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 Helicopter Tjungurrayi  (c.1937 - )

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Lived/Active: Australia      Known for: Aboriginal theme painting

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Ad Code: 4
AskART Artist
from Auction House Records.
Jupiter Well
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Born: c1937
Location: Nynmi (Jupiter Well)
Skin: Tjungarrayi
Language Group: Kukatja
Mediums: Acrylic paint on canvas and linen
Themes: Piparr country (his mother's country), Nynmi country (his father's country), Tingari, soakwaters.

Helicopter learnt from an early age the location of water sources and how to hunt for bush food. He is a maparn (traditional healer) and people travel long distances to see him for treatment and healing. In the early 1990s he painted with his wife (recently deceased), but since 1995 has painted independently in a distinctive linear style that radiates from the central feature of a soakwater. He is dedicated to painting his country and that of his parents where he lived a nomadic life as a young boy. He also uses the kinti-kinti style of dotting pioneered by his wife but works with a different range of colours combined with the more flowing linear elements.

Helicopter was given his name as a result of an accident in the 1960s when he became seriously ill and was collected by a flying doctor using the first helicopter seen in the area. In 2008 the retired helicopter pilot was fascinated to find that the young boy he has rescued in the 1960s had grown to become one of Balgo's leading artists - the story is told in the article Joy for Jim as helicopter kid turns up 50 years on. (See below)

Source: "Helicopter Tjungarrayi", Aboriginal Art Online,


Following is the story of the artist's rescue:

Victoria Laurie, "Joy for Jim as helicopter kid turns up 50 years on", The Australian News, July 5, 2008
More than half a century after plucking a sick Aboriginal boy from the vast desert interior of Western Australia, helicopter pilot Jim Ferguson has learned that the boy survived to become a respected artist who still paints today.

The discovery came when the 79-year-old retiree read an article about the Canning stock route in The Weekend Australian last month, which recounted the story of artist "Helicopter" Tjungurrayi's childhood rescue and transfer to Balgo, where today he paints colourful canvasses worth tens of thousands of dollars.

For Mr Ferguson, a 50-year-old mystery was solved. Until then, a few old photographs and a newspaper report from the time were all that remained of his 1957 encounter. "I assumed the boy had died. I'm absolutely thrilled that after all these years, he's still alive and I played a small part in that."

Last week, he was put in telephone contact with Balgo community's Warlayirti art centre and was told that Helicopter wanted to talk to him. "Thank you very much for taking me to Balgo," the robust 61-year-old artist said. "(I'm) happy now."

Now confined to a wheelchair in his home at Willaura, Victoria, Mr Ferguson was a 28-year-old conducting aerial surveys east of Well 40, along the Canning stock route, when he saw a young woman. "I wondered where she was from. We hadn't seen any blacks at all, although the size of trees indicated water not far below the surface."

On the next trip to Well 40, the woman appeared again. Shortly afterwards, the bushes around the camp began to rustle. "Suddenly about half a dozen men appeared from behind these bushes dragging their spears in the sand. Matman (the team surveyor) grabbed the .303 and I pulled out my revolver, but all was OK. They stuck their spears in the ground." Mr Ferguson then posed the group for a photograph.

The woman then brought forward a pitifully thin boy, about 10 years old, with swollen joints. Mr Ferguson thought he might have had rickets, although it is still not known what was wrong with him. He felt the child might die without medical attention. "I gestured that they could come back with us to Balgo, and walked away."

The pair clambered into the helicopter. He then flew them 290km to Balgo mission. Mr Ferguson last saw them sitting in a Land Rover, the woman clad in a floral dress, and the boy naked. "I never knew what happened to the boy and his mother. I thought they were dead."

Helicopter, whose nickname stuck, told his rescuer he had not been afraid of getting into the helicopter, especially when he looked down. "I saw a little truck on the ground, but I thought it was a porcupine (echidna)."

He said the woman was Kupunyina, his aunt, who lived until 1986. Several of the men in the photographs are still alive. One, his artist half-brother Brandy Tjungurrayi, was with him at the art centre this week.

Unwittingly, Mr Ferguson had captured in his photographs a group of extended family members who would go on to become stars of Australian art. In the centre was Freddie West, the first Papunya Tula dot painting artist. Next to him stood a young Brandy. On the left was the late artist Wimmitji and his brother Micky Candle.

Today, an exhibition featuring the work of Helicopter will end in Melbourne's Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi. When Helicopter next visits Melbourne, a frail Jim Ferguson will attempt a trip into the city. "It might be the last thing I do, but I've decided I'd like to meet him."

Online source:

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