Lot 114
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  • Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri
  • Bears artist's name and title on Art Gallery of South Australia, Clifford Possum Tjapalatjarri Retrospective Tour label, on the protective foam core backing attached to the reverse of stretcher
  • Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
  • 202 by 337.5 cm


Painted at Papunya in June 1977
Realities Gallery, South Yarra
Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Melbourne
Leonard Joel, Australian and European Paintings, Melbourne, 16 April 1996, lot 109, incorrectly titled Legends of the Western Desert
Ebes collection, Melbourne


Alice Springs Show, 1977
Realities Gallery, Melbourne, 1977
Art in the Age of Globalisation: The World Over / Under Capricorn, City Gallery Wellington, New Zealand, 6 June – 18 August 1996
Warlugulong, Australian Collection Focus Series Number 4, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1 May 1999 to 25 July 1999
Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, retrospective exhibition organised by the Art Gallery of South Australia, toured to the National Gallery of Victoria, the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Queensland Art Gallery, 2003–04



Perkins, H. and V. Johnson, Warlugulong 1976, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australian Collection Focus Series no.4, pp.1-15, illus. p.7, 11

Johnson, V., The Art of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Gordon and Breach Arts International, Sydney, 1994, illus. pp. 56-7

Johnson, V., Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2003, illus. pp. 94-5, 228–9

Curnow, W. and D. Mignot, Art in the Age of Globalisation: The World Over / Under Capricorn, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and City Gallery Wellington, New Zealand, 1996, illus. p.149

Catalogue Note

From October 1976 to July 1979 Clifford Possum produced a series of five large innovative canvases that mapped out his ancestral lands and their Dreamings in such a way as to integrate the sacred diagrams of ceremonial ground paintings and the topographical conventions of European maps. No Papunya Tula painter had attempted this approach before. The series includes Warlugulong, 1976, (with his brother Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri) in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales; Warlugulong, completed in June 1977; Kerrinyarra completed in October 1977; Mt. Denison Country, 1978; and Yuutjutiyungu, completed in July 1979. The latter two are in the Kelton Foundation Collection. According to Vivien Johnson, these paintings ‘are without precedent in Western Desert culture – and in the art movement which (Clifford) helped to etablish’ (Johnson 2003:79).

The art coordinators at Papunya Tula during the creation of these paintings were Dick Kimber and Janet Wilson who were joined by John Kean in mid-1977. Realising the signifance of this series of paintings, the documentation gathered by Kimber and Kean included information of the sites depicted and annotated diagrams of the paintings; the documentation was far more detailed than that accompanying any other painting from Papunya Tula Artists. A scan of the original documentation is reproduced on the reverse of the fold out.

The main subject of this work is the epic ancestral Fire Dreaming, one of the major recurring themes in the Clifford Possum’s œuvre. This Dreaming is of such significance that it is shared by a number of Western Desert peoples other than the artist’s Anmatyerre group. Clifford Possum’s first templates for the large Fire paintings were made on small boards in 1972; Bushfire I and Bushfire II, both in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia. These focus on the painted effect of smoke billowing across the land that the artist used as a device to mask the iconographic elements. The Warlugulong paintings of 1996 and 1997 are altogether much more adventurous affairs

The primary characters in this Dreaming are Lungkata, the ancestral Blue-Tongued Lizard, and his two sons at the Fire Dreaming place Warlugulong about 200 kilometers north-west of Alice Springs. The narrative describes how the brothers speared a kangaroo and instead of sharing it with their father in the customary manner, they greedily consumed it all. Angered by this selfish act, Lungkata created a large bushfire that engulfed his sons.

The topographical organization of this work is complex and multi-layered, bearing in mind it depicts several Dreamings in a plan view of the country. The Fire Dreaming of Lungkata and his two sons is oriented with east at the top of the canvas as we view it, the skeletons of the dead sons are on the right.

