Johnny Tjupurrula Warangkula was born in 1925 at Minjilpirri, an area north west of Illipili and south of Lake Mackay. The son of parents from mixed tribes, his mother being of Luritja/Warlpiri/Pintupi descent and his father Luritja/Warlpiri, Johnny was raised in a traditional manner, living a traditional life style in the desert and never attending European schools. Johnny is of the Luritja language group and was initiated in to manhood during his family’s stay at a mission in Hermannsburg.

Johnny can recollect his first contact with Europeans, remembering his fearful response when witnessing an air craft fly over his home lands as a young boy. His people believed the aeroplane to be a ‘mamu’ or devil. At a later date, his people came in to contact with camels for the first time and again hid in fright as they recognised the beasts as being evil.

His painting career began after a long turn at labouring, his efforts contributing to the development of roads, airstrips and settlements in areas such as: Haasts Bluff, Mt Leibig, Yuendumu and Mt Wedge. In return for his work building roads, shovelling dirt and felling trees he was remunerated in the form of consumable goods, ‘tucker’ (as he calls it) - flour, tea, sugar, fresh vegetables and tobacco.

Before the bulk of the Haasts Bluff population were moved to Papunya in 1960, Johhny was selected along with Nosepeg Tjuppurrula as Aboriginal representative to meet the Queen. After settling in Papunya Johnny served on the Papunya Council with Mick Namarari, Limpi Tjapangati and Kinglsey Tjungurrayi.

Geoffrey Bardon’s arrival at Papunya inspired the community to begin using art materials, Johnny rapidly developed a distinctive style of his own which came to be known as ‘overdotting’. He uses several layers of dots to depict his dreamings, which consist of Water, Fire, Yam and Egret stories. Also stories from Nyilppi and Nyalpilala - which are his father’s Dreamings. Geoffrey Bardon labelled this stylistic layering effect as ‘tremulous illusion’ and in his book, Papunya Tula Art of the Western Desert, Bardon fondly recollects images of Johnny painting with an intense level of intuitive concentration.

 “He uses calligraphic line with almost baroque excitement. Tight organization of bands and lines, hatching and dot embellishment give his work a powerful, energetic visual strength. He uses convoluted spiral symbols for people, and animal tracks and distorted figures as illustrations of ceremony - not in a formal way...but intuitively.” As Johnny’s paintings are strictly Aboriginal stories without conscious European influence, they remain of major significance. Despite their distinct Aboriginality they can still be measured on a scale of modern aesthetic.

During the 1980’s Johnny became a major force in the Papunya movement, recieving great critical acclaim for his contribution to the recognition of Papunya artists, as a mirror for the identification of indigenous culture. In 1984 the director of the National Gallery of Australia, James Mollison, was photographed along side one of Johnny’s works stating that the work of the Papunya artists was ‘the finest abstract art ever produced in this country’. (Sydney Morning Herald, 26/1/84).

Unfortunately due to Johnny’s failing eyesight, it meant his output of work had steadily reduced over his final years. 

Sadly, Johnny passed away in February 2001. His wife Gladys Napanangka and his eight children still live in Papunya.

Collections:

~ Homes a Court, Perth
~ Queensland Art Gallery
~ National Gallery of Victoria
~ Art Gallery of Western Australia
~ Art Gallery of South Australia
~ National Museum of Australia Canberra
~ National Gallery of Australia Canberra
~ Orange Regional Gallery
~ Alice Springs Law Courts
~ Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory Darwin
~ Flinders University Art Museum
~ South Australian Museum.

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Red Desert Gallery
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paulcurtis@reddesertgallery.com.au
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