Johnny Warangkula Jupurrula was born in 1925 at Minjilpirri, an area
north west of Illipili and south of Lake Mackay. The son of mixed
parents, 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 into manhood during his family’s stay at a mission in
Johnny can recollect his first contact with
Europeans, remembering his fearful response when witnessing an aircraft
fly over his home lands as a young boy. His people believed the
airplane to be a ‘mamu’ or devil. At a later date, his people came into
contact with camels for the first time and again hid in fright as they
recognized the beasts as being evil.
His painting career began after a long turn at
laboring, 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, shoveling
dirt and felling trees he was remunerated in the form of consumable
goods, ‘tucker’ (as he calls it) - flour, tea, sugar, fresh vegetables
Before the bulk of the Haasts Bluff population
were moved to Papunya in 1960, Johnny 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 Kingsley Tjungarrayi.
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
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.
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,
During the 1980’s Johnny became a major force
in the Papunya movement, receiving 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).
From 1997 – 1999 Johnny painted this story
with a new-found freedom, both in expression and in painting technique.
Where he was once known for his delicate and soft white dotting, he
now attacked the canvas to tell the story with great gusto. He jabbed
large dots on to the surface and produced roundels and symbols for
weapons with great sweeps of his arm and the brush. Red, black, white.
Had he painted in France during the 1950’s he would have been labelled a
‘Taschist’. Johnny is a significant artist who has in some sense
retained an authenticity and timeless importance in his work that some
of the younger painters are yet to achieve. All great painters, past
and present, seem to have an additional level in their work which may
defy description. This evasive quality is sometimes born of the
synthesis achieved between colour, form, texture and meaning. When
viewing paintings by Johnny Warangkula Jupurulla we find ourselves in a
position where the recognition of another elemental level is
tantalisingly close and for a lucky few the spirit is moved beyond
words. In the presence of great visual art, the employment of everyday
language can become a futile and unproductive gesture.
Johnny’s paintings have been exhibited
extensively in Australia and overseas. These exhibitions include: 1981
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; 1982 Georges Gallery,
Melbourne; 1982 Brisbane Festival; 1982 London, England; 1988 Wagga
Wagga City Art Gallery; 1989 ‘Mythscapes’, National Gallery of Victoria,
Melbourne; 1989 Westpac Gallery, Melbourne; 1989 Australian National
Gallery, Canberra; 1991 Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, USA; 1993
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth; 1999 Flinders Art Museum
Flinders University, Adelaide; 1999 ‘Tjinytjilpa’, Embassy of
Australia, Washington, USA; 1999 Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco ,
USA; 2001 ‘Icons of Australian Aboriginal Art,’ Singapore.
Collections: Robert Homes a Court, 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, Artbank, Araluen Centre, Alice Springs.
His final years were spent at Papunya with his
wife Gladys Napanangka and his eight children. Johnny’s failing
eyesight worsened considerably in the last stages of life, steadily
reducing his artistic output. Johnny died on the 12th of February
2001, and will be sadly missed by all who knew him and admired his art.