The remaining Dreaming tracks depicted in the work are oriented with south at the top edge of the canvas. These include: a group of women from Aileron dancing across the land depicted from the top right to the left in the painting; below their tracks are those of a large group of Emus returning to Napperby; Rock Wallaby (Mala) Men travelling north from Port Augusta (vertical line of wallaby tracks on the left of centre); to the left of these are the tracks of the Chase of the Goanna Men; and the tracks of the Tjangala and Nungurrayi Dingoes travelling to Warrabri along the left side of the painting. The footprints of the Tjungurrayi man who attempted to steal sacred objects run laterally along the bottom of the canvas towards a skeleton in the lower left; a family group travelling to Ngama are represented by their footprints aligned vertically in the right third of the canvas; the tracks of Upambura the Possum Man running along the meandering white and yellow lines provide the main compositional structure of the painting. While these Dreaming tracks cross each other in the painting, they are separate Dreamings.

This magnus opus spectacularly integrates several distinct levels of visual communication: the depiction of several ancestral narratives using the traditional lexicon of desert visual art; the overlay of differing map-like orientations articulated through the subtle symmetry of ancestral travelling routes; and an evocative sense of atmosphere created by the Clifford Possum’s characteristic rendering of sweeping clouds of smoke and ash.

This painting is sold with an accompanying Papunya Tula Artists certificate, catalogue number CP77624, with a detailed diagram and explanatory notes over five pages together with a DVD made in the 1990s, with footage of the artist singing the ceremonial song cycles featured in this painting.


 In my mind’s eye I can see Japaljarri sitting cross-legged on the canvas, about to commence his painting.  I recall being terrified – it seems an exaggerated word now, but was not back then, when one could hardly sell the paintings for love or money – when first I saw an artist sit on a large canvas.  It was like gently stepping on egg-shells!  I feared that it would tear at any moment, but he used knowledge of where the struts were beneath the canvas to help support his weight. 

 Clifford Possum Japaljarri painted as all members of the Papunya Tula Artists Company Pty. Ltd. did from the very start in 1971, and have continued to do ever since.  The canvas was not elevated on an artist’s easel or scaffold, but placed flat on the ground.  Janet Wilson, then joint coordinator with me of the Company, had made up the frame, stretched the canvas, and supplied the paints and brushes that Clifford had requested during past creative work.  Although whatever colours that were available were used from time to time, and in the 1980’s later coordinator Andrew Crocker had introduced blue, Clifford preferred acrylics that approximated to traditional paints.  These were red ochre, yellow ochre, black charcoal and white from powdered limestone, sandstone or similar stone.  As I had observed at rock-shelter art sites and traditional ceremonies, impurities gave variation to the natural colours, and sometimes white was mixed with another primary colours to give it sufficient bulk for the artistic task intended.  On other occasions white was deliberately mixed to make a grey, pink or pale yellow colour that more closely resembled the colour of an animal or plant being depicted.  Sometimes, too, variations were used that were not true to nature, but allowed a variation that distinguished one background soil or plant from another. 

Janet had watched Clifford begin the application of the background priming paint, then left, knowing that he would steadily paint once the priming coat was thoroughly dried.  It normally only took a short time, the time it takes to boil a billy and make a pannikin of tea, for the paint to dry in the warm winter sun of a central Australian mid-year. 

 It was not that they could not paint on a vertical or slightly angled surface, for the traditional paintings in rock-shelters, both on walls and in sometimes difficult locations on ceilings, are clear evidence of this.  Similarly the men’s art within the first men’s Indigenous museum within central Australia at Yuendumu were painted on the interior walls, complementing the ground paintings created within when first it was opened in 1971.  These were mainly Warlpiri paintings, which closely coincided in time with the painting of the large mural on the Papunya school wall that had been suggested by teacher Geoff Bardon, yet whose inspiration otherwise came from the senior Anmatyerre, Luritja, Pintupi and Warlpiri men of the community.  However the adapted modern form of the Papunya men’s traditional paintings, initially in 1971 on pieces of three-ply wood, masonite and sheets of iron as well as art-board, was universally painted with the “canvas” flat on the ground.  The primary influence was almost certainly the daily story-telling in the sand or soft loamy soil, when sketches in stylised and symbol form were – and still are in many situations - made and erased, made and erased, and made and erased yet again with a sweep of the hand.  However the rare and often highly restricted men’s ground-paintings, body paintings, paintings on artefacts, and other art forms also had a complementary influence.  (At that time, in 1977, although women had their own art traditions of similar nature, and often made wooden artefacts for sale, they did not paint for commercial sale.  This was the result of Geoff Bardon’s initial association with the male school yardmen and others, and the plain fact that, because the art so rarely sold, no-one in addition to the foundation group of men could afford to be encouraged). 

