The reason? The Australian Government were complicit in the British Atomic Testing that was being conducted to the east of the Great Victoria Desert. A huge swath of inaccessible country was sparsely populated by a nomadic people, as had been for millennia, and a patrol officer was sent to ‘sweep the area of any natives’. Some were never located.
The patrol officer would then assist people in getting them to the nearest Mission. For Patju and his family, who must have been walking well west at the time, this was Warburton Mission situated further west still. Patju cannot remember the exact timeline, but from Warburton he walked with his family some 1000km east to Ernabella Mission to be with relatives.
It is on this journey, from a vantage point high up in the Mann Ranges where, Patju says they saw the ‘big smoke’, that would alter his life for years to come. This ‘big smoke’ would have been the mushroom cloud from the atomic detonation at Emu Fields, some 300km directly south. This was the first of many atomic bombs that were detonated near to where Patju was born. He would not be allowed back to his country of birth for many years.
At Ernabella Mission, Patju became literate in his oral language, Pitjantjatjara and began to study the bible at a young age. He attended high school at Oodnadatta to the east and after high school he worked as a stockman and also a teacher’s aide. Like many of his peers, Patju has ease with the two religions he inhabits, believing in both with strong conviction. He is naturally social and affable, making a good pastor and takes pride in his delivery of the gospel. However, he lives in the spiritual culture manifested by the first beings, those, who in turn created the Tjukurpa, which is the Law that governs Anangu on a daily basis.
For Patju it is through painting that his true self projects into the world with mesmerising assurance.
EXCERPT FROM THE ESSAY BY BRIAN HALLETT WRITTEN TO ACCOMPANYING PATJU’S 2018 SOLO EXHIBITION
Born in the 1940s at Itaratjara, an important site between the community settlements of Watarru and Kalayapiti in the great Victoria desert, Patju Presley is a senior Pitjantjatjara law man with great knowledge of the geography of the western desert and the associated Tjukurpa.
His intimate knowledge of the country is directly related to survival in this beautiful but sometimes harsh environment as learned from generations of his ancestors.
Through his paintings Patju brings to life the events of many of the Tjukurpa of the country including Kalaya(Emu), Wati Kipara (BushTurkey), Wati Kutjara (Two Water-Snake Men), Wati Pira (Moon Man) and Minyma Kutjara (Two Sisters).
Today, Patju resides at both Irrunytju and Tjuntjuntjara communities with his wife, artist Ivy Laidlaw.