Curator's radar: Naata Nungurrayi - Art Collector

Issue 59, January - March 2012

This profile appeared in the Curator's radar feature, part of the annual special issue 50 Things Collectors Need to Know 2012.

UnDisclosed, the second National Indigenous Art Triennial, which was postponed twice because of budget cuts at the National Gallery of Australia, will take place this year. It will include very little of the most popular and perhaps most familiar Indigenous art form, Western Desert painting. In fact Naata Nungurrayi is the sole representative. (Daniel Waldbidi practises the style but lives on the coast.)

This gives Naata a remarkable position in the Australian art world. “She is distinctive, and yet her work continues the Papunya tradition,” says Carly Lane, curator of the exhibition.

Born around 1932, Nungurrayi is a Pintupi woman, and one of the senior members of the Kintore women artist movement, which emerged in 1994 with senior ceremonial women from the Kintore region and Haasts Bluff. Until she was about 30 years old, she lived in the traditional, pre-contact way. She was brought to Papunya with her family in 1964, moved to Docker River in the late 1970s and settled in the Kintore region in the early 1980s. She is believed to have begun painting in 1994 when she was a participant in the Kintore-Haasts Bluff collaborative canvas project. Her paintings are about Tingari ancestral women’s stories, sacred women’s sites and ceremonies in the Kintore area, and body painting designs. In 1996 she joined Papunya Tula Artists and since then has experienced an extraordinary rise to prominence.

Her work was included in the 1997 Desert Mob art show at the Araluen Art Centre in Alice Springs. In 1999 she began showing with Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi in Melbourne and Utopia in Sydney. In 2000 she was included in Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and since then she has been represented in the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award. Late last year she held her first ever solo exhibition at Papunya Tula’s galleries in Alice Springs. There is exceptionally strong collector support for her paintings, which fetch high prices at auction and are included in public and private collections in Australia and internationally.

She first came to Lane’s attention in 2008 at the Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards. Lane was then curator of Indigenous art at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, which hosts the prize. “At that point I realised how fantastic she is,” Lane says, who adds that Nungurrayi stands out among her peers because of the complexity, detail and resolution of her work. “Putting them together makes the paintings just sing.” The intense, luminous colour of her recent works is often in small segments, bordered by heavy black outlining that makes them glow in a jewel-like way.

The artist’s remarkable success may be partly due to the way she is able to combine the seemingly random, organic quality prized in early Papunya work, with increasingly vigorous and decisive composition. Her earlier paintings tended to be softer in colour and tone, executed with the rather loose strokes of the first painting men who began to use the art materials provided for them by Geoffrey Bardon.

Nungurrayi’s inclusion the triennial with Daniel Waldbidi provides an intriguing opportunity to compare works by a senior artist and a much younger one, painting in a comparable style.

Timothy Morrell

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