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Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri

May 14, 2016

Made by indigenous people of Australia, Aboriginal art and its intricate links with the Australian landscape have become a growing fascination to the national and international audiences in the past several decades. The first Aboriginal artist who gained wide recognition was Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri best known for his outstanding manipulation of three-dimensional space. His artwork - entitled Warlugulong and the result of a collaboration with his brother Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri - became the most expensive Aboriginal canvas ever sold at auction for the amazing price of $2.4 million, more than twice as much as the previous record-holder.

Early Years

Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri was born c. 1932 to Tjatjiti Tjungurrayai and Long Rose Nangala in Tjuirri, an area north-west of Alice Springs also known as Napperby Station. After the death of his father, his mother married Gwoya Jungarai who was the first named Aboriginal person to appear on an Australian stamp and was known as 'One Pound Jimmy'. At the age of twelve, Tjapaltjarri began his working career as a stockman on various cattle stations across Central Australia and later was employed in the construction of the Papunya settlement. Simultaneously, he acquired his imposing linguistic repertoire of six Western Desert languages and began his career as an artist, establishing a reputation as one of the most skillful woodcarvers in the area. It is for his paintings, however, that the artist is most recognized.

Beside painting, Tjapaltjarri was a highly skillful woodcarver

Papunya Tula Artists and Dot Paintings

Tjapaltjarri’s first opportunity to paint came in the 1970s when the son of another great Aboriginal painter, Albert Namatjira, gave him acrylics paints and the master began his work. Clifford, living at the Papunya Community in the Northern Territory was one of the first artists to be involved with the Aboriginal Art Movement. After a while, he abandoned the watercolourist techniques that defined Namatjira's practice and began depicting the traditional, 'dreaming' stories of the Western Desert people. In the early 1970s, he was one of the leading members of Papunya Tula Artists group known for its innovative work with the Western Desert Art Movement popularly referred to as 'dot painting', which is today recognized globally as unique and integral to Australian Aboriginal art. Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri used the dot technique to give his painting an almost 3D effect and a sense of movement and rhythm. His oeuvre often depicted the stories he learnt of his country through his travels and participation in ceremonial cycles.

Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri used the dot technique to give his painting a sense of movement and rhythm

The Ambassador for Aboriginal Art

In 1988, Tjapaltjarri’s works were exhibited in a solo show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. It was the turning point of his career, as he became the first Indigenous artist to be given a solo exhibition in a European art gallery. Additionally, his work has been included in numerous individual and collective shows in galleries throughout Australia and beyond including France, the USA, and Brazil. He would become the most widely travelled Aboriginal artist of his generation and an ambassador for Aboriginal art throughout the globe. The most important figure in the development and promotion of Aboriginal art, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri died in June 2002 at his home in Alice Springs on the day he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia. He is a highly collectable artist, and his paintings are included in such notable collections as National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Pacific Asia Museum, Los Angeles; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; and Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

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