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Old Walter Tjampitjinpa

Old Walter Tjampitjinpa

1912 - 1981

Jampijinba, Djambidjinba, Old Walter Tulpulpa, Talpulpa, Talpana, Tjeinadjara

Walter Tjampitjinpa was already a pensioner at the time Geoff Bardon first visited the Papunya settlement in 1971. He was known to have visited Hermannsburg as early as 1923, in the company of a large group of men and young boys on an exploratory visit from Pintupi country. Respected as an elder statesman of the community, he was one of the first of the Pintupi people to be re-settled at Papunya. He spoke little English yet was always kind and helpful to Bardon, who developed a deep affection for this tall and silent man. Once the Papunya School had shown some support for the men’s painting group and the possibility of earning extra income had been demonstrated by some early art sales in Alice Springs, Old Walter applied himself diligently and with immense concentration to developing his art practice. He had a strong sense of design that enabled him to sidestep controversial sacred material, while still conveying the sense of a deeply felt connection to country. Bardon recalls that, in all the time he knew Walter, he never once managed to raise a smile on that old man’s ‘inscrutable’ face. The comment reflects perhaps the underlying sadness that all of the Pintupi people carried as they attempted to forge a new life, exiled as they were from their traditional life and homelands by the government’s policy of forced assimilation. Old Walter was a senior custodian of Water Dreamings that run through Kalipinypa and most of his paintings were connected with water and the celebration of its life-giving force. He was particularly knowledgeable in regard to local Dreaming sites and it was he who was consulted for permission to use the traditional Honey Ant designs for the school mural that was to become such a potent landmark for the fledging painting movement. Old Walter’s restricted palette of traditional ochre colours gave a cohesive regularity to his compositions, which displayed the distinctive Pintupi leaning towards symmetrical structure. He was amongst the first to use the ‘U’ sign for humans, concentric circles for rockholes, and wavy lines for water flow, in endless variations and renditions of story. It was these archetypal symbols that first became clear to Bardon as a cultural iconography. They hold a physicality that is never fixed but reflects a constant reading of impressions upon the surface of the land. They tell of “a responsiveness in the earth” (Bardon 2004: 45) that prefigures the sacred meanings given to these desert dwellers by their country, signs that were often crucial to their survival in a harsh terrain. It is this interactivity between earth and humans, Bardon felt, that once had provided their raison d’etre and was now revisited through their imagination and memory.  Old Water indicated to Bardon that for him the word ‘finished’ was an imposed concept when applied to a work of art. The word is used by Aboriginal people to speak of something ending or even death, whereas these Dreaming stories and their related features in the landscape, were eternal. Old Walter helped to bring the classic desert iconography to the Australian art world, setting in motion the national and international acclaim that followed. Like others of this generation, his paintings are sometimes remarked upon as the land seen from above or from an omniscient viewpoint. Seeing them as ‘Dreaming maps’ gives credence to Bardon’s observation that these artworks elucidate ‘space as an emotional idea’ (Bardon 2004). The human body in this haptic sense is continuous with the earth itself. Humans are ‘of the land’ and feel its being in a way that defies the limits of a visual panorama or an intellectual grasp. Bardon was struck by the artist’s need to use song and dance-like gestures to convey to him some understanding of the meaning held within these works; paintings which appear so 'severely abstract' but are so obviously filled with life and feeling (Bardon 2004: 49). Old Walter died in 1980. His paintings appear in Australia’s state and national galleries, contributing to the bedrock of our cultural identity.

Old Walter Tjampajimpa’s paintings are at the most affordable end of the range of works created by the founding members of Bardon’s painting group. Because of his failing eyesight and age, he was unable to paint for many years before he passed away in 1980, before many of these artists entered the second phase of their development as painters. The supply of his works is therefore very limited. His highest selling work is a 52 x 61 cm iconic board titled Rainbow and Water Story 1972. This sold for $58,750 in Sotheby’s July 2001 auction (Lot 88). It eclipsed his previous record of $39,100 set in Sotheby’s June 1998 sale for a smaller, 45 x 46 cm work, Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa 1971 (Lot 31). Like most of the first Papunya painters, works created between 1971 and 1972 - Geoff Bardon's era - are by far the most sought after. In this category, Old Walter's clearance rate at auction has been over 90%, with an average price of over $15,000. Although many of Old Walter’s paintings are sparse in detail and not particularly appealing, a number have powerful imagery that demands attention and are not easily forgotten. Besides the top two selling works, there are several others that fit into this special category. Mysteriously, one of these, Water Story 1972, a 78 x 31.5 cm board, failed to reach its reserve in Deutscher-Menzies June, 1999 auction when estimated at only $25,000-$35,000. The other two works that have wonderful imagery and deserved to fare better when re-sold were Snake and Bush Tucker 1972, which originally attracted  $35,750 at Sotheby’s in July 2001 (Lot 93) and dropped to just $21,600 in Sotheby’s July 2005 auction (Lot 266). Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that, in that particular Sotheby’s sale, a large number of 1971-2 Papunya boards were featured, and these two works in particular fared badly being offered right near the end of the sale. This may have given the impression that Sotheby’s were discounting the value of these paintings. It is likely, however, that whoever bought them will do very well when they are eventually offered for sale again, as Old Walter’s early paintings that can match these in quality, imagery, and content are scarce indeed. Old Walter did not live long enough to see the Desert painting movement become the dominant force in Australian Aboriginal painting, nor indeed to develop his career beyond a small number of intimately painted and spiritually charged boards. Due to their rarity, I consider these to be currently undervalued in the market, and with his record price still below $60,000, and only seven works having exceeded $25,000 in value, any of his special boards would seem to represent incredible value. Canny collectors should take note.

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