Joe ‘Helicopter’ Tjunurrayi was born in 1947 in Nynmi country and grew up amongst the infinite sandhills of the Great Sandy and Gibson Deserts. His unique nickname was inherited when he became very sick as a young boy and was brought into old Balgo mission in a helicopter, the first helicopter many of the people had seen. Helicopter was a Maparn, a respected healer and medicine man, when he met and married Aboriginal artist Lucy Yukenbarri. Together, they painted in close collaboration throughout the early 1990’s, with Helicopter’s participation never being acknowledged – it was not until 1994 that Helicopter was encouraged to paint his own works. He employs a distinctive linear style that emanates from the central feature of a soak water. Helicopter travelled widely during the mission days to pick up supplies (Broome, Alice Springs, Wyndham). There are many stories of the endless tasks performed on the Mission; drilling for water, cutting timber for fencing, fixing the windmill. The subjects of his  painting include  the country of his mother (Pippar Country) and father (Nynmi Country) where he lived a nomadic life as a young boy, Tingari ( Australian Aboriginal mythology) and soak waters.

 The optical and textural effect of Helicopter’s works are characterised by tightly overlapping dots that create linear striations in stippled, thick impasto. His depictions of sandhill country are often contrasted by a central water hole or interconnected sites, reflecting the pivotal role played by permanent ‘living’ water sources during his youth. Throughout his career, Helicopter has made significant shifts in his colour palette, reflecting the ancient tradition of seeking out materials to depict the intensity of the desert.



Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Kluge Ruhe Collection, USA
Gantner Myer Collection
Laverty Collection, Sydney
Edith Cowan University, Western Australia
Harland Collection
Ken Thompson and Pierre Marecaux Collection

Musée du Quai Branly, Paris