George Tjampu Tjapaltjarri & The Creation Snake ‘Karpadi’

George (Tjampu) Tjapaltjarri ‘Karpadi’ Painting Acrylic on Linen 1530 x 1830 mm 2002 ©The Artist Papunya Tula Artists & Helen Read.

Rhythm and movement signatures George Tjampu Tjapaltjarri’s painting. The piece titled ‘Karpadi’, shown above, with it’s intriguing central shaping, drew me physically back to Kiwirrkurra to talk with Tjampu.

We had worked together nearly two decades before at the Pintupi Homelands Health Service; Tjapaltjarri as a skilled Health Worker, me as a novice to Indigenous Australian desert life, arriving as a nurse and midwife, bringing TTW, a Cessna 180 aircraft with me.

Tjapaltjarri and I would fly between Walungurru (Kintore) and Kiwirrurra clinics, he looking out of the window comfortably absorbing the lands he didn’t need a ‘plane to see. Me mind full of aviation and clinic thoughts whilst trying to grasp the expanse of the country; not only geographically but in it’s Pintupi Luritja apparent meanings.

Seeing the painting ‘Karpadi’ by George Tjampu Tjapaltjarri at Papunya Tula Artists for the first time in 2002, I could feel Tjampu’s gentleness and strength in the composition’s structure; it’s resolution. I found it easy to recall his quiet, deep and assured voice and remember the brown eyes that held both sadness and humour but always companionship.

There had to be a reason for the hypnotic concentric swirling in the painting, and I wanted to ask Tjampu what it was. The flight back to Kiwirrkurra from Alice Springs was this time in a slightly larger ‘tail dragger’ aircraft, ‘FLU’, a Cessna 185. The air was bumpy with forty degree surface heat pushing up hot pockets of thermals. To boot, wind over the ranges caused ‘mechanical turbulence’ – like a river flowing over a rock tumbling water downstream. FLU’s wings asked for action to keep her straight and level, a constant in-put but a good feeling aiding the craft and sky to negotiate their dance together.

Once the Western Macdonnell Ranges gave up their ambitious reach, sand dunes stretched as far as the eye could see. Soon’ish Mt Leisler – Walungurru’s lizard looking rock – came in to view. Above the tiny cluster of corrugated roofs that is Walungurru (Kintore) only ninety three nautical miles remained flying west to reach Kiwirrkurra.

No map is needed flying out here really. One’s position is simple to reckon by relating the salt shores of Lakes Mackay and Mcdonald with the dirt track running East-West like a shoe-lace between. A pilot would need to be blinded by smoke, cloud or a sandstorm not to know where she or he was. With none of these elements being out of the question, and anyway good airmanship, the WAC (World Aeronautical Chart) remains on hand, even if it’s details were incorrect in the 80’s.

I found Tjampu in the stone built store in Kiwirrkurra; the one that the hiding German Berndt had hauled into being out of local stone in ’85. Constructed to last forever, this second solid building to be built in Kiwirrkurra then loomed large in its area of red flatness. Now the store seemed small against tall, flood-established trees, and new buildings shone where Wiltshire’s (‘humpies’, or branch and blanket homes) had been.

We sat on the concrete slab that was trying to hold up the store verandah posts; George with his 25 dogs (I counted) and me with a colour print-out of his painting, called ‘Karpadi’, embarrassed about my ignorance. Tjampu looked at me as if I was blind, which of course I was. “Karpadi” he said kindly, “That’s Karpadi”. Karpadi is the creation snake which travelled in the beginning of time from East to West across the land, under and over the country creating the world, animals, everything we know along the way. Here he is, lying in the sand camouflaged, resting.

I thought on Tjampu’s painted mapping of Karpadi’s travels in relation to the WAC chart currently scorching in the ‘plane. Knowing Tjapaltjarri and his peers would pinpoint immediately not only the site-specific location illuminated in Tjampu’s artwork, but would comprehensively appreciate and embrace layers of truths within it (withheld from the non-initiate, ref. Indigenous Art Criticism post). Through sophistication over millennia it is known that Tjapaltjarri and his painting peers would draw, in addition through line, time and it’s movement, law and it’s legacies, beauty and manifestations of life.

The WAC chart however is good for topographical, numerical and linial bearing information.

Meanwhile a Willy-Willy, (one of those mini, vertically viscous wind vortices), sucked up sand and debris close-by, speeding it’s whirling mass into a gritty brown fairy floss looking mishap. It swivelled, swerved, then inevitably smacked it’s contents against our bodies stinging hot open pores like needles. Squinting across I could see Tjampu bending his head against the wind, undisturbed, faintly smiling in his relaxed way. Our clothes and hair now plastered in pindan I relaxed too; elements are how they are, and as for appearance, well, what matters is what and who you are, not how you look – which was just as well.

The painting ‘Karpadi’ (touring with the exhibition ‘Luminous’) is even more so now a magnificent mid-stride vision into Tjapaltjarri’s immeasurable knowledge-world. A non-initiate can see that the close parallel lines shimmering throughout is the earth very much alive. An onlooker might also feel the multiple angles in the picture, cast like a net, speak of our existence trapped in complete connectivity. And the sharp and soft, flat and undulating cusps anchoring changes in direction ignites a reference to time.

I left Kiwirrkurra, Karpadi and Mr. George Tjapaltjarru reluctantly. But can at least say “In the centre of the paintings above lies the Creation Snake ‘Karpadi'”. Of course.

This article first appeared on 5th January 2017

Helen Read is an artist and former nurse-pilot for the Pintupi Homelands Health Service in Walungurru (Kintore), Kiwirrkurra, Gibson Desert, Central Australia.

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