Long Tom Tjapanangka
Long Tom Tjapanangka
1929 - 2006
It is not unusual for an Aboriginal artist to shy away from elaborating on a particular work, although this is more common when they are of sacred significance. However, this was not the case with the work Ulampuwarru (Haasts Bluff Mountain) that won the 2000 Telstra-sponsored 16th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award (NATSIAA) for Long Tom Tjapanangka. The painting was chosen for its strong aesthetic appeal, depicting in planes of bold colour two rows of gum trees and a rainbow serpent moving across the front of a mountain rendered in unadorned blocks of red, ochre, and green. The simplicity of the design was striking and yet the artist declined to explain the work. So it stood simply for what it was. Artist Judy Watson, one of the award judges commented, ‘it’s just out there…It has all of Long Tom’s usual elements, but also something very different’ (Smee 2007). Tjapanangka’s personal history is unique. He was born in Lupuul, on the border of the Northern Territory and Western Australia near Lake MacDonald, and travelled to Haasts Bluff on foot in his youth. The establishment of Haasts Bluff as a cattle station in 1954 meant that Long Tom would find work as a stockman. He knew the area well, having helped to build fences throughout the surrounding land. Like many others who had come in from the desert and had traditional hunting skills, Long Tom was recruited to assist the police force. Thereafter he spent a considerable part of his life as a stockman and police tracker, traversing extensive tracts of country into Victoria and up to Queensland. Most of his paintings were created in Haasts Bluff, where he and his first wife Marlee Napurrula began painting for the Ikuntji women’s centre in 1993. Marlee suffered a motor neurone dysfunction after hospitalisation and after her death several years later, he married Mitjili Napurrula, with whom he collaborated for many years. Haasts Bluff is itself a place of considerable cultural hybridity, having served as a ration depot from early in the twentieth century providing for the Warlpiri, Pitjantjatjra, Pintpui and Arrernte people that sought refuge there due to massacres, drought, and the establishment of pastoral leases on their lands. It was proclaimed an Aboriginal reserve in 1940 and over time has become a meeting point for people of many different tribal groups. Tjapanangka, a respected elder of the Pintupi, returned to his birthplace, Lupuul, after receiving an Australia Council development grant and his attachment to this country, its stories and his nomadic transition away from it, became more clearly evident in his art. He rarely articulated any sense of displacement or disorientation, as was the case with the majority of the early Pintupi painters. Rather, as his career developed, his paintings were more likely to be grounded in the tangible elements of his immediate environment. As narrative depictions, they stand apart from time and space in that they do not require a literal interpretation. Certain images recur within the broader scope of Tjapanangka’s cultural history. 'The whole lot, that’s the whole story. Might be tali [sandhills], puli [rocks] anyplace. You know ‘im. You can see 'im. Anyone can see, look around' (Long Tom Tjapanangka cited in Croft 2000: 86). Long Tom depicts ‘country’ in a visual language that is strong, simple and boldly coloured. He paints in two distinct styles; one abstract comprising broad spacial planes; and one more literal, mostly concerned with animals such as camels, snakes, dogs, emus and trees. In other more location specific works he explores the landscape around Ikuntji country – Ulampuwarru, Mereenie, Anyali, Uluru and also the mountains Kata Tjuta, Mt Liebig and Winparrku. For a man who has won the most prestigious art prize offered to Aboriginal artists in Australia, Long Tom has been far from a prolific artist. He painted for the Ikunji Art Centre and several dealers who visited his outstation occasionally. He painted every now and then on visits to Alice Springs, but preferred to paint only sparingly. On his outstation, far from the hype of the art market, he was said have a great sense of humour and provide enthusiastic company to those who took the time to visit. His only solo exhibitions were held with Niagara Galleries in Melbourne and Schubert Galleries in Queensland during 1995 and 1998. When his works first appeared because of their unusual nature they were in great demand. After winning the Telstra Art Award his work was in great demand. Having withdrawn from painting thereafter, however, his works rarely appear outside of the museum context. His contribution to the ongoing dialogue of desert art has therefore been somewhat limited.
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