his work throughout his career as a painter derived principally from this enduring fixation upon water. Johnny’s works created after 1995 are characterized by a restricted, but brilliant palette, and emphatic simplified compositions of the most important elemental features of each particular specific site. By this time Belgian linen had replaced cotton duck, and the quality of the paints had improved markedly. Often employing brilliant shades of blue to depict water, as in both Tjintjarmudal 1994 and his later work, Marloo 1998, he also used red and occasionally yellow, separated solely by minimal white linear dots to delineate blocks of flat colour in emphisising the most important features. This contrast between his use of flat colour and vibratory dots is superb and reaches its zenith in Johnny Mosquito’s 1993-1996 paintings. Johnny is revered as having been one of the first generation of Balgo painters. Every canvas he created, even those painted at the very end of his life, reveal an interior landscape redolent with meaning and charged with energy. His longing for the distant sites visited by the great creation ancestors and sung throughout the millennia found its ultimate expression in his art.
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