FRAME|WORK is a weekly blog series that highlights an artwork in the Museums' permanent collections. This week, we feature a painting by Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, a member of the Papunya Tula artist collective. Children’s story (water dreaming for two children) is currently on loan to Australia's National Gallery of Victoria.
Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula was one of the first indigenous Australian artists from the Papunya Tula artist collective to adopt the dotting and over-dotting painting technique, used in part to capture the energy of movement and in part to obscure sacred knowledge. The sophisticated language of the Papunya Tula painters of the Western Desert art movement is rooted in an effort to sustain cultural tradition while adapting to a global economy. By incorporating indigenous iconography into compositions created for the Australian art market, elder men encoded and asserted their culture on canvas. Some of the first paintings they produced contained sacred knowledge that should not have been revealed to outsiders. Realizing the consequences of increased publicity, artists painted over sensitive elements in previous paintings and began to paint children’s stories, which were open to all members of the community.
Tjupurrula painted this “water dreaming” work abiding by that general rule. On the left, two young children watch a ritual elder dance surrounded by ceremonial objects. Dense patterns of dots, circles, sinuous bands and parallel lines fill the canvas. White tracks describe watercourses, concentric circles recall waterholes or soaks and the smaller lines denote running water. Tjupurrula’s innovative and intuitive compositions often run out of the frame.
The Australian outback is extremely dry and water resources are scarce. In Aboriginal culture, water-bearing locations are passed down through communal oral histories, and Tjupurrula was one of the custodians of an important waterhole called Kalipinypa. Kalipinya was where Winpa, the Lightning Boss, sang up a huge storm and created a series of waterholes. During 1971–1972, an unusual season of flooding rains in the region regenerated plant life, and inspired Tjupurrula to create some of his best known paintings.