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Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri
, 2002

by Tim Johnson

oil and polymer vinyl paint on canvas (support: 152.5 cm x 114.8 cm)

Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri AO (1932–2002) was one of the founders of the contemporary Aboriginal art movement that emerged at the Papunya settlement in Central Australia in the early 1970s. Born on Napperby Station near Alice Springs, he gained a reputation as a woodcarver while working as a stockman, developing an extensive knowledge of the Dreaming trails and sites that crisscross the McDonnell Ranges. From 1976 he expressed his experience in a series of large ‘map paintings’ portraying these trails as deeds of title to his ancestral land. At this time, he became chairman of the Papunya Tula artists. Following a large retrospective of his work at London’s Institute for Contemporary Arts in 1988, he held a solo exhibition at the Rebecca Hossack Gallery in London in 1990. In the last years of his life, during which he divided his time between Alice Springs, Sydney, the US and Europe, Tjapaltjarri was widely acknowledged as one of Australia’s great painters.

Tim Johnson (b. 1947) is a Sydney based painter, sculptor, teacher and filmmaker. In the 1960s and 1970s he built his reputation on conceptual works, performance happenings, pictures and films of bands, and films on conceptual art. He first visited the Papunya Tula settlement in the late 1970s, documenting, collecting and promoting its art, which was then still little known. Watching the artists at work brought him back to painting; he painted the painters painting, as he had painted cult band Radio Birdman performing. Soon he started using dots in his own work. In the 1986 Biennale of Sydney an allusionlaced dotted painting by Johnson hung alongside the work of Papunya Tula artist Michael Jagamara Nelson, who along with Clifford Possum was one of Johnson’s major collaborators in the 1980s. Scholar Vivien Johnson, who has written extensively on both Clifford Possum and Tim Johnson, points out that although he was initially suspected of appropriation of Indigenous culture, Johnson kept dotting long after the Aboriginal artists with whom he had worked stopped. ‘After twenty years he has become something of a virtuoso, with his own individual style’, she writes. ‘His imagery ranges from Tibetan Buddhism to extra-terrestrials, but the lyrically beautiful dotted fields in which it is set testify to Johnson’s enduring love affair with Papunya painting’. Many miniature symbols and scenes relating to the life of Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri are integral to the portrait Johnson made of him.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Commissioned with funds from the Basil Bressler Bequest 2002
Accession number: 2002.72