It was in 1976 that Janet and I had first been approached about choosing one of the artists to paint his Dreamings and be the key figure in a BBC film.  We had been excited at the prospect, for at that time virtually no-one had seemed interested in the Papunya style of art.  Paintings in the naturalistic style of Albert Namatjira were greatly preferred, with Ernabella style and Top End barks the other forms of art that were far better known and available to tourists in Alice Springs.  However Bob Edwards and the Aboriginal Board of Aboriginal Arts and Crafts in Sydney could perceive a greater potential.  They kept encouraging us, ensured that Janet’s salary, the vehicle running costs, and the costs of the art-boards and paint, amounting in total to some $3,500 for everything, were covered.  (I was jointly employed by the Education Dept of the NT in an arrangement Bob had made, which meant that my pay did not come out of the limited Federal Arts budget).  Indeed, at one stage in the period May 1976-May 1978 we were encouraged to sell the paintings at cost-price of boards and paint just to keep the sales moving, and to thereby promote the art to a wider audience. 

 We had discussed which of the artists should be chosen while we were both in Alice Springs, for we had to make a choice and, since we envisaged the BBC film giving valuable promotion to the art, it had to be someone we believed would paint a work of excellence.  There was not an artist whom we could not have nominated, for at their best all were dazzlingly brilliant.  However, most also had “flat” or slightly “slap-dash” times along with the dazzle.  Janet instantly suggested Clifford Possum, whereas I thought either his brother Tim Leura or the senior Pintupi man Shorty Lungkata Tjungurrayi, were his equals.  However, it took little time for me to agree to Janet’s perception of the constant excellence of Clifford’s art, and a further smaller canvas was provided for one of the Pintupi men – as it transpired, Shorty Lungkata.  Tim Leura agreed to his brother being the best artist.  As he occasionally said, “He can beat me, Jakamarra”, meaning that he acknowledged that his younger brother was a finer artist.  I still think that no-one else ever managed the sense of sunlight and shadow, and smoke haze, as well as did Tim did when everything in his wash effect worked exactly as he planned, and all of the artists painted works that any collector would now die for, but for sheer constant excellence over decades, Clifford was probably the best of all from the broader public’s perspective. 

 In my mind’s eye I see him commence again.  He sits cross-legged, the brush poised, held vertically with the white paint viscous upon it. There is an infinitesimal pause as he focuses all of his being, and then he brings the paint-brush down, and the first of the central set of small white circles is begun.  The sets of concentric circles and sinuous linking trails are the first elements that are painted, the framework, as it were, for the entire painting.  It also allows drying time for key elements, in this instance the central set of white circles, and then the other main lines of tracks and the skeletons.  The central set of concentric circles is later revisited to paint the bright red of the special fire of the Warlugulong dreaming, and the black overlays and white dotting, representing the black charcoal and white ash of the all-consuming bushfire, follow.  Later still all of the background dotting, in different colours to represent the different nature of the soil or rocky terrain at various localities, and the different vegetation that grows upon the different soils, is added to complete the painting. 

