Born in 1947 at Ninmi, Joe Tjunurrayi grew up around Jupiter Well amongst the infinite undulating sand hills of the Great Sandy and Gibson Deserts. He inherited his now familiar name after a car accident in his youth, when the first Helicopter ever seen in the area collected and took him to hospital. The way in which Kukatja people embraced this alien object was indicative of the creative manner in which they have approached relations with Western culture, both in their attitude and their artistic practice, most especially since the early 1980’s. Helicopter grew up to become a respected traditional healer and medicine man (Maparn) and married Lucy Yukenbarri, who began painting for Warlayirti Artists at Balgo Hills in the late 1980’s. At the time Michael Rae had introduced a broader range of acrylic pigments and Lucy began to develop her typically linear mode of dotting referred to as Kinti-Kinti (close-close), in which dense masses of colour were built up on the canvass to create blocks of texturally stippled colour. Together they painted in close collaboration throughout the early nineties during which Helicopter’s participation was never recognized or acknowledged.
It was not until James Cowan became the art coordinator at Balgo Hills in late 1994 that Helicopter was encouraged to paint his own works. At first he would not admit that he could paint, but after some encouragement ‘he arrived one morning with a small masterpiece under his arm' (Cowan 1995: 5) Soon after Tjunggurayi was flying solo ‘his rotor-like beard flaying the air as he speaks eager to put down his memories on canvass‘ (Cowan 1995: 5). The art centre simply could not get enough of his works as they sold immediately upon completion.
His renditions of sandhill country are often contrasted by a central water hole and occasionally, interconnected sites. Areas of variegated colour occasionally depict a variety of bush food including Purra (bush tomato), Kantilli (bush raisin) and Walko (bush apple).And while the centrality of rockholes, water holes, and soakwaters in his compositions reflect the pivotal role played by reliable permanent ‘living’ water sources during his nomadic existence as a youth, this iconography is always secondary to the textural and optical effect of his works. In a further development of Lucy’s close linear dotting, Helicopter’s works are characterised by tightly overlapping dots that create linear striations in texturally stippled thick impasto. In a manner not dissimilar to the painting style of Tjumpo Tjapanangka and to a lesser degree Boxer Milner, the paint on Helicopter’s canvases leaves a rippling thick texture when dry, more familiar to that achieved by artists who work with oil paint. Often segregated by planes of less congested dotting the tight bands of sympathetic colour create a shimmer reminiscent of the way in which the heat of the desert distorts its visual impression.
During his career Helicopter has made significant shifts in his palette, thereby reflecting the ancient tradition of seeking out materials alongside earth pigments to depict the intensity of the desert. In rendering his country Helicopter Tjungurrayi, along with other Kukatja’s artists, has employed brilliant blue, red, black, and white in zigzagging or undulating meanders as he has navigated this introduced medium to depict an ancient and ever-present vision. This experimentation with colour highlights the often ambiguous dialogue surrounding cross-fertilization between Indigenous and Western culture. Marcia Langton has commented that ‘It is not coincidental that the centres of the most highly prized genres of Aboriginal Art … are former mission settlements-the sites of contest between two religious or cosmological systems' (cited in Ryan 2004: 99). With the distance of time, the fruits of this traumatic collision offer fascinating insights into other cultural differences and ways of seeing and believing.
Helicopter’s magnificent relief print This Place My Country, is part of a collection of prints by artists from Balgo, Yuendumu and Lajamanu exploring the visual tradition relating to Yilpinji, the love magic of the Walpiri and Kukatja people. Yilpinji presents an alternative artistic and cosmological tradition concerning love, accompanied by an entirely different vocabulary, particularly when it concerns the placement of the seat of human emotions, which is found not in the heart but the stomach, the throat being the primary location of sexual love and attraction. Falling in love is described as waninja-nyinami (throat sitting).
