Clifford Possum was born in 1932 on Napperby Station. He worked extensively as a stockman on the cattle stations in and around his traditional country. During this time he developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Dreaming Trails that criss-cross the area to the north of the western McDonnell Ranges, which he uses in painting his Dreamings.
His career as an artist began in the 50's when he carved snakes and goannas in the tradition initiated by his grandfather and two older brothers. By the 70's he was one of the most accomplished carvers in Central Australia. His first opportunity to paint came when one of Albert Namatjira's sons gave him acrylic paints and the master began his work. Clifford, living at the Papunya Community was one of the first artists to be involved with the Aboriginal Art Movement.
The art of Clifford Possum is notable for its brilliant manipulation of three-dimensional space. Many of his canvases have strong figurative elements which stand out from the highly descriptive background dotting. In the late 70's he expanded the scope of Papunya Tula painting by placing the trails of several ancestors on the same canvas in the fashion of a road map. Within this framework, he depicted the land geographically. This laid the foundation for traditional Aboriginal iconography to be placed on canvas. The other artist working with him took his lead and removed any elements of European art from their work. In doing so Clifford, as well as the other artists involved with the Papunya Tula Movement helped to develop the true definition of Aboriginal art, an art revolving around a culture, The Jukurrpa.
In some of his stories Clifford attempts to give a visual impression of sunlight, cloud, shadow and earth to denote specific times of the day. His paintings show superlative skill, incredible inventiveness of form and are visually spectacular.
Clifford's work is contemporary but essentially Aboriginal in inspiration. To appreciate its full richness it is imperative that it is seen not only for its colour, composition and balance but for its mythological detail. One of the extraordinary qualities of Clifford's work and other Western Desert artists is that they are a visual writing and speak to the Aboriginal as books do to Europeans.
When asked why he became an Artist, he answered:
"That Dreaming been all the time. From our early days, before European people came up. That Dreaming carry on. Old people carry on this law, business, schooling for the young people. Grandfather and grandmother, uncle and auntie, mummy and father, all that, they been carry on this, teach 'em all the young boys and girls. They been using the dancing boards, spear, boomerang all painted. And they been using them on body different times.
Kids, I see them all the time, painted. All the young fellas they go hunting and the old people there, they do sand painting. They put down all the story, same like I do on canvas. All the young fella they bring 'em back kangaroo. Same all the ladies, they been get all the bush fruit, might be bush onion, plum, might be honey ants, might be yala, all the kungkas (women) bring them back. Because everybody there all ready waiting. Everybody painted. They been using ochres all the colours from the rock. People use them to paint up. I use paint and canvas that's not from us, from European people. Business time we don't use paints the way I use them, no we use them from rock, teach 'em all the young fellas."
Clifford is one of the most renowned Aboriginal artists of his time. He was the chairman of the Papunya Tula Artists from the 1970's to the 1980's. His work is featured in all state galleries and also in many collections in Australia and overseas. His work has travelled extensively around the world, including, 1975-83 ’Peter Stuyvesant Cultural Foundation‘; 1980 Pacific Asia Museum, Los Angeles, USA; 1981 Art Gallery of New South Wales; 1983 XVII Sao Paolo Biennale, Sao Paolo; ‘Dreamings, The Art of Aboriginal Australia’ in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and St Louis 1988, ’Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri Paintings 1973-1986’, retrospective exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; 1990 ‘l’ete Australien a’ Montpellier’, Montpellier, France; 1990 Rebecca Hossack Gallery, London; 1991 Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, USA; 1993 Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth; ,1993 Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, 1994 National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; 1999 Flinders Art Museum, Flinders University, Adelaide; 1999 ‘Tjinytjilpa’ Embassy of Australia, Washington, USA; 1999 ‘Indigenous Art of the Dreamtime’ held in the main foyer of the United Nations Building New York, USA. Jinta Desert Art Gallery Sydney, Aboriginal Art Galleries of Australia Melbourne and Aboriginal Desert Art Gallery Alice Springs. In 2004 a retrospective exhibition of the artist’s work travelled to all major state galleries. The exhibition marked the first retrospective of a Papunya Tula artist in an Australian public gallery and celebrated one of Australia’s greatest painters.
Clifford was the 1983 recipient of the Alice Springs Art Prize, and in 2002 was awarded the prestigious Order of Australia.
Collections: Artbank Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of South Australia, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Broken Hill Art Gallery, Donald Kahn collection, Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, Flinders University Art Museum, the National Gallery of Australia, Pacific Asia Museum Los Angeles, Parliament House Art Collection Canberra, Queensland Art Gallery, South Australian Museum, The Holmes a Court Collection, The Kelton Foundation Santa Monica U.S.A. 'The Art of Clifford Possum Japaltjarri', by Vivien Johnson, published in 1994 was dedicated to him and his paintings.
Over the past fifteen years I have had the pleasure of commissioning works from many of Australia’s leading Artists. After observing many of them at work, it is my opinion Clifford Possum was a true master who stands out amongst them. His character, charisma, and total dedication to his art and dreamings, as well as his tireless promotion of his, and his families work, has set a high standard in establishing this movement from it's inception to the present day. Dealers and collectors, both here and around the world have held the Desert Masters in high regard, because of the efforts by individuals such as Clifford.
Clifford passed away in Alice Springs at 4:30 pm on the 21st June 2002, after recently being recognized for his contribution to Australian Art and culture, by being made an "Officer of the Order of Australia". His final days where spent at the Hetty Perkins Nursing Home Alice Springs where he passed away surrounded by close family and friends. He will be sadly missed by those who worked with and knew him well, as well as art collectors and lovers around the world.