We are very pleased to offer via Private Treaty sale this exceptional and rare painting by Pungkai Bertani (1958 - 2017).
The Wanampi Tjukurpa was one of Pungkai’s main tjukurpa (Dreaming) themes, given to him by Keith Stevens and his mother, Eileen Yaritja Stevens (d.2008). This is a summary of the story as told to me by Pungkai, which he said was a love story:
The two Wanampi brothers (water serpents) are in human form and have taken two mortal women as their wives. Every day the women go out to find food while the men stay at camp, singing and dancing. One day the women are angry because they are sick of always doing the work for their husbands, so they decide to eat the food out bush and let the men starve. Meanwhile the men are getting hungrier and hungrier, but their wives don’t return.
When the men realise what their wives have done, they decide to teach them a lesson by creating lots of useless work. They turn themselves into the Wanampi and leave snake tracks in the sand. The women get excited, thinking it’s a big fat carpet python. The women dig and dig over days trying to catch the snake, but it’s really the men in snake form.
Pungkai explained to me that the Wanampi would create little snakes that the women could catch and eat in order to sustain them during their exhausting labours. The women want that big fat snake so keep digging deeper and deeper, all over the country. The men sometimes let the women grab their tails but at the last moment, pull away and go deeper into the earth. Finally, one of the women spears a Wanampi with her digging stick. The other brother gets really angry but because he loves the women, he doesn’t kill them; he instead swallows them whole.
Pungkai said that today the bodies of the women can be seen in the dead bloodwood tree that stands on the hill overlooking the Piltati waterhole (a permanent water source) which can be seen to the top left of the painting. Elders and any visitors they take with them have to stop at one of the smaller waterholes leading up to Piltati, light a fire and request permission from the Wanampi to approach. They are given a sign by the bloodwood tree that it’s safe to approach, or not. The Wanampi are very powerful and deadly dangerous if disobeyed. The arches that lead from each rondel, making a ‘yin and yang’shape, are the mountains that form the valley leading to Piltati. Pungkai explained that you enter the valley from the south (the bottom of the painting) and head north to Piltati. The land formations and string of waterholes there were created by the women’s digging. The rondels and the arches are the heads and bodies of the Wanampi.
Piltati is a very sacred men’s site just to the east of Nyapari, which is home to Tjungu Palya art centre. Keith Stevens, Eileen Stevens’ son, is the main custodian of this story on the Nyapari side of the Country. Tiger Palpatja was senior custodian on the Amata (Tjala Arts) side. Pungkai was adopted by Eileen and taken through the Pitjantjatjara law by Keith. Pungkai was Nyoongar (WA) by birth. His connection to this story and place is through the Stevens and it was a place that was very special to him.
Karen Zadra, 2022
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Born 1958, Boddington, W.A.
Died 2017, Ceduna, S.A.
Pungkai was born Peter Bertani to an Italian immigrant father (deceased) and a Nyoongar mother. In 1980 he moved to Nyapari, a tiny community at the base of the Mann Ranges on the South Australian-Northern Territory border; Nyapari is home to the Stevens family and the Aboriginal-owned art centre, Tjungu Palya. In the early 1980s there were no buildings or services, nor an art centre, just ‘wiltja’ (traditional shelters made of branches).
During his early days in Nyapari, Pungkai was adopted by the late Eileen Stevens, matriarch of Nyapari and master painter. She gave him the name Pungkai, which is associated with the sacred water hole Piltati, just east of Nyapari. Through Stevens, he was initiated into Pitjantatjara culture; she became his adoptive mother and her son, Keith Stevens, is now his brother.
Pungkai’s paintings reflect his Nyoongar and Pitjantjara cultures, with his main themes being My Nyoongar Beginnings, Piltati, Tali Tjuta, and Wind. From 2013 until his death he began to experiment with new, bold style to express his political and environmental manifestos.
Pungkai began his painting career at Tjungu Palya and was represented exclusively by Marshall Arts/Galerie Zadra from 2008 until his death. He relocated to Ceduna Aboriginal Arts and Cultural Centre in 2008 shortly after the death of Eileen Stevens; he left the Ceduna art centre in 2014 to work as an independent artist but retained ties with the art centre.
Public & corporate collections
Art Gallery of South Australia
Edith Cowan University, Perth
Adelaide Airport Limited
Lipman Karas, Adelaide, Hong Kong, London