Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri
Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri was the first recognized star of the Western Desert art movement. He is one of Australia’s most distinguished and best-selling painters of the late twentieth century.
He developed his own unique style that included secular non-traditional motifs and became one aboriginal Australia’s greatest artists. His later life was blemished when he signed other artists works and by fakes.
In the peak of his career, he painted huge canvasses that are masterpieces and hang in museums around the world.
The aim of this article is to assist readers in identifying if their Aboriginal painting is by Clifford Possum TjapaltjarriIt compares examples of his work.
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Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri Early Life
Clifford’s father Tjatjiti Tjungurrayai, passed away during Clifford’s youth in the 1940’s. His mother, Long Rose Nangala, remarried and settled at Jay Creek with her second husband, One Pound Jim Tjungurrayai.
One Pound Jim was a guide to early travelers and anthropologists and a minor celebrity. He was the face of the aboriginal desert after people after his portrait was featured on a stamp.
During his early days, Clifford Possum worked as a stockman at Glen Helen, Mount Allan, Mount Wedge, and Napperby Station. At Napperby Station Clifford was initiated into aboriginal culture. At Nappeby station he would have worked with Billy Stockman and Kaapa.
Clifford possum started his artistic career at Glen Elen station as a carver. He and his ‘brother’ Tim Leura soon realized that they could make more through carving snakes and lizards than they could as stockmen.
It was during this period that Clifford married Emily Nakamarra. Emily became the mother of his four children, Daniel, Lionel, Gabriella, and Michelle.
In 1971 Geoff Bardon became a local school teacher at Papunya primary. He tried to encourage local children to paint in their own traditional style. When he was told only older men could paint these stories he decided to start a local men’s painting group.
Clifford Possum did not join this group until early 1972 but quickly developed a unique style. His early style is characterized by his innovative use of spatial configuration beyond the more conventional Papunya idiom of dots, circles, and lines.
Clifford had already made money from art during his carving days. He was aware that the market was not just after recordings of traditional stories his art needed to be aesthetically pleasing.
He was also aware of the cultural divide and introduced Western iconography and figurative imagery to convey certain elements in his narratives.
In 1974 aboriginals elders in Alice Springs and in Perth became upset because they felt to much secret and sacred knowledge being shared in paintings
This forced aboriginal artists to change their styles. They had to veil secret information in dots. They were forced to paint less important and more secular dreamings. While these hurt artists like Kaapa and Anatjari it suited Clifford Possum’s style very well.
Clifford Possum invented and employed his own secular non-traditional motifs. These nontraditional motifs were more intelligible to western audiences. It allowed him to create imaginative visually interesting compositions without breaking tribal lore.
In the early years, artists had been painting on small pieces of board. By the mid-1970’s they were painting on canvas with better paints. Clifford painted prolifically during this period.
Between 1976 and 1979 Clifford Possum painted 5 massive canvasses to map his ancestral lands and their dreamings. He did it in a way that integrated the sacred diagrams of ceremonial ground paintings and the topographical conventions of European maps.
Warlugulong a sacred site wherein ancestral times, Lungkata the Blue-Tongue Lizard Man created the first great bushfire.
The main significance of this Dreaming or Tjukurrpa lies in the fact that it connects a number of language groups across the western deserts
The main subject of the painting is Lungkata’s punishment of his two sons who did not share their catch of kangaroo with their father. The skeletons of the two boys are depicted in the atmospheric effect of charred earth, smoke, and ash on the right.
The painting also connects with other dreamings. These Dreamings include a group of women from Aileron dancing across the land, represented by their footprints in the top right running laterally across the canvas. Below these are the tracks of a large group of Emus returning to Napperby. The footprints of the Mala or Rock Wallaby Men, traveling north can be seen in the vertical line of wallaby tracks to the left of center. Further to the left are the tracks left by the legendary Chase of the Goanna Men. The footprints of a Tjungurrayi man who attempted to steal sacred objects run laterally along the lower edge towards a skeleton in the lower left, indicating the man’s fate.
In the mid-1980’s Clifford returned to his Anmatjerre homeland at Mount Allan. He began selling his works directly to the government marketing company, Aboriginal Arts Australia, in Alice Springs.
Unfortunately, at this time he also signed and passed off many other works that had been produced by other artists as his own.
In the late 1980’s he produced a large body of works for John O’Laughlan who acted as his agent and traveled with him to an exhibition in London. While in London Clifford had an audience with the Queen which he described as a highlight of his career.
By the 1990’s Clifford was addicted to alcohol and gambling. He was producing a large number of perfunctory minor works. He was also regularly signing paintings that he ‘owned’ but did not actually paint.
Clifford’s career and standing reached its low point when a solo exhibition in the late 1990’s was exposed as being almost entirely composed of fakes.
When Clifford came down to view the exhibition he visited the Art Gallery of NSW and other institutions. He pointed out countless works which he denied having painted.
Although physically unwell and with failing eyesight Clifford Possum lived throughout his final years in a loving relationship with Milanka Sullivan at Warrandyte in the hills outside of Melbourne.
He died in 2002 and was honored posthumously by a solo retrospective by the Art Gallery of South Australia.
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Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri Images
The following images are not the complete known work by this artist but give a good idea of his style and range.