Vines of paint scraggle across the dotted landscape of the canvas, bearing flowers. It is this almost figurative plant life, meandering across the surface of a desert-style abstraction, that makes Nellie Ngampa Coulthard’s work so different. Her paintings, each titled Tjuntala Ngurangka – or Country with acacia wattle in English – are precisely that: classical Ngura (Country) paintings where the plants dominate the surface of the canvas, just like they do on the actual surface of Ngura. In the words of Beth Conway, manager at Iwantja Arts with which the artist works, “Coulthard depicts her favourite native flora that surrounds her Country with vibrant, luminescent colour with her distinctive dotting technique.”
The colours of her work powerfully represent her Ngura; the purple of wildflowers (and of gibber and stone), the gold of spinifex and grass. As with many Yankunytjatjara works, the colours are only strange to those who have never been to those places; to frequent desert visitors they are so perfect as to invoke reminiscence. The high contrast acacia flowers and their carrier branches provide stark contrast, breaking the field and drawing the eye.
Coulthard’s expression has led to some deserved success. In 2020 she was a finalist at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards and the Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In October 2020 her work was exhibited as part of Tarnanthi on Tour: Kulata Tjuta at Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rennes in France. April 2021 sees Coulthard’s works mounted at Melbourne’s Alcaston Gallery, marking her first solo at a premiere commercial space.
This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 95, January to March 2021.