Helicopter Tjungurrayai is an important Kukatja healer. Yet his life and art is living proof that the meeting point of Indigenous and Western cultures is not exclusively a gloomy affair. His innovative works remind audiences across the world of the ‘vital, evolving nature of this art form' (McDonald 2006: 1) and indeed culture, with an exhilaration, even playfulness, not often attributed to Indigenous artists. His works were featured as early as 1995 when he participated in the exhibition Two men Dreaming at Coo-ee Gallery in Sydney. Since that time he has been included in a large number of group shows, and solo exhibitions in 1999, 2003 and 2004 with Alcaston Gallery. These have increased his standing and resulted in his works being included in important overseas collections including the Museum de Lyon and, more recently, the Musee de Quai Branly in Paris.
With collectors keen to purchase his works since they first appeared in galleries from 1995 onward, works by Helicopter Tjungurrayi did not begin appearing on the secondary market until 2001. His entry was less than auspicious with only Billarn Rockhole 1997 and Burrundjarri Rockhole 1996 selling of the five offered during 2001 and 2002. Billarn Rockhole achieved a reasonable $3,300 given the estimate of $2,500-4,000 placed on it in Sotheby’s July 2001 sale (Lot 256). However the fortunes of his works at auction increased dramatically over the following three years, in no small part due to the exposure he received through two solo exhibitions with Alcaston Gallery in Melbourne. Solo exhibitions by Balgo Hills artists were rare at that time and Helicopter was one of the first artist’s from the community so honoured. Between 2003 and 2005, 12 paintings were offered of which 11 sold. These included the work that held his record until 2010 as well as paintings that occupy his fourth, eighth and tenth places in his current top ten.
Prior to 2010 his record was the $7,200 set by Lawson~Menzies in May 2004 when Mamakarra Soakage 2000 sold carrying an estimate of $5,000-7,000 (Lot 127) while Shapiro Auctioneers established his fourth highest result in their March 2005 sale (Lot 30). Despite 2006 being a bit of a wash-out with only two sold of six offered, 2007 saw works enter positions two, four and ten in his sales list. The best of these was the work untitled 2003 which was offered at Joel Fine Art in June and achieved $6,383 (Lot 47). Five works were offered in 2010, with three selling taking both the first and second places in this top ten artworks list. In July, Sotheby’s sold Wangkartu for $12,600 against a presale estimate of $10,000–15,000 and Deutscher and Hacket achieved second place with the sale of Jupiter Well, 2004 for $8,400. Similarly 2011 brought another record making sale, Jupiter Well 2003, created a new second place when it sold for $9,150 at Mossgreen's November Auction (L122). With this steady increase of sales and new works entering the top ten list each year, Helicopter is an artist whose work seems to be increasing in value on a yearly basis. He is now the oldest of the Balgo male artists and as his production in the primary market slows, expect his secondary market prices to continue their steady rise.
Overall Lawson~Menzies has taken up the running with the most prolific offering of Helicopter’s works having sold 12 works for a total value of $45,208. Sotheby’s follow with six works sold, Deutsscher and Heckett with three, Joel Fine Art with two. A variety of other auction houses have sold just one each. Unfortunately Helicopter has rarely painted works larger than 120 x 80 cm other than participating in a number of so called ‘triptychs’ that were produced during James Cowan’s tenure at the art centre. These works, while interesting, will always be discounted in value due to the lack of connection between the Dreamings rendered by each of the artists who participated on the one canvas. In hindsight it seems such a terrible pity that artists like Helicopter were not just given a 180 x 120 cm canvas or larger on which to complete their own individual work. Had he the opportunity to paint three metre canvases I have no doubt they would rival those of Turkey Tolson, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa and others. Only two works 150 x 90 cm had been offered and these were the largest to appear at auction. They sold for $5,040 and $4,642 in 2005 and 2007 respectively. Neither however were of a quality to set the world on fire. 2010 saw the first larger work of high quality hit the secondary market , and this set his highest price record of $12,600. Expect to see more major works eventually make their way in to the auction houses and establish new records for this very interesting and important Kukatja medicine man.