It is with great regret that the Aboriginal Art Directory reports the death of one of the great men of the APY Lands “ Hector Tjupuru Burton: Red Ochre laureate, artist, traditional elder, Christian pastor and polemicist. It has to be recalled that Pitjanjatjara men were resistant to the Papunya painting movement from the beginning “ forcing the development of dotting and other disguises to cover the revelation of stories which they shared with their neighbours in the deserts, and suing the anthropologist Charles Mountford for the revelations in his book, ‘Nomads of the Australian Desert‘, resulting in its banning. Burton accepted the changing times, though and began his painting career in 2002 with works showing his interpretation of the Anumara Tjukurpa, the Caterpillar Law, in which peoples from the North and the South come together, the women dancing in the fire, then giving each man a ceremonial stick. Later, however he became concerned about both loss of the law through art and loss of male dominance in his APY world. This lead to a group of elders attempting to stop a major exhibition at the SA Museum tracing the Ngintaka (Perentie) Songline through the Lands “ fortunately a failure, not mentioned in this excellent tribute by his long-time art adviser at Tjala Arts, Skye O’Meara, published in The Australian:
Hector Burton once told me that when the important men pass away, the wind becomes strong and the trees will twist and break in pain. He said that country grieves first. Last year, a raging storm marked the passing of APY leader Gordon Inkatji, with hail falling like a blanket of snow across the desert. In recent months the APY Lands were again faced with some of the most Âviolent storms witnessed in more than 10 years. No one can remember another time when there was so much rain. Senior women whispered that his spirit might be Âleaving. Burton was right. Desert country mourned as he left.
Burton spent his young life in the bush during the walk around days, walking with his parents between Warburton and Pukatja. As a boy, he came into Ernabella Mission during the famines where he learned to read and write in his first language, Pitjantjatjara. As a young man, he worked alongside his brothers and cousins fencing, shearing and labouring on the mission. Burton was particularly proud of building the Ernabella church, and his work for the church would become one of his two life passions (painting would come later). To the many visitors who probed him with questions suggesting that his dedicated role within the church somehow diluted his commitment to culture, Burton would smile and answer: It’s the same thing.
The church introduced him to his lifelong friend Paul Eckhart, who worked together with Anangu to translate the Bible into ÂPitjatjantjara. Sharing a voracious appetite for knowledge, they became lifelong friends and shared a dog, Goldie on the Lands for years. In his senior years Burton’s dogs preceded him at every community event, announcing his presence. There were sometimes as many as 20 clearing a path. He was a desert celebrity. Visiting Âpoliticians, museum directors, art curators or football stars ” all were moved by Burton’s gravitas.
He began painting in 2002, a brave decision given this new practice was still regarded with suspicion by many Anangu men at the time. Burton’s encouragement drew in many other regional stars to the APY studios. His style was unique and his work potent from the start, the cultural punch Âpalpable in every piece. This was Anangu Tjukurpa, Anangu law. During this period Burton became as interested in the business of art centres as he was in the craft.
Passionate about the potential power of the Aboriginal-owned model, Burton became known for motivating the directors and staff at his own art centre, Tjala Arts, as well as those across the region. In an industry fraught with glamorous distractions and politics, ÂBurton encouraged all involved to focus on home. He was convincing, and his vision contagious ” Amata community and the APY Lands would become the whole world for many of us who worked with The Boss. Burton moved his studio into the Tjala Arts office where he would paint, and stay on to discuss business matters. He was an Âadvocate for art centres and best-practice industry ethics, often sending carpetbaggers packing to Alice Springs.
Burton worked alongside other Tjala Arts stars including Ray Ken, Mick Wikilyiri and Barney Wangin. Together, as they grew in confidence, they began to push and pull at the art centre model, testing what Arts was capable of.
In 2011, Burton made another brave decision in curating his first exhibition: Ngayulu Witini Ngayuku Mamaku Tjukurpa , Ngayulu Witiniti Untjuku Tjukurpa. (I Hold my Fathers Story I Hold my Mother’s Story). Like many moments of beauty, it was born out of tragedy.
The death of 22-year-old Kunmanara Raymond, a popular football star in the community, left the young men in Amata reeling. Elders became nervous as the outpouring of grief quickly became the catalyst for conflict. Burton brought the young men from the camp together in the art centre. His vision was to create an exhibition to celebrate the life of Kunmanara Raymond. Collaborative works from each family of Amata community would pay tribute to the much-loved young man, and also serve to deal with the practical matter of the need for new football uniforms, as per cultural protocol.
Burton’s second show was also groundbreaking. Punu Nguru (From the Trees) was a response to what senior artists saw as cultural intrusion. At his encouragement, artists took a break from painting their Tjukurpa, which was increasingly becoming the subject of prodding by anthropologists and well-intended art lovers. Everyone painted trees. I was one of several intrigued staff members who watched in awe as the studio became a rainforest. Burton laughed, promising to fill us in later. The exhibition marked a striking development in the realm of desert art.
Importantly, both shows were testament to his faith in the younger generations. Powerful catalogue statements described his position: Our culture will grow stronger still. Burton asserted that the young fellas are the main ones, they are young tree Âbranches with green leaves. We teach our young fellas through the family tree to understand and be at home with their dreamings and their lands.
Burton was an innovator, evidenced by the now renowned Kulata Tjuta (Many Spears) project, which not only served to engage the next generation in the important cultural tradition of woodcrafts and weaponry, but would also become an exciting new medium for storytelling. His focus and commitment to the younger generation only grew in his final years.
And the sense of urgency with which he worked was unwavering. His book Nganampa Kampatjangka Unngu: Beneath the Canvas brought many of his industry friends together on a final Âproject. He constantly reminded us of our deadline: any time before his death. He did this with the Âendearing humour for which he was well known. And we laughed politely, increasingly desperate and anxious to meet his request.
Burton received industry accolades, including the Red Ochre Award by his peers at the Australia Council, and will be remembered by his many paintings hung in institutions and museums across Australia and abroad. His final works, ink on paper, remained the essence of what he had been painting for years yet were even more compelling in this pared back linear form.
While his spirit will live on in the projects he instigated, it will mostly live on in the young men and women on the APY Lands. At a time when little faith and respect exists for young people in desert communities, Burton’s dedication and love for this generation was a tangible force. One day they will smile remembering his humour and generosity. Today, though, Anangu young and old, and we non-Indigenous visitors to their country, contend with the aftermath of the storms. The wind groaned, the tree branches broke and the rain flooded the Lands. Country was first to grieve.
Hector Tjupuru Burton. Artist. Born near Pipalyatjara, South Australia, in 1937. Died Ernabella, February 27, aged 80.
Skye O’Meara is the manager of the APY Art Centre Collective and former manager of Tjala Arts.