NACCHO Aboriginal Health News : Patrick Tjungurrayi: Bringing the gift of better health to community

 

purple

The entwined nature of health and homeland is a strong subtext inBeyond Borders. Promoting the need for properly resourced remote communities is a provocative sentiment as the West Australian government is planning to close hundreds of small settlements and outstations. Tony Abbott even described living in such places as a “lifestyle choice”.

The rate of kidney failure in remote desert communities is “at epidemic proportions, between 15 and 30 times the national average”.

The causes are varied, from being born prematurely with small kidneys to constant infections, high blood pressure and diabetes. “Poor access to good food, substandard housing and limited education also has a part to play. It is, ultimately, an illness born of poverty and dispossession.

“It’s a national health crisis, but it’s also much more than that,”

Sarah Brown, chief executive of the Purple House

As published online in the Australian

When artist Patrick Tjungurrayi got sick with kidney disease, he said he would rather die in his own country than be sick in someone else’s.

“I’m not f.. kin’ stopping here (Alice Springs Hospital)!” he declared. “That’s not my country. I’m painting for Western Desert here, not painting for the town. I’m going.”

“At the peak of his powers,” writes historian John Carty, who will launch a book about Tjungurrayi’s life in Melbourne today, “one of our great artists became another statistic in the tragic calculus of Aboriginal health in remote Australia.”

The respected Western Desert artist had spent several years working with Carty and a team of art curators on Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route, a seminal collection of paintings, oral histories and memorabilia that brought to life the history of the 1800km cattle track through country that Tjungurrayi was born in and knew well.

His painting career has been only the latest chapter in an extraordinary life: two decades as a desert nomad with no white contact, another two as mission resident, then pioneer of the homelands movement that saw Western Desert peoples return to their country.

That reconnection nurtured an explosion of creativity on canvas. Tjungurrayi’s breathtakingly com­plex and beautiful canvases have won many awards, including the painting prize at the 2001 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards and the $50,000 Western Australian Indigenous Art Award in 2008.

But by 2010, when dignitaries gathered at the National Museum of Australia for the opening of the Canning Stock Route show, Tjungurrayi’s kidneys were failing and he couldn’t attend.

As it happened, sales of Tjungurrayi’s art had already helped establish a pioneering dialysis program called the Purple House, based in Alice Springs but dedic­ated to establishing dialysis ser­vices for residents of desert communities. When his own health problems emerged, Tjungurrayi was living in Kiwirrkurra in Western Australia, just 150km away from a dialysis machine that he had helped fund in Kintore, in the Northern Territory.

But the Territory authorities refused him access across the border, and he was bewildered to be told he would be flown 2600km to Perth for treatment.

The absurdity was self-evident; unlike many other regional populations across Australia, his people had come together to fund their own vital health service, yet bur­eaucracy was preventing one of its founding members from using it.

It made no sense to Tjungurrayi. “There is no road between Kiwirrkurra and Perth. I will be lost. No one will find me.”

Writes Carty: “The media murmured, governments rumbled, rules changed and borders briefly opened. Eventually, as he knew it should, dialysis came to Patrick in Kiwirrkurra.”

He will need dialysis three times a week for the rest of his life to survive.

Carty’s book is titled Beyond Borders, referring to Tjungurrayi’s peripatetic life and artistic vision, and the lifesaving reach of the Purple House, which operates 20 dialysis machines in 10 communities, an Alice Springs clinic and a mobile van service.

An eye-catching photograph in the book shows one of Tjungurrayi’s vivid purple, orange and white masterpieces adorning the length of the Purple Truck, the mobile dialysis unit that brings on-country treatment to people in far-flung places.

“On this truck his painting roars across the desert like the Tingarri hoards depicted in them, enormous and improbable, keeping the story alive by keeping people in their country,” says Carty, who is contributing all book sales to funding Purple House services.

The entwined nature of health and homeland is a strong subtext inBeyond Borders. Promoting the need for properly resourced remote communities is a provocative sentiment as the West Australian government is planning to close hundreds of small settlements and outstations. Tony Abbott even described living in such places as a “lifestyle choice”.

Sarah Brown, chief executive of the Purple House, notes the rate of kidney failure in remote desert communities is “at epidemic proportions, between 15 and 30 times the national average”.

The causes are varied, from being born prematurely with small kidneys to constant infections, high blood pressure and diabetes. “Poor access to good food, substandard housing and limited education also has a part to play. It is, ultimately, an illness born of poverty and dispossession.

“It’s a national health crisis, but it’s also much more than that,” adds Brown.

“Traditionally, kidneys hold the spirit. If you have sick kidneys, you have a sick spirit.”

She says moving away from home to be close to a dialysis machine can lead to a downward spiral for the patient, their family and community.

On every level, community-based dialysis makes sense, she argues. “And when you see Patrick, home in his community, painting at his art centre and watching his grandkids grow, there can be no doubt that what we are doing is right.”

The Purple House has won accolades at the Human Rights and Indigenous Governance awards, a national disability award and an ethical enterprise award.

Jennifer Westacott, chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, will host the launch of the book and the Purple House Fund, which it is hoped will raise money to support ongoing dialysis services.

“The day I spent at the Purple House was one of the best days of my life,” says Westacott.

“This organisation is a model service provider: innovative, creative and … a lesson in the management of chronic disease and the preservation of cultural dignity.”

Carty says Tjungurrayi is an inspiration to wider Australia. “Patrick’s career as an artist, and his illness, returns us to the epic quality of his life,” he says.

“Whether blown up on the side of a dialysis truck, or hanging in an exhibition about Australian history, or as a chapter in Australian art history, Patrick’s paintings are … extensions of his character, his life, his ongoing journey.

“His art mobilises big ideas, and continues to do difficult work in the world.”

Patrick Tjungurrayi: Beyond Borders (UWAP, $59.99).

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