Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri was born in Tjuirri, an area north west of Alice Springs also known as Napperby Station. From age twelve he worked as a stockman on the cattle stations around his traditional country. During this time he developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Dreaming Trails that criss-cross the area to the north of the western McDonnell Ranges, which he uses in painting his Dreamings.
His career as an artist began in the 50's when he carved snakes and goannas in the tradition initiated by his grandfather and two older brothers. By the 70's he was one of the most accomplished carvers in Central Australia.
His first opportunity to paint came when one of Albert Namatjira's sons gave him acrylic paints, and the master began his work. Clifford, living at the Papunya Community was
one of the seven original artists involved with the initial Aboriginal Art Movement.
Clifford is considered to be one of the most collected and renowned Australian
Aboriginal artists. He was the most famous of the contemporary artists who lived around Papunya, in the Northern Territory's Western Desert area, when the acrylic painting style (known popularly as "dot art") was initiated. A school teacher, Geoffrey Bardon, assigned to Papunya School in the early 1970s encouraged the Aboriginal people to put their dreaming stories on canvas, stories which had previously been depicted ephemerally on the ground. Clifford Possum emerged as one of the leaders in this effort, which has come to be called the Western Desert Art Movement.
When Clifford joined this group of 'dot and circle' painters early in 1972 he immediately distinguished himself as one of its most talented members and went on to create some of the largest and most complex paintings ever produced.
Posthumously, Clifford's works are drawing increasing attention. The artist's majestic painting Warlugulong, previously bought by the Commonwealth Bank for just $1200, was auctioned by Sothebys in July 2007 and sold for $2.4 million. The day after the auction it was revealed that the National Gallery of Australia was the buyer. The Gallery's purchase eased tensions of a rumoured Government legal intervention had the work been purchased by an overseas buyer, out of concern that significant indigenous art would be "lost" overseas.
The art of Clifford Possum is notable for its brilliant manipulation of three-dimensional space. Many of his paintings have strong figurative elements which stand out from the highly abstract background dotting. In the late 70's he expanded the scope of Papunya Tula painting by placing the trails of several ancestors on the same canvas in the fashion of a road map.
To appreciate its full richness it is imperative that it is seen not only for its colour, composition and balance but for its mythological detail. One of the extraordinary qualities of Clifford's work and other Western Desert artists is that they are a visual writing and speak to the Aboriginal as books do to Europeans.
When asked why he became an Artist, Clifford answered:
"That Dreaming been all Kids, I see them all the time, painted. All the young fellas they go hunting and the old people there, they do sand painting. They put down all the story, same like I do on canvas. All the young fellas they bring 'em back kangaroo. Same all the ladies, they been get all the bush fruit, might be bush onion, plum, might be honey ants, might be yala, all the kungkas (women) bring them back. Because everybody there all ready waiting. Everybody painted. They been using ochres all the colours from the rock. People use them to paint up. I use paint and canvas that's not from us, from European people. Business time we don't use paints the way I use them, no we use them from rock, teach 'em all the young fellas."
From the 1970's to the 1980's he was the chairman of the Papunya Tula Artists. His work is featured in all state galleries and many collections in Australia and overseas. His work has travelled and exhibited extensively around the world, including, 1975-83 ’Peter Stuyvesant Cultural Foundation‘; 1980 Pacific Asia Museum, Los Angeles, USA; 1981 Art Gallery of New South Wales; 1983 XVII Sao Paolo Biennale, Sao Paolo; ‘Dreamings, The Art of Aboriginal Australia’ in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and St Louis 1988, ’Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri Paintings 1973-1986’, retrospective exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; 1990 ‘l’ete Australien a’ Montpellier’, Montpellier, France; 1990 Rebecca Hossack Gallery, London; 1991 Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, USA; 1993 Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth; 1993 Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, 1994 National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; 1999 Flinders Art Museum, Flinders University, Adelaide; 1999 ‘Tjinytjilpa’ Embassy of Australia, Washington, USA; 1999 ‘Indigenous Art of the Dreamtime’ held in the main foyer of the United Nations Building New York, USA.
Clifford was the 1983 recipient of the Alice Springs Art Prize, and in 2002 was awarded the prestigious Order of Australia.