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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 Hermannsburg.
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 and tobacco.
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 concentration.
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, but intuitively.
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.