 Warlugulong is, in round crow-fly figures, about three hundred kilometres north-west of Alice Springs, not far from Yuendumu community.  The site is a  jumble of low, bare rocky outcrops, which almost seem to glow like coals in the late afternoon light.  Here, as the original notes by John Kean indicate, the key central story starts.  It is where Lungkata, the Blue-Tongue Lizard ancestor, after several hungry days, became aware of his sons’ duplicity.  They had constantly stated that they had not speared or otherwise captured and killed meat-food, but here he had seen the glistening smear of fat on their lips, moustaches and young beards, and realised that they were deceiving him.  Sharing of food in prescribed ways is a basic law of survival, determined by the good ancestors of the Jukurrpa “Dreamtime”.  To maximise sharing is to be a good person, and to deny food to their own father, who had guided them in their knowledge and taught them their hunting skills, meant that the sons had been selfishly greedy. 

 Lungkata pretended to believe them but, when they were asleep, he back-tracked them and discovered where they had made a fire, cooked a kangaroo and gorged themselves.  Though they were his own sons, the Jukurrpa Law decreed that they must be punished.  Lungkata, in his body colours and flickering tongue of today, is associated with fire, so fire was his natural form of punishment.  He returned to the overnight camp and, taking a fire-stick from the camp-fire, huffed on it to cause it to glow red, then touched it to the nearby large bush.  It exploded into flame, whoomping out tongues of fire simultaneously in all directions, showering sparks and ash over the camp-site, and starting a bushfire.  The two sons, instantly awakened from their slumber and alert to their danger, retreated from the flames and heat, and began beating at the fire-front with green branches.  However the fire was inexorable.  No matter how far they retreated in front of it, and even when they tried to avoid it by changing direction so that they could rest, it followed them.  At other times it leapt past them.  They fled to the south, but eventually, exhausted, they fell before it and were consumed. 

 As can be seen in this story, and as is the case with almost all “Dreaming” stories, the main characters take on both animal and human form, and think like humans. 

 I had intermittently watched Clifford paint the fire and all other elements in his similar complex painting of 1976 and was later to see him painting another Warlugulong fire painting .  By leaving Clifford alone to concentrate, and only coming back to inspect it now-and-again, it had been revealed to me like magic.  He had first painted the bright red over the top of the now dried set of concentric white circles, so that they were barely visible as the heart of the fire.  And he had a sure, yet delicate, touch as he brushed outwards with the tongues of flame.  Now-and-again he left the flame as initially painted, but sometimes he added a little more overlay to indicate a large exploding tongue of flame close to the fiercely burning centre.  As in any real fire, the tongues flicked in diminished size beyond the main blaze.  Later, when the red fire had dried, he added the showering white ash. 

 While black smoke and white smoke was envisaged as billowing from the fire, the route of the bushfire represents charcoal and ash, for all trees, shrubs and grasses were totally destroyed, so fierce was the fire.  Interestingly, as with all such Jukurrpa stories, they explain natural features as well as often being moral tales – as this fire story undoubtedly is.  Far to the south there is a large area where the nature of the soil prevents more than low grasses and shrubs growing, yet the land complements the story of the fierce fire of the “Dreaming”.  It is the place which, in translation, means “No Firewood”, for no large trees have ever grown there, confirming the Lungkata Fire Story. 

 I remember once asking Clifford what kind of bush had exploded into flame, and he had pointed to a nearby Witchetty bush.  They are not more readily flammable than some of the other bushes, and nothing can really “beat” resinous spinifex, which almost catches fire if you look at it hard enough.  However, I suspect that its common presence near Warlugulong, and its even spread of branches which means that fire can equally spread in all directions, is the reason that Clifford believed it to be the bush of the Dreaming.  Unfortunately I did not have a good enough understanding of the song-language to know whether the Witchetty bush is mentioned in the song in either Anmatyerre or Warlpiri. 

 Clifford Possum and his brother Tim Leura were the only two men I recall painting complete human skeletons in any paintings.  Their detail is accurate, and in this Warlugulong painting clearly suggests that the sons were burnt to death by the fire.  This was the normal interpretation of skeletal figures. However Tim once painted a story of his home country in which the skeletons were walking about, carrying spears, amirre spear-throwers and boomerangs.  I was intrigued by it, and he explained that he had been thinking of his childhood, when he and Clifford were boys on what had become the Napperby station country, and his father and grandfather were still alive and active hunters.  It was a remarkable painting, simultaneously capturing fond memory and reality. 

