'We call it Wilkinkarra, you Kardiya (white fellas) call it Lake MacKay,' explained a young relative of Sam Tjampitjin’s as the old man looked with immense delight upon the shimmering waters of the lake, his homeland (McCulloch 2001).
Sam Tjampitjin, then in his seventies, had returned to the place of his birth for the filming of Painting Country. It was the first time he’d returned, other than a brief visit twenty years earlier, after a lifetime of separation from the home of his Dreaming and the source of his artistic inspiration. Though considerably younger than his older brother, the revered painter Sunfly Tjampitjin, Sam was one of the older generation of Balgo Artists who walked out of the bush into the Old Balgo Mission at Tjumundu in 1942. Then in his early teens, he was inducted into the Catholic Church. Unlike some of the missionaries elsewhere, the Palotine brothers showed a unique respect of Aboriginal culture at the Balgo mission, and relations between the two cultures were generally amiable. When reminiscing, Sam would recall fondly tending to goats and shearing sheep and how he enjoyed the meat from the mission rather than desert game.
In fact, it was under the aegis of the Catholic Church that the painting movement at Balgo Hills was inaugurated. During the early 1980’s with the homelands movement in full swing, a number of Pintupi and Kukatja men traveled between Balgo Hills, Kiwirrkura and Kintore visiting relatives and exchanging news of the painting movement that had been initiated at Papunya. In 1982 Sister Alice Dempsey decided to run a course at the Adult Education Centre and many years later, recalled the way in which 'they asked for the door to be opened… I just thank god I didn’t close that door on their first interest in painting. It was one of my good days I suppose' (cited in Hoy 2000; 18). Painting struck a unique cord amongst this group of older men 'it was wonderful to see them standing in groups painting. No one dictated. They all knew innately what to do' (Dempsey cited in Hoy 2000: 18). The body of work that emerged had strong iconographic relations with sacred imagery formerly restricted to Tjuringa stones, body painting and ceremonial sand drawing. Many of the men that began painting were senior ceremonial leaders and custodians of the most secret and sacred Dreamings. In their own time, between 1982 and 1987, when Warlayirti Artists was officially sanctioned, important culture men experimented with cheap acrylic paint and explored aspects of their Dreamings on small canvas boards. Avoiding sacred imagery, they developed their own culturally specific art movement based upon depictions of potent locations where major events occurred during the creation that shaped their world view.
Sam Tjampitjin’s art primarily focused on the sacred sites of men’s ceremonial business. It was distinguished by the unique way in which he adapted the sacred designs seen on men’s ceremonial objects into minimal iconography, representing maps of these sites. In works like Landa Landa near Lake MacKay 1993 he depicted a series of clay pans surrounded by sand hills where for generations men congregated to conduct Law Business. The series of concentric rectangles record the pattern left as the water slowly recedes during the arid summers. The grid like structure of the painting is characteristic of the aesthetic of Kukatja men, with a preference for formal, linear work. As an artist, Tjampitjin mercilessly stripped his compositions of all superfluous secondary imagery to create a profound contemporary equivalent to sacred objects without obvious literal reference to them.
Though Sam’s penchant for geometric compositional structure was maintained throughout his career, his palette underwent many transformations, culminating in the dazzling pastels of his post 2000 works.This shift towards lighter colours, as exemplified by the adoption of sumptuous yellows, purples and pinks, radiating from a shimmering light yellow base as in Wilkinkarra 2002, sprang directly from the experience of reconnecting with his country. As Sam traveled back to where he was born for the exhibition Painting Country, onlookers observed his painting style change before their eyes. The joy at being back in his country, and the exuberance of actually seeing places formerly internalised and rendered from memory for decades, reinvigorated his art.
Sam Tjampitjin was an incredibly gifted artist and one of Balgo’s finest male painters. While his works may not have been mythic in their cartographic complexity like those of Wimmitji or Donkeyman Lee, they conveyed, as with those of his elder brother Sunfly Tjampitjin, the inherent power located within specific sites. It is unfortunate that the vast majority of his works were small, given his unique talent. One can only imagine the masterpieces he may have painted had he been provided with larger canvases. Yet his legacy, as part of the first generation of Balgo Artists, is as profound as the deep wellsprings of his knowledge, and his standing as a senior custodian and participant in sacred Men’s Law.