Untitled, 2005, University of the Sunshine Coast collection. Donated by Christopher Simon. On display, Ngabung Djamga Gallery, University of Sunshine Coast, Sippy Downs, Queensland.
NAATA Nungurrayi, an 80-yearold Pintupi elder, discovered painting only in the mid-1990s after sitting next to her sister Nancy and watching her paint. Although at first reticent, Nungurrayi soon developed her own successful style. As a result, she is now represented in national and international collections and has had one of her paintings reproduced on an Australia Post stamp.
Nungurrayi’s traditional country is in the Gibson Desert of Western Australia, but during the time of the native welfare patrols in the early 1960s she and her family were resettled at Papunya in the Northern Territory as part of Australia’s assimilation policy. It was at Papunya that the men first started ‘‘ dot painting’’ on canvas and created a movement credited with bringing Aboriginal art to international attention. While the wives of the artists often assisted with the painting, they received little recognition. It is only in recent years the women have started painting in their own right.
In the early 1980s Nungurrayi moved back closer to her ancestral country and she now lives at Kintore on the border of WA and the Northern Territory. The remote settlement has since become an important centre of western desert art with many artists from the Papunya Tula co-operative based there.
At Kintore Nungurrayi is a respected elder with important custodial responsibilities to country and women’s law, and this is depicted in her paintings such as Untitled, 2005, part of the collection of the University of the Sunshine Coast at Sippy Downs, north of Brisbane. The painting, along with other substantial western desert works by Aboriginal women, is housed in a purpose-built gallery on campus that is open to the public.
Nungurrayi’s painting relates to Marrapinti, a sacred waterhole located in the artist’s homeland, according to Lisa Chandler, a lecturer at the university. The painting is dominated by several large groupings of U-shaped lines and these are associated with the designs painted on women’s bodies during ceremonies, Chandler explains, while the curved markings mirror the shape of women’s breasts. The painting also depicts the collection of bush foods, such as desert raisins which are found throughout central Australia. The fruit can be eaten directly from the plant or ground into flour and baked in the hot coals to make bush damper.
‘‘ The loose black line work in Naata Nungurrayi’s painting is partially covered by the dense, vividly coloured dotting which is a common stylistic feature in the work of Pintupi women artists,’’ Chandler says. ‘‘ The heavily textured surface forms a shifting field of glowing colour encompassing strong saturated oranges and pale ochres linking back to the desert landscape.’’
Nungurrayi’s painting is the most significant work in the western desert collection, university curator Dawn Oelrich says.
‘‘ Even if I did not know of the important cultural background to her painting, I would find this work irresistible,’’ she says. ‘‘ I am always moved by the depth of connection, to life, to spirit, to culture and community that desert artists bring to their work but more than that, I love this work just for what it is: an energetic and vibrant painting that moves and shimmers.’’
Oelrich says this is a confident painting by a woman who comfortably paints with acrylics on linen. She chooses colour that reflects the desert but also takes a more contemporary approach to an ancient subject. ‘‘ She has clearly blocked out the larger shapes with bold black lines and then filled the painting with complex groupings of colour in dots and spaces, totally filling a large canvas with a riot of colour to end up with a work of great beauty and appeal.’’
Polymer paint on linen, 150cm x 180 cm. Licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency