Old Walter Tjampitjinpa c.1912 - 1981
Walter Tjampitjinpa was one of the first of the Pintupi people to be re-settled at Papunya. He was already a pensioner and respected elder statesman in the community by the time Geoff Bardon first visited in 1971. Bardon developed a deep affection for this reputedly tall and silent man who was always kind and helpful despite speaking little English. Once it became possible to earn extra income from art sales, Old Walter’s strong design sense enabled him to develop a style based on iconographic symbols thereby sidestepping controversial sacred material while still conveying the sense of a deeply felt connection to country.
Old Walter was a senior custodian of Water Dreamings that run through Kalipinypa in the western desert and most of his paintings were connected with water and the celebration of its life giving force. He was particularly knowledgeable in regard to local Dreaming sites and he was amongst those who fellow artist Long Jack Philipus consulted for permission to use the traditional Honey Ant designs in the Papunya school mural; a mural that became such a potent landmark for the fledging western desert painting movement.
Old Walter’s restricted palette of traditional ochre colours gave a cohesive regularity to his compositions. He was amongst the first to use the ‘U’ sign for humans, concentric circles for rockholes and wavy lines for water flow, in endless variations and renditions of story. It was these archetypal symbols that first became clear to Bardon as a cultural iconography.
The work illustrated above was created on composition board in 1973 and bears the early Papunya Tula code number OW730810. The inscription reads ‘Men camped with their spears at Tjikari. Tjikari is an important dreaming place some 3 days walk NW from Sandy Blight’. A diagrammatic illustration verso indicates the image represents campsites with men and their spears.
Interestingly he was the first to indicate to Bardon that the word ‘finished’ was an imposed concept when applied to a work of art. The word is used by Aboriginal people to speak of something ending or even death, where as these Dreaming stories and their related features in the landscape, were for him and his countrymen, eternal.
Old Walter’s paintings are at the most affordable end of the range of works created by the founding members of Bardon’s painting group. Because of his failing eyesight and age he was unable to paint for many years, and he passed away in 1980, before many of these artists entered the second phase of their artistic development. As a result, the supply of his works are very limited. So far only 51 of his paintings have come up for auction of which 77% have sold at an average price of $12,753.
Works created during 1971 and 1972 occupy every one of his highest ten results, with his six highest prices all being achieved by Sotheby’s between 1998 and 2001. His record was set in July 2001 when Rainbow and Water Story 1972, a 61 x 52 cm board, sold for $58,750. The highest price achieved for a work created in 1973 was the $13,200 paid for Women Collecting Kampurarpa, a work measuring 43.5 x 23 cm, which appeared at Sotheby's in July 2004.
Old Walter did not live long enough to see the desert painting movement become the dominant force in Australian Aboriginal painting, nor indeed to develop his career beyond a small number of intimately painted and spiritually charged boards. Due to their rarity I consider these to be currently undervalued in the market. With his record price still below $60,000, and only 4 works having exceeded $25,000 in value, anything by this artist would currently appear to represent incredible value. Canny collectors should take note.
Old Walter was a seminal figure amongst those who helped set in motion the western desert movement, with its classic desert iconography. His paintings appear in Australia’s state and national galleries, and make an important contribution to our understanding of the building blocks upon which the industry that developed around the Aboriginal art movement was constructed.