Martha McDonald: Reinventing Papunya Painting

Martha Mcdonald depicts Warlukuritji, the birthplace of her father, as a means to remember him and his country.

Words: Nic Brown

The flat depressions of arid-land maluri (claypans) expand and contract in time with the changing seasons and weather extremes of the Gibson Desert. Following (infrequent) heavy rain, saline floodwaters from Kaakurutinytja (Lake MacDonald) flow south into a series of maluri in the Warlukuritji region. Reaching a standstill on the impervious clay subsoil, over a period of months the water both seeps and evaporates slowly, to leave behind a cracked, grid-like tracery of salt-crusted land: a land imprinted in the memory of Pintupi elder Martha Tjulata McDonald Napaltjarri.

Warlukuritji, located south-west of Walungurru (Kintore), is a personal and enduring subject in McDonald’s work, whose painting practice spans some 10 years. She paints out of the shared studio at Papunya Tjupi Arts, originally the ‘Old Papunya Mechanic’s Shed’ of the 1950s government settlement, and across the road from the ‘Great Painting Room’ in the Town Hall where McDonald’s father, Shorty Lungkata Tjungurrayi, painted in the early 1970s at the inception of the Western Desert art movement. Residing in Blackwater outstation at the base of the Ulumparru Ranges, McDonald has the furthest to travel to the studio, yet is the earliest to arrive via a pot-luck commute of hitch-hiking or the school bus. Joanna Byrne, Papunya Tjupi Manager, observes that McDonald paints with “both elbows on the canvas and her face close to the painting”, not easily distracted, she “works quietly and intensely”.

McDonald depicts Warlukuritji, the birthplace of her father, as a means to remember him and his country. The thick-banded line-work of the maluri are drawn first onto a black or red (or sometimes blue) ground. Then connected with a single stroke of the brush, the bones of McDonald’s signature style forms: a closed, linear structure of intersecting polygons softened and contrasted with concentric circles at most vertices. The result is a geometric body that speaks to the naturally occurring polygons found in wind-eroded, cracked clay subsoil, as well as the macro network of maluri. McDonald paints innumerable small marks bound within the structure, whilst other times the marks propagate towards the edge of the canvas. These dot-fields represent plant-life, possibly tussock and tufted grass including Mitchell grass and wire grass, or perennial shrubs such as saltbush and samphire. The dusting of marks overlap, arc in the manner of a line or are spaced apart. Their varied weight and application is achieved with customised household skewers, a painting tool the artist either sharpens or makes blunt by grinding against the studio floor. At times a row of puli (hills) is embedded within or rests outside the painted grid, or a drift of small circles, probably tjukula (rockholes), and sometimes a handful of skeletal trees, maybe Coolibah or Inland Teatree which are known to fringe maluri.

McDonald’s paintings shift between warm and cool palettes however her most striking works are those that retain a neutral colour schema with very limited saturated colour. And, when the background of the geometric framework is muted, the interlaced maluri-form floats in a void, resulting in a visual language that recalls the early, iconic Papunya Tula works.

McDonald is an undiscovered talent yet to be short-listed in national prizes and included in significant public collections. Her first major body of work premiered at RAFT artspace in 2015. The artist’s second solo exhibition, hosted by the same gallery, will run through September 2017. McDonald featured in the The University of New South Wales’ touring exhibition Streets of Papunya: the reinvention of Papunya painting (2015-16) curated by Vivien Johnson. Her works on paper were presented as a drawing installation in the group exhibition D_O_T (2016) at Galerie pompom as a MOP Projects initiative. McDonald’s work has been included in group exhibitions in Germany, Hong Kong, China, Pakistan, Korea and the United States. Her work is held in university collections including Western Sydney University, University of Wollongong and The University of New South Wales.

DALLAS GOLD
 Director 
RAFT Artspace, Northern Territory

When Dallas Gold first saw Martha Tjulata McDonald Napaltjarri’s work in 2013 at Desert Mob in the Araluen Arts Centre, Alice Springs, he “was struck by the power of her small scale work”. Gold recalls that “they had an intensity, a similar presence as some of the early Papunya boards that kicked off the Western Desert painting movement… Martha’s painting is a development from those early boards”.

In terms of the market, Gold believes McDonald’s work “draws attention and has always been popular”. He says her “first solo exhibition sold out” and “she can not meet the demand for her work”, with prices for the artist’s works on paper starting at $600. At the same time Gold believes “Martha is a totally underrated artist and as yet is not included in any of the major institution collections or reached high prices on the secondary market”.

Gold feels that McDonald’s paintings have “integrity”, she “really invests herself into her work and that’s what makes them desirable – she paints for herself, not the market”. He suggests that her work has “broad appeal” to collectors and “anyone who is interested in mapping the painting movement coming out of the Western Desert region”.

Tjulata, the artist’s self-titled, forthcoming exhibition at RAFT artspace, Gold says “will celebrate Martha as an important artist… and curators will take notice”. – Nic Brown

VIVIEN JOHNSON Curator & Author

“Papunya’s current generation of artists are among the most sophisticated and innovative exponents of the style invented by their forefathers in Papunya nearly 50 years ago. They have energised and transformed ‘dot painting’ for the 21st century. This is so not despite but because of these artists’ embeddedness in the ‘bush art school’ of remote community life. The idea of Papunya painting as a contemporary art form whose practi- tioners are refining and developing an existing artistic tradition can help shift audience perceptions of art from remote Indigenous communities away from the ‘wise old Aboriginal elder who just walked out of the desert and picked up a paintbrush’ stereotype.

“Within this new paradigm of desert art, Martha’s disavowal of her father Shorty Lungkata Tjungurrayi’s influence on her work can be viewed as an assertion of her artistic independence and her commitment to what I’ve called the ‘re-invention of Papunya painting’. For of all Papunya Tjupi’s artists, Martha’s work most resembles that of the old Papunya masters in the earliest days of the painting movement (which probably explains its popularity with fine art audiences who have come to identify those works as the crowning achievement of the contemporary Indigenous art movement).

“Every time I drive Martha the four kilometres home to Blackwater outstation after another day’s painting, I remember the day 10 years ago that I first met her. She was walking that distance, carrying her shopping bags and accompanied by a small mob of kids. She hailed me down and asked for a ride to Blackwater. I was on my way back to Papunya and didn’t feel like driving to yet another outstation, but it’s never easy to say no to Martha. I was glad I hadn’t when she introduced herself as Shorty Lungkata’s “first daughter” and gladder still as the glorious vista of Papunya’s mountains from close up encircled me. Truly Martha wakes to beauty every morning at Blackwater and for me that shows in the calm and intensity of her work.” – Nic Brown

An exhibition of Martha Mcdonald’s work entitled Tjulata will be held from 9-30 September, 2017 at Raft Artspace, Northern Territory.

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 81, Jul-Sep, 2017.

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