Important Aboriginal Works of Art
25 May 2016


born c.1929

synthetic polymer paint on linen

214.0 x 137.0 cm

signed verso: PETER / SKIPPER
bears inscription verso: size and cat. 004/90

$20,000 – 30,000

Commissioned by Duncan Kentish in 1990
Collection of the late Duncan Kentish, Adelaide


Aboriginal Art and Spirituality, High Court, Canberra, February 27 – March 14 1991; Exhibition Gallery, Waverley Centre, Sydney, 24 March – 5 May 1991; Art Gallery of Ballarat, Victoria, May – July 1991


Kentish, D., ‘Fitzroy Crossing’ in Crumlin, R., and Knight, A. (eds.), Aboriginal Art and Spirituality, Dove Publications, Melbourne, 1991, pp. 47, 50 (illus.) and 136

Catalogue text

While making preparations to travel to Japirnka in 1994 to begin work on the Ngurrara Native Title Claim, Pijaji Peter Skipper was surprised to learn that there was no kartiya map reference for the waterhole central to his country, Jila Japirnka. Accordingly, a reconnaissance trip by light plane was made to record geographical coordinates of the waterhole. It was an unnecessary excursion. The knowledge of this location was firmly embedded in both his mind and the mind of uncle Jimmy Pike, knowledge of where they had once travelled, hunted and stopped to drink water.

This work indicates the many points of navigation that underpin such knowledge of the land. There is the jila itself – Jila are permanent waterholes. At Jila Japirnka the level of the water varies from a large pool that is clearly visible to a slight depression where silt and possibly vegetation need to be removed to uncover the source. Notwithstanding such seasonal differences however, Pijaji’s depictions of the jila remain constant in their form. The central shape describes the underground rock formation surrounding the waterhole, while the four arms indicate the direction that water may flow into the jila as well as the direction that kalpurtu, the snake spirit living there, may enter or leave the jila. These snakes that inhabit many of the desert waterholes are to be revered the points in the landscape where they are active are important places to know when playing, hunting and moving from one waterhole to the next.

The four points in the top left hand side of the jila are places that only men can see or use. These form another critical navigational tool as there are dire consequences when men or women’s law places are trespassed indiscriminately. Knowledge of such locations and protocols associated with their use made the openness of desert space more structured and therefore, more manageable. Although these places were of major significance for Pijaji, he did not always include them in his paintings of Japirnka.

Another common feature integral to navigation in this area is the jilji, the sand ridges depicted running vertically through this work. These are permanent formations that stretch across much of the Great Sandy Desert and are significant features in Pijaji’s country. Directions are expressed in the number of jilji between places, by their height and proximity to one another. They may form wide parallel corridors allowing broad vistas, or collide and intersect in maze like patterns that thwart easy passage. Pijaji also includes in this work the knots that appear along the line of the jilji known as kukurrminti kukurrminti – bowl-shaped depressions at the top of the sand ridges that provide shelter, firewood and seed plants.