Harry Tjutjuna is known for his iconic paintings of Wati Wanka


Part of a generous gift of Glenn Manser, this radiant work by senior Anangu artist Harry Tjutjuna is now held in the Gallery’s Collection. In the 1970s, many Anangu spoke out against revealing works based on Tjukurpa (Dreaming) to the general public, and chose to keep their own traditions and art strictly separate. Here, we find out why they changed their minds.

Harry Tjutjuna, Pitjantjatjara people, Australia b.1930 / Wati Wanka (Spider) 2011 / Synthetic polymer paint on linen / Gift of Glenn Manser through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2013. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © Harry Tjutjuna / Courtesy: Ninuku Arts

Glenn Manser is one of the Gallery’s strongest supporters in the field of Aboriginal art. His private collection speaks of the power of Tjukurpa (Dreaming), of tradition and cultural continuance, generational change and innovation, emphasising work from the central and western deserts, with works by senior and authoritative practitioners as well as exciting younger and emerging artists. His collecting strategies complement the Gallery’s holdings of works from the same regions, and among a recent generous gift to the Collection is a painting that is exemplary of one senior artist’s work.

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Senior Anangu man and artist Harry Tjutjuna is from the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands, which straddle the borders of South Australia and the Northern Territory west to the Western Australia border. Tjutjuna, like many others, has travelled between the Anangu communities and has painted for the different art centres that represent those communities. Currently he lives at Pipaljatjara and paints for Ninuku Arts, based in the nearby community of Kalka.

In recent years, Anangu artists have been at the centre of a revitalisation of desert art and painting, joining the ever-expanding movement after a period of mostly voluntary self-exclusion. In the 1970s, many senior Anangu spoke out against the revelation of Tjukurpa by Papunya artists, who would go on to dominate the desert art movement.

The male elders were unprepared and shocked to encounter the dangerous signs and symbols of men’s business on open display in Alice Springs and Perth and rioted, regarding them as sacrilegious. The Papunya Tula artists’ mimetic depiction of secret or sacred aspects of tjukurpa watiku (men’s law) was seen as a selling out of Aboriginal culture to maliki (outsiders).1

Related: Building a collection

The Anangu chose not to reveal their stories and the art produced in that area reflected their dedication to keeping tradition and art separate. The most obvious example is the Ernabella batiks, which focused on aesthetics and represented country in terms of its beauty, featuring walka — designs based on milpatjunanyi (sand drawings) — rather than divulging the ancestral narratives that give cultural meaning to the landscape. The title of Ute Eickelkamp’s 1999 publication on and with the Ernabella batik artists, Don’t Ask for Stories, is reflective of the Anangu approach to art up until the 2000s. Meanwhile, in the 1990s, a group of senior Ngaanyatjarra artists (from the closely related country over the Western Australian border) painted a body of work on canvas in order to stimulate and reinvigorate cultural practices.

The seeds of a new painting movement were sown, travelling back with the artists through communities from Warburton to Warakurna, and into the Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara territories. In 2001, the community of Irrunytju, just over the Western Australia border, became the first community art centre in the region to secure funding, and soon artists were engaging with the medium and new art centres proliferated.

Harry Tjutjuna is well known for his iconic paintings of Wati Wanka, the Tjukurpa associated with the ancestral Spider-man. Here, the Spider-man appears above a repeated circular design, which Tjutjuna has explained represents the many women and children of Wati Wanka.

Although it has been said that Tjutjuna’s paintings ‘don’t look particularly traditional’, they carry a sensibility that is seen in many works by senior men from this region, and are informed by the paintings found on the walls and roofs of Anangu cave galleries. Tjutjuna also takes great pride in his position as an artist and acknowledges the importance of using his skill to share knowledge with the youth of his community:

Old generation are here now and I am old generation, too. Lots of old generation have passed away. What are you going to do? What happens when I pass away? New generation got to learn Tjukurpa.2

This shift in attitude was one of the driving reasons behind the acceptance of painting in the Anangu communities, and today senior artists like Tjutjuna are working with extreme purpose, recording their Tjukurpa to ensure the continuance of Anangu law and culture.

Bruce Johnson McLean is Curator, Indigenous Australian Art, QAGOMA. He is a member of the Wierdi (Wirrid) people of the Birri Gubbi nation of Wribpid (central Queensland).

1  Judith Ryan, ‘Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara and Ngaanyatjarra art of a new millennium’, in Tjukurpa Pulkatjara, the Power of the Law. South Australian Museum, Wakefield Press, Ananguku Arts and Culture Aboriginal Corporation, South Australia, 2010, p.4.
2   The artist, quoted in Certificate of Authenticity provided by Ninuku Arts, QAGOMA artist’s file.

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Acknowledgment of Country
The Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) acknowledges the Turrbal and Yugara (Jagera) peoples who are the traditional custodians of the land upon which the Gallery stands in Brisbane. We pay respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elders past and present and, in the spirit of reconciliation, acknowledge the immense creative contribution Indigenous people make to the art and culture of this country.

It is customary in many Indigenous communities not to mention the name or reproduce photographs of the deceased. All such mentions and photographs are with permission, however, care and discretion should be exercised.

Feature image detail: Harry Tjutjuna Wati Wanka (Spider) 2011

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