Tjunkaya grew up at the Ernabella Mission, where she went to school and later worked and taught her peers various domestic skills including sewing and cooking. Tjunkaya worked in the Mission craft room as a young woman, becoming an outstanding batik artist, her work sought by public collections, and featured on the cover of Judith Ryan’s ‘Across the Desert: Aboriginal Batik from Central Australia.’
From this beginning Tjunkaya developed extraordinary skill as an artist; creating works in painting, ceramics, tjanpi, punu, printmaking, spinning and mukata. Her work in these mediums has been seen in numerous exhibitions in Australia and internationally since 1971, in both public and private galleries.
Since 2015 Tjunkaya has chosen to focus on Painting and Tjanpi Weaving, becoming one of the most in demand female artists on the APY lands, and increasingly recognised in these two mediums.
In 2010 and 2011 she was collected by Artbank, and in 2011 and 2012 she was selected as a finalist in the Togart Contemporary Art Award. In 2012 her Tjulpu Bird Tjanpi sculptures were selected for exhibition in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (the Telstras). 2011 marked the commencement of Tjunkaya’s 5th decade of working at Ernabella Arts. Her first solo show was in 2012 at Alcaston Gallery in Melbourne, where Tjunkaya exhibited a mix of Paintings and Tjanpi sculpture. A second solo show in 2014 at Michael Reid Gallery, Sydney showcased her Tjanpi artworks.
A board member of Ernabella Arts, a powerful speaker and member of the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council, she is a leader of the Nintintjaku Project, and inter-generational teaching project working with Ernabella Anangu School and NPY Women’s council Youth team.
Tjunkaya’s tjanpi work is consistently innovative and skillfully executed. She clearly has great knowledge of the habits and nuances of desert animals as her sculptural work shows an exceptional eye for character and is created with great strength.
Tjunkaya has three children, and many grandchildren.
Tjanpi (meaning ‘dry grass’) evolved from a series of basket weaving workshops held on remote communities in the Western Desert by the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunyjatjara Women’s Council in 1995. Building on traditions of using fibre for medicinal, ceremonial and daily purposes, women took easily to making coiled baskets. These new-found skills were shared with relations on neighbouring communities and weaving quickly spread. Today over 400 women across 28 communities are making baskets and sculptures out of grass and working with fibre in this way is firmly embedded in Western and Central desert culture. While out collecting desert grasses for their fibre art, women visit sacred sites and traditional homelands, hunt and gather food for their families and teach their children about country. Tjanpi Desert Weavers is Aboriginal owned and is governed by Aboriginal directors. It is an arts business but also a social enterprise that provides numerous social and cultural benefits and services to weavers and their families. Tjanpi’s philosophy is to keep culture strong, maintain links with country and provide meaningful employment to the keepers and teachers of the desert weaving business.