c1920 - 2012
Palpatja was born in the bush around 1920, close to what is now Nyapaṟi in north-west South Australia. His family were Pitjantjatjara, and they lived a traditional, nomadic life until he was a teenager, when they settled at Ernabella, which at the time was a Presbyterian mission and sheep station.
In the 1970’s Palpatja and his family moved to Amata, closer to his homeland. Here he became a Ngangkaṟi (traditional healer), an important and respected role in traditional Pit-jantjatjara communities.
Palpatja started painting in 2004, less than eight years before his death. Prior to this he was better known for woodwork, especially making spears. His work was quickly recognised by critics, and in 2005 Palpatja was a finalist for the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award. He went on to be a finalist three more times, and was also a finalist in the Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards in 2009, and again in 2011.
Palpatja is one of the few Amata elders who still had strong ties to his ancestral stories and traditional culture, which he displays in his paintings. One of his recurring themes is the Mythical Rainbow Snake and Creation Story, a traditional creation story from Amata.
This painting, one of the last Palpatja painted, tells the story of two snake brothers and their wives, who are sisters. Every day the women go out hunting for food, but soon get fed up with their men who do nothing, so decide to keep the meat for themselves. The men grow angry and turn themselves into Wanampi (a giant mythical water serpent), teasing their wives every day while they try to catch the snake. The pits the women dug in the search are now said to be the water canals that run from Aparatjara to Plitati.
Eventually the older sister outsmarted the snake and caught him, piercing its side with her digging stick. This enraged the brothers so much they caught their wives, and ate them. The older brother is said to be a bloodwood tree with a dry limb sticking out at one side, and the trunk is covered with lumps said to be the body of the woman still showing through the skin of the snake.