Dreamtime artist dies penniless in Outback camp

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His paintings provoked frenzied bidding in auction houses in London, Melbourne and New York, but Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, one of Australia's most celebrated Aboriginal artists, did not received a cent of the proceeds. When he died on Monday in a desert camp in central Australia, he was virtually destitute.

His paintings provoked frenzied bidding in auction houses in London, Melbourne and New York, but Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, one of Australia's most celebrated Aboriginal artists, did not received a cent of the proceeds. When he died on Monday in a desert camp in central Australia, he was virtually destitute.

Tjupurrula, whose death at the age of about 75 wasannounced yesterday, was a pioneer of the famed "dot-painting" technique that placed Aboriginal art on the international map.

He was one of a group of elders in the remote Western Desert settlement of Papunya, 160 miles west of Alice Springs, whose talents were unleashed after an idealistic white schoolteacher, Geoffrey Bardon, introduced them to brushes and acrylic paints in 1971. The men, who used traditional imagery to set down their "Dreamtime" ancestral stories, formed what is now known as the Papunya Tula school. Their works, often on scraps of old board, were the catalyst for a spectacular renaissance of indigenous painting.

Mr Bardon was among those who mourned Tjupurrula yesterday, extolling the "vibrancy and vigour" of his paintings. "His work rivals the very best of contemporary Australian artists," he said.

Hetti Perkins, the curator of Aboriginal art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, said: "He created a wonderful illusory depth of light and shadow. He was one of the great artists of the [Papunya] movement. It is a great loss for Australian art."

But despite the acclaim for Tjupurrula's fantastically intricate works, they did not bring him good fortune. In 1997, one of his early paintings on board - Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa - was sold for 206,000 Australian dollars (about £75,000) at Sotheby's in Melbourne, setting a world auction record for an Aboriginal artwork.

Amid the ensuing fanfare, Tjupurrula - who parted with Water Dreaming for about A$150 in the early 1970s - was discovered to be living in abject poverty, sleeping in a dry creek near Alice Springs. He was partly blind because of cataracts, had only two fingers on his left hand and was living on hand-outs and welfare.

One gallery owner in Alice said that he gave him A$5 (about £2) every day so that he could buy himself breakfast.

Acting on Tjupurrula's behalf, the Central Aboriginal Legal Aid Service and the National Indigenous Aboriginal Arts Association asked the family of the collector who bought the painting to give him 4 per cent of the resale price.

Unlike in European countries such as France, Australian artists are not legally entitled to claim a percentage when their works are resold. This is particularly hard on indigenous artists, many of whom sold their works for next to nothing only to see prices skyrocket when Aboriginal art came into international vogue a decade ago.

Tjupurrula's request was rejected, but he was inspired to begin painting again by the media's interest, and he held several successful exhibitions before retiring to a nursing home in Alice Springs.

In June last year, Water Dreaming changed hands again, fetching A$486,500 (nearly £200,000) at Sotheby's. Once again it set a record for the Aboriginal art market; once again Tjupurrula received nothing.

Other prominent Aboriginal artists have died penniless or are living in impoverished conditions, exploited by unscrupulous dealers who paid them only a fraction of the value of their paintings and by large extended families who flocked to live off them once they became successful.

Tjupurrula's work, like that of many of his fellow Papunya artists, was born of despair and dislocation.

He was one of 1,400 nomadic Aborigines displaced from their traditional tribal lands in the late 1950s and rehoused in Papunya under a government policy of assimilation.

When the elders began painting in the 1970s, it was a bleak and desperate spot. Now it is hailed as the birthplace of contemporary indigenous art, but it is still characterised by grinding social problems such as petrol sniffing and alcoholism. Papunya was where Tjupurrula died, nursed by one of his daughters, Ngali.

The artist, who is survived by his wife, Gladys Napanangka, and 10 children, had stopped painting before his death because of his failing eyesight.

But he leaves a lasting legacy. As one Australian critic wrote yesterday: "He was a magnificent Aboriginal painter whose depth of cultural knowledge blossomed from his every dot and brush stroke."

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