Thomas Tjapaltjarri was born c. 1964 in the Gibson Desert, Western Australia. In 1984 he was one of a group of nine that made national headlines. He has been described by those who know him as a man seemingly having his mind more focused on the desert, than town life. Thomas and his family became known as the last group of Aboriginals to come into contact with modern, European society. Dubbed “The Last of the Nomads” the group caused a sensation when they walked out of the desert and made contact with the “modern” world for the first time. Thomas and his brothers Warlimpirrnga and Walala have become the well-known Tjapaltjarri Brothers.
Thomas was born in the desert of Western Australia sometime in the 1960s. He and his family lived a traditional nomadic way of life on the western side of Lake Mackay. They had never come into contact with European society. Most other Pintupi families had been settled in remote towns to the east and west of their traditional country during the 1950s. Thomas’ father, Lanti (or “Joshua”), had lived for a short time at the mission in Balgo, but he had run away after getting into trouble for stealing food. It was his decision to stay in the desert, and kept his family far away from the towns.
Thomas’ mother was named Nanu. He also had two other mothers, Papunya and Watjunka, who were his father’s secondary wives. He had two younger sisters, Yalti and Yukulti, a younger half-brother Walala, and four other “siblings” (cousins by blood relation). His father died sometime around 1980. The family finally came into contact with outsiders in October 1984, and were settled at Kiwirrkurra.
Leading a completely traditional existence before this time they were finally forced out of the desert to seek eligible wives for Thomas and his brothers Warlimpirrnga and Walala. Thomas began painting in December 1987, a few years after settling at Kiwirrkurra. His cousin Warlimpirrnga had already made a name for himself as an artist and he encouraged Thomas to start painting. Thomas and Walala jointed Papunya Tula artists and they and Warlimpirrnga eventually gained fame internationally as the Tjapaltjarri Brothers. Although he normally paints using Tjapaltjarri as a surname, Thomas’ skin name is Tjapangati.
Of the original group who emerged from the desert in 1984 the nomadic streak remains strongest perhaps in Thomas. Now an established and gifted artist Thomas paints in a style similar to that of his brothers. The stories or “dreamings” of the Tingari Cycle are an important body of myth concerning the early journey paths of Tingari Ancestors throughout the “tjukurrpa” or dreamtime. It is these stories which Thomas conveys through his skilful brushwork across the canvas.
He has had paintings shown in many exhibitions around Australia, and also in Switzerland, Germany, France and the United States.