The Influence of Tingari Men in Aboriginal Art

The Australian Aboriginal mythology surrounding the Tingari (aka Tingarri) men remains one of the most influential motifs in Aboriginal art. The story of the Tingari is a tale of creation — particularly of the Western Desert region, which the Tingari men are said to have traversed. But who are the Tingari and what did they do to play such a significant role in Aboriginal culture and art?

What is Tingari?

The meaning of Tingari refers to the Tingari men or Dreamtime ancestors of all Aborigines through the ages. Dreamtime represents the beginning of existence for Aboriginal Australians, and the stories or Tingari cycles embodied in song are creationist myths. The Dreaming legends describe how all living things descended from the Tingari — the Dreamtime ancestors who shaped the land and are the forefathers of all Aborigines today. These landforms continue to pervade every component of indigenous life today.

As the story goes, the earth was once a flat, arid surface that the forefathers broke through. The sun rose, bringing light to the country for the first time, and the ancestors performed rites and went on journeys across the land. When their journey came to an end, they fell asleep, leaving marks on the ground and in the sky above. This is why, in Aboriginal culture, certain places and landscape aspects are considered sacred.

The Tingari and the Western Desert

The Tingari, a race of ancestral spirit beings, introduced law and culture to the people of the Western Desert. Their travels, significant sites, and activities span a substantial area from Pintupi land. This includes the area around the Papunya region, which is 250 kilometres west of Alice Springs, southwest of the Great Sandy and Tanami deserts around Balgo Hills. Depictions of the Tingari and their journey have been a favourite subject in Western Desert art.

Because Tingari stories are abstracted, linear descriptions of voyages and sacred-secret locales and happenings, no additional information is provided. The Tingari males were usually followed by Tingari women and accompanied by novices.

A lot of song cycles have been written about the journeys and exploits of the Tingari. These mythologies are part of the post-initiation youths’ training and provide explanations about certain customs and traditions.

Tingari influence among the Pintupi
These Creation events have been reflected in initiated Pintupi elders’ song cycles, and these epic narrative songs form the basis for the laws and social structures that traditional Pintupi people have lived under. Younger individuals are guided through various levels of traditional knowledge as they are initiated into the law, which is a lifelong process.

Traditional caretakers of the Tingari sites can be divided into two categories: owners and managers. The responsibility of the owners is to oversee and ensure that all aspects of site maintenance and ceremonial requirements are met. The managers’ job is to plan the ceremonies and ensure that all of the details are taken care of and that the right people attend or perform.

The custodial functions at Tingari sites are passed down through the generations and are linked to kinship (skin) groups made up of family members. Two skin groups frequently share custodial responsibilities for a Tingari location, which further connects them together. The strong laws and values revealed in Tingari song cycles support the traditional society’s togetherness.

Tingari places and Tingari law, as it applies to their country, have been portrayed by Pintupi artists. In general, this has been constructed as an abstract sequence of structures and linear formations that depict Tingari‘s strengths and relationships with the artist’s own country. Because Tingari law is both secret and sacred, no elements of the Tingari law’s deeper connotations are discovered or expounded upon.

Cultural significance of the Tingari

Dreaming as a religion has been handed down through generations via a large network of songs, rituals, and celebrations in a culture with no written language. The Tingari cycles, or tales of the Tingari, have been passed down through the years by senior tribesmen. Each family (or skin group) within a tribe was allocated a tale based on a landscape characteristic. This story was then divided among individuals, who each told their own version of the Dreaming story to their offspring.

This dividing system not only preserved their ancestors’ stories, but it also played an important role in the tribes’ survival. The stories included topographical information as well as knowledge of the soil, vegetation, and animals — crucial information that allowed nomadic tribes to survive and thrive in the Outback and Bushland. Details of the Tingari business are still a closely guarded secret, although there are a few public stories that do not reveal sacred information but provide outsiders a glimpse into Aboriginal spiritual life.

Tingari-related designs, like those used in body and sand painting, are generally seen as ‘dear’ rather than ‘dangerous’ to share with non-Aborigines. This is why so many indigenous painters have focused on the Tingari stories in their artworks. They usually depict a network of roundels that symbolise sites connected by lines that indicate travel. These are actually a map of their homelands and the routes taken by their forefathers.

Tingari in art

Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, Walala Tjapaltjarri, and Thomas Tjapaltjarri, all artists, were among the last nine Tjapaltjarri family members to emerge from the Gibson Desert in 1984. They had stayed in their native country for approximately 20 years after the rest of their kin had fled their ancestral land.

After also leaving their homelands, they began to depict aspects of desert culture connected with the Tingari in the ensuing years.

The Pintupi artist brothers developed unique representations of sacred cultural information about the Tingari. They had seen carving designs and sand paintings that allude to the legendary Tingari stories before.

Walala Tjapaltjarri created a design centred on rectangular shapes that encased other patterns as if they were a safe haven for cultural concepts. These geometric figures appeared to expand across the canvas, as if the culture had spread throughout the desert. Thomas Tjapaltjarri employed rectangular shapes in similar ways, although he tended to make them more organic by stretching and folding them to fit together and modifying the relative sizes. George Ward Tjungurrayi drew bands of lines across the painting to depict the Tingari journey lines as they moved from one creation place to the next. He also represented Tingari locations with concentric circles and highlighted the linear structure with rows of dotting.

Pintupi artisans were known for their abstract geometric structures that echoed the power and energy of the old Tingari legends, which were the core of their civilisation.

Aside from the Tjapaltjarri artist brothers, other artists who depict the Tingari in their works include:

  • Bambatu Napangardi
  • Barbara Weir
  • George Hairbrush Tjungurrayi
  • George Ward Tjungurrayi
  • Nyilyari Tjapangati
  • Ronnie Tjampitjinpa

Take a piece of the Tingari story with you with OzBid

The fascinating tale of the Tingari is a major motif in Aboriginal art — and it’s a good thing you have access to authentic Tingari-inspired artworks at OzBid. By participating in our online bidding platform, you can purchase genuine story art at a fraction of its market price.

If you trawl our site, you’ll find a collection of artworks that are stretched, ready to hang and come with a certificate of authenticity — so you can enjoy peace of mind knowing you’re investing in a genuine design. Many of the pieces are created with bold, earthy colours like black, white, red and orange and are outlined with geometric Tingari shapes with dotted lines.

If you need help with getting started on the OzBid platform or would like to learn more about the meaning of Tingari, get in touch with our team today. We’d be more than happy to help you with whatever you need.