WHITE COCKATOO” by Louise Whiskey Billy Tjaptjarri, daughter of
Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri – and the ancestral White Cockatoo story
Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri, the great Pitjantjatjara artist, passed away in Alice Springs on 19th August 2008.
Bill Whiskey (Mininderi in Pitjantjatjara) was born in about 1920 in a place he called the ‘white cocky country’ situated a couple of kilometres south of the Pirrulpakalarintja outstation, at a place called Pirupa Alka, about 130kms south of the Kata Tjuta (The Olgas). His father, Mirowandi, had three wives, and Bill was his first born, from his father’s first wife, Tudana, and his father subsequently had another four children, three daughters Naldora, Tdor and-Tdorma another son, Nunga.
When Bill Whiskey was a small child the family moved to Uluru in search of food and water and here they had their fIrst contact with white people and white man’s food. The contact ended in conflict and the family moved back to their traditional tribal lands where they continued to live a nomadic existence as hunters. It was following the death of his father that Bill Whiskey, then aged in his late teens, walked to Haasts Bluff. It was here that he met his wife Colleen Nampitjinpa, a Luritja woman from Tjukula, with whom he had fIve children – three sons Herman, Paul and Shawn and two daughters Kathleen and Louise.
He spent some time at what is now known as the Areyonga Community, but after working there for some time clearing the land and constructing buildings for the settlement and receiving rations of flour and canned meat, he returned to Haasts Bluff. Agile and of small stature, he had a broad flowing beard for which he gained white man’s nickname Bill Whiskery, which promptly became abbreviated to Bill Whiskey, giving this teetotaller and non-smoking Pitjantjatjara man a certain bohemian flavour. He used to describe himself – “I’m Mininderi – Tjapaltjarri, the painter Bill Whiskey”.
Within his own community, both he and his wife were called “ngangkari” or traditional healers, whom people would come to visit from miles around. After many decades at Haasts Bluff, Bill Whiskey and his family moved to an outstation near Amunturrngu (Mt Liebig).
While he had painted for many years elaborate dot deigns on small nulla-nullas and spears, it was only in 2004 when within the privately run arts centre of Watiyawanu Artists of the Amunturrngu Aboriginal Corporation he started to paint with acrylic paints on canvas. Almost overnight he became recognised as one of Australia’s most significant contemporary artists who between 2004 and his death in 2008 created an outstanding and distinctive oeuvre.
Bill Whiskey’s art deals almost exclusively with the ancestral white cockatoo story from his birthplace of Pirupa Alka. The story focuses on three birds – the white cockatoo and his friend the eagle and their adversary, the crow. When Bill Whiskey revisited his home country in 2007 he could proudly point out the white rock of the cockatoo, the eagle nest cone, Katamala Cone, which overlooks protectively this white glowing stone and the rock pools formed in the battle of the ancestral birds.
There is a great subtlety and chromatic brilliance in Bill Whiskey’s art, where on a red ochre background with a complete confidence of touch he maps out the compositional elements of his design. Then in a painstaking manner, almost frenetically, he introduces a great multitude of white and colour dots.
Although the “white cocky” narrative may be described as an ancient dreaming specific to the Pitjantjatjara people of the Kata Tjuta region where Bill Whiskey’s people came from, it was not one which his father had painted, nor for that matter any other person, but it is a narrative for which he devised a specific iconography which he could create within the general conventions of so-called Western Desert dot painting.
Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri was a brilliant artist and a great innovator whose significance is as yet to be fully appreciated. His death is a tragic loss for Australian art.