 Later, with their father, mother and other kinfolk, they had left Napperby station and worked for Bill Waudby on Mount Wedge station, about two hundred kilometres north-west of the Alice.  It was Bill who, under a returned serviceman’s ballot system for men who had served during World War 11, obtained the lease of the station in 1947 or thereabouts.  And it was Bill who first told me that Clifford was the son of “One Pound Jimmy Jungarrayi”.  Jungarrayi was a handsome man, and his photograph had been used as the image on stamps that I had collected in my youth in 1950.  The stamps were of two values, the most expensive being 2 shillings and sixpence (one eighth of a pound in the old denomination), but Bill thought that he was a more valuable man than that, and also had a gentle sense of humour.  And so it was that “Wallaby Bill” Waudby, in an era when virtually everyone had a nick-name, called him “One Pound Jimmy”.  Bill had become friends with the family, and had had much of the country explained to him by Jimmy, from the homestead west by Karrinyarra (Central Mount Wedge) to the Rain Dreaming at Waturlpunyu Gorge and beyond to the Newhaven station country.  And throughout Jimmy’s travels he had taken his family, so that Clifford and his siblings all knew the sites and Dreamings of the landscape. 

 I digress. 

 It takes patience, time and concentration to paint any work of art.  Clifford normally worked steadily, for hours on end, in silence.  A large painting such as this one always takes several days, for breaks are required.  I can see Clifford now, brushing aside a tear of concentration from his good eye, continuing to paint until his eye and wrist are tired.  A pause might be just for a moment, as he mixes some more paint, or adds some light wood to the nearby fire to boil the billy for a pannikin of tea, but longer still to cook some food. 

In that I did not like to interrupt the artists while they were focussed on their painting, such recalled rest times became the occasions for relaxed conversation, or a discussion of the detail of the paintings.  Sometimes during the discussion Clifford would sing a verse from a song of association, and if his brother Tim or other Anmatyerre men like Kaapa Jampijinpa were painting or resting nearby, they too would join in. 

Clifford was also at ease when his wives or children were at the camp, and could see him painting, though children being children and camp-dogs being camp-dogs, he preferred them not to be in the vicinity.  A playful throw of a toy boomerang had once rendered a large and exquisitely detailed Billy Stockman painting at the artist’s shed at Papunya a ruined, unsaleable painting, and a camp-dog-fight had scattered sand and foot-prints over another painting.  In later years, when the children were older, I had once visited him when he was at his dinner camp in the Todd River-bed in Alice Springs, he painting on an art-board supplied by his good friend, Mrs Iris Harvey, the legendary owner of the Arunta Book-shop and Art Gallery.  Opposite sat his son, painting on the clean white foam back of a sausage container, using a water-colour set also kindly given by Mrs Harvey.  Clifford delighted in teaching his son how to paint, yet allowed him to freely express himself through his own choice of design and colours.  They were two mates, father and son, enjoying one another’s company. 

 The central positioning of Warlugulong was, as Clifford explained, because he had overheard white people talking about paintings, and understood that they liked a central reference point and sense of balance, something inherent in Anmatyerre paintings in any case.  (The Pintupi paintings often had a striking individuality about them by being off-centred.  They were much more secretive about their paintings than the Anmatyerre, normally painting in a distinctive men’s camp on the western outskirts of Papunya, in the direction of their distant own country and well separated from the women and children.  They far more often sang the songs of their “Dreaming” sites, covered unfinished paintings with large sheets of iron or swag canvas, and were thus more revelationary about finished works than any other artists in the community).  While this meant that Warlugulong was placed in a geographically incorrect position, the rest of the Dreaming tracks very closely approximated to their actual presence on the ground.  Indeed, a mature-age PhD student interestingly discovered that Clifford’s paintings were very close to accurate maps in a directional sense, and that among their key points of reference were geographical “power points” of the landscape from an Anmatyerre perspective.  This does not mean that anyone could follow them to the key sites unless he or she already knew the map coordinates or had previously visited the sites.  And as is often misunderstood, it also does not mean that, even if site specific, all paintings are equivalent to maps.  One could readily become lost by attempting to follow a supposed painting “map”, especially without a sense of scale! 

