Makinti Napanangka: Under the desert sky

Makinti Napanangka, now over 70 years old, paints on the ground in the open air hunched over her canvas, her brushstrokes confident and instinctive. The efforts of her day’s work are eagerly sought by institutions and collectors all over the world. Jennifer Isaacs visited this prominent desert painter’s remote home base at Kintore, to watch her work.

Words: Jennifer Isaacs

Makinti Napanangka cuts quite a figure among the group of elderly women who now constitute the first class Pintupi painters whose latest masterpieces are eagerly sought by collectors and major institutions both here and abroad. Visiting the artists’ company Papunya Tula in its centre at Kintore, Napanangka paints almost daily and she is a respected artist, a charmer, and an irascible character. Quite understandably in this cold weather she demands fires are lit for her and paint brought to hand in her current selection of colours. And she is usually accommodated. A key member of the Papunya Tula Company she has also been a company director. Staff describe her as “an accepted leader” and mention the frequency with which she is referred to as “number one” by the other artists.

Napanangka takes her usual position beside Walangkura Napanangka, a fellow elder stateswoman and co-custodian of the site of Lupul. There is so much life experience among the older artists in this venerable group. Walangkura Napanangka is amagnificent artist in her own right and the widow of Uta Uta Tjangala. As his wife she participated in the growth of this extraordinary Australian painting movement from its inception and no doubt was of assistance to him in his later years.

It occurs to me as I write that one of the great shames in the history of such great art, is that no journalist or academic, at least none who have yet revealed their hand, has learnt the Pintupi language and spent time with the artists to gain their candid comments and versions of their interaction with the art market, and with the many dedicated and creative outsiders who have worked for the company, written about the art, or promoted and sold it into collections. (Except for Professor Fred Myers who undertook research in Pintupi lands in the early 1970s.)

Kintore is situated on the border of the Northern Territory, due west of Papunya. From Alice Springs, now the base of the company, field workers undertake the six to seven hour drive every two weeks or so to change shift and deliver art materials, the returning staffer bringing back the new paintings. These are mostly young and dedicated people who know they have the most sought after and exciting jobs in the Aboriginal art industry. But as insiders know it is not all about art, there are significant hours spent as life managers assisting with pensions, hospital attendance, and repatriation of artists and their families from Alice Springs to Kintore and Kiwirrkurra.

At Kintore the staff house consists of a three bedroom flat, right next to the painting area. The painting area is two large rooms for men and women to paint and is used in all weathers. The older women often prefer to paint on the ground outside, hunched over their squares of canvas and in sight of family walking by. More dogs than seem sensible keep them company. Napanangka was among those working on my last visit, a tiny fragile woman with strong hands. She paints with bird like stroking movements looking up occasionally, but in general totally focused on the repetitive action of pushing paint along, then dipping the brush and heading off again. Each time she sets the brush down another part of landscape is recorded, another rockhole or digging place or bush food source. She is also inclined to make resonant references to ceremony as is the case in her paintings denoting hair string.

Her working style is so confident it seems instinctive – at one moment her gaze actually lifts as she calls out to staff but her hand and brush continue without pause. This phase of Napanangka’s life as a prominent desert painter, late in life, has come as an unexpected renaissance. Her eyes are troubling her, and are an obvious health problem she continues to handle with grace but some frustration. In early 1999 Napanangka’s sight was failing badly. Her paintings had become fragmented, hesitant. They were frequently overpainted in a way that seemed to be searching for the image or landscape in her mind. Then a cataract operation produced a dramatic elevation in her sight and confidence, and a gradual return to the fine works that now define her oeuvre. The past five or six years have shown a prolific output variously utilising series of lines and/or roundels with painted infill. In all of these she has used her distinctive dabbing technique.

Paintings by Napanangka are at the upper end of the price spectrum, aided by her continuous inclusion in curators’ and critics’ nominations for the “most collectable artists” in Australian Art Collector for the past four years. It is well known that occasionally Napanangka works for art dealers other than Papunya Tula, and the paintings that result can be both excellent and crude. She makes these choices with an eye to the dollar and family needs, but the market has so far spoken loudly in regard to the future value of such non-Papunya Tula works with no State Galleries having acquired them to date. For future sale they are thus precariously situated in relation to Sotheby’s and other auction houses for example, the logical secondary market for them.

The major galleries instead support her most luminous paintings mostly done in peaceful settings, and at Kintore. Here Luke Scholes, the assistant manager of Papunya Tula, affectionately describes Napanangka in terms that evoke the image of a vibrant, agile artist always eager to paint: “Makinti is a favourite of every Papunya Tula worker. She is so strong and robust, a pleasure to work for with a smile that is infectious. One day last year I saw a small figure in the distance walking towards the art shed. As the figure drew closer I was astonished to discover it was Makinti, not a young girl as I had thought, but Makinti striding along, beaming as she arrived to sit and paint.”

Recently I flew in a light plane from the southern Western Australian desert diagonally crossing many desert salt lakes, past Papunya and beyond. As I looked down I imagined the Pintupi families like Makinti’s who had once walked this remote country but had been drawn to ration depots in the 1930s. Napanangka was born at a place, a rockhole, known as Lupul, south of Kintore, and as a child moved across the country below me. (Napanangka tells of seeing white men for the first time on camels while she was at Lupul.) Such rockholes are important water sources. They may be deep fissures in the rock and almost always denote living Tjukurrpa (creative) presence. Some rockholes are open troughs, protected from evaporation but needing frequent cleaning out to prevent sand build-up. This “care for country” is an important motivation for Pintupi journeys to their lands. Napanangka, along with Walangkura has rights and therefore responsibilities over Lupul.

These connections to this site and others are the subject of her art. Smallish ovoid rondels, painted in a free gestural style denote rockholes. She has often painted these in linear sequence, indicating journeys between the water sources. Her paintings can also indicate desert women’s hair string, the hand spun fur and human hair string used for both men’s and women’s belts or tasselled girdles. These are connected to women’s love magic themes and have associations with sexuality and allure.

The first paintings in which Napanangka reduces the visual content to lines did not appear until 1999, but now predominate. The documentation accompanying them at the outset spoke of two women, the Kungka Kutjara, a pair of Creation era women who traversed a vast area in the desert and who are sung about at length. The content of the song cycles has elements of constant journeying across dunes and past salt lakes, digging animals and gathering bush foods, and their effect as sirens upon a pursuing man. One can see in this much subject material that Napanangka has elegantly reduced to her visual code. Today Napanangka’s themes, described in Papunya Tula’s documentation, include elements from this story.

Interpreting the meaning of Pintupi paintings is hazardous. We are guided by the description of a location, but usually minimal information on major Tjukurrpa content is given by the artist or Papunya Tula. However, we know that the activities of creative ancestors are signified in the paintings; snakes denoting Kaakuratintja (Lake MacDonald) for example, or specific foods for Lupul including desert raisins, the bush fruit staple eaten raw or dried then reconstituted. (These small plants grow over vast desert areas but were essential drought food as they could be stored for months and the dry fruit was strung and attached for transit on women’s string belts as they moved camp.)

Now over 70 years old, Napanangka enjoys great respect in her community. Her sprightly gait wavers sometimes but she has had a spectacular art making phase that has renewed her drive and spirits. At the conclusion of her painting day she sits surrounded by other women and children, her wana (nulla-nulla) and billy by her side, chewing native tobacco mixed with ash, the last to leave.

The Papunya Tula Company’s nominated galleries in each state are: Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne; Bond Aboriginal Art, Adelaide; Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, Melbourne; Indigenart, Perth; Jan Murphy Gallery, Brisbane; Scott Livesey Galleries, Melbourne; Utopia Art, Sydney. Many other galleries stock fine paintings by Napanangka but it is advisable to make the artist’s company, Papunya Tula, your first port of call.

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 37, July-September 2006. 


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