 Ngama, a large and secret-sacred men’s rock-shelter near Yuendumu, is also a key reference site in the painting.  It seems that Clifford used it as a general reference to assist John Kean in his recording, for while the majority of references are correct, the Emu Dreaming travels and sacred men’s site, Rdukarri, which I was privileged to visit with wonderful old Darby Jampijinpa and other correct men of association, are a fair day’s walk away from Ngama, and Wawulwalpa (“Walwalpa”) which I visited with Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula and other correct men of that site, is a long way west.  It is well beyond the traditional country of Clifford’s, his parents and his grandparents’ country, so presumably he had learnt about it from custodial Mayatjarra (eastern Pintupi) men like Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula and David Corby Tjapaltjarri, both of whom were significant artists at Papunya in the 1970’s.  This accruement of understandings is an important aspect of Indigenous culture, with reciprocal understandings through invited visits to sites , singing of songs, performance of dances of association, and – almost universally now -, also the sharing of information through discussion of paintings. 

 Clifford almost certainly had both the Yarripiri Snake ancestor and a particular family of association with the Winparrku mountain (Blanche Tower) in mind when he painted the family group travelling north to Ngama from the mount.  Old Mick Jakamarra, a senior artist at Papunya with custodial rights to Winparrku and Yarripiri’s travels, was probably the son in mind. 

 There are several minor flaws in the original notes – for instance “Yulamu (Mt Helen)” is Yuelamu (Mount Alan) – and I am puzzled by the references to the Hare Wallabies (Mala) as maliera (a phonetic spelling of a word which means “travelling big boys”) from Port Augusta.  I have had the good fortune to have visited numbers of the key Hare Wallaby sites of the Mayatjarra, Warlpiri and adjoining country, and know that Clifford had custodian’s rights to the story of a solitary Hare Wallaby ancestor who travelled east from the main travelling group to his Napperby home-country.  The maliera, more correctly in their initial Arrernte spelling urumbulla, from Port Augusta, became atyelpe native cats in central Australia, not Hare Wallabies.  Although I made the original maliera/urumbulla references upon which John Kean based this particular section of his notes, I remain, as I earlier said, puzzled.  It would require further research to determine more accurately the Hare Wallabies’ route that Clifford was referring to in this painting.  Similarly it would require more research to accurately determine the route of the Dingo, for although I have been fortunate to travel parts of two Dingo dreaming routes, and know of the Dingo Dreaming site at Ali Curung (formerly “Warrabri”), I do not know of any place called “Dingo Downs station” 

 This, though, is quite normal for “outsiders” with limited understanding of the languages in country only partially known. 

To simply stand and admire the painting from a distance, then to study the details and stand back again, gives pleasure to anyone. 

 I think of Clifford Possum Japaljarri and his country again. 

Out on the Napperby Creek there is an ancient tree with many hollows.  Even though now dead it is a special tree of the Dreaming.  On a quiet moonlit night, if one listens carefully enough, one can hear the “Dreaming” animals of the “Dreaming” tree come out of the hollows.  They play, and in my mind’s eye they chew the leaves and blossoms that once hung thickly on the branches.  All about are tall living red-gum trees, the living sons and daughters of the ancient tree.  The animals scurry down to the ground, walk on all four paws with a rolling motion in search of food variety, and the “old growler” possums fight the young ones.  As the dawn approaches they return to their hollows in the ancient red-gum.  It is Clifford’s tree.  Clifford Possum’s tree.  Japaljarri’s tree of the Possum Dreaming.

Sotheby's wishes to thank R.G. (Dick) Kimber for this catalogue essay.