Doreen Reid Nakamarra: Shimmering Lands - Art Collector

Issue 46, October - December 2008

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The patiently applied layers of NATSIAA general painting prize-winner Doreen Reid Nakamarra's paintings evoke heat, silence and distance, writes Jane Hampson. This is a country felt rather than viewed.

Sitting before her winning work in the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, Doreen Reid Nakamarra waves her arm in one laconic sweep. “It goes this way,” she says, following her trademark short broken slashes and tight dots up and down her canvas. “That’s the way I paint it.”

Nakamarra is clearly as content with this untitled work – a depiction of country at Marrapinti, west of the Pollock Hills in Western Australia – as she is with her win in the general painting category in this year’s NATSIAAs, the latest triumph for the painter who, at the age of “51 or 2”, is coming into her own as an artist of the Papunya Tula Artists art centre.

Nakamarra came to painting in her early 40s – relatively late, from a Western perspective, but not unusual in Indigenous Australia, where painting is largely an occupation for older people.

Since 2005, she has exhibited in numerous Papunya Tula group shows, in Australia, Singapore and the United Kingdom, as well as two shows at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra (Right Here, Right Now: Recent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Acquisitions in 2006 and Culture Warriors, the National Indigenous Art Triennial, in 2007).

The flourishing of Nakamarra’s work followed the death of her husband, George Tjampu Tjapaltjarri. Before he died, George passed on to his wife a women’s dreaming associated with his country at Kintore, which Nakamarra now paints.

“It’s not my country, it’s my husband’s country,” says Nakamarra, who was born in the Warburton Ranges, Western Australia, and walked into the community of Haasts Bluff with her family as a young girl.

“I’m doing women’s story. It’s the dream.”

The dreaming concerns the land and stories associated with Marrapinti and the ceremony involving nose bones – also called marrapinti – which were traditionally inserted in young women’s nose web during ceremony at these places. The distinctive lines and dots of Nakamarra’s work are derived from body decoration, originally used in these same ceremonies.

There’s a synaesthetic quality to Nakamarra’s work: her shimmering undulations built up patiently in layers of dots and lines are at once evocative of sandhills, their senuous rise and fall, and of heat, silence and distance. This is country – a canvas – that is felt rather than viewed.

“It’s women’s dream,” says Nakamarra, whose first language is Ngaatjatjarra. “When I paint it, I feel good. Strong.”

Nakamurra still lives near her husband’s country at Kiwikurra, 700 km from Alice Springs, deep in the Central Desert. The community of around 250 is considered the most remote in Australia; home to the “last nomads” who walked in from the desert in the mid-1980s.

The undulating effect seen in Nakamarra’s work is a hallmark of art from this area, and there is fierce competition between the women artists to see who can do it best. Comparing her work, for example, to that of Yukultji Napangati, a younger artist who paints country not far from Marrapinti, does not impress Nakamarra.

“Mine are better,” she says.

And that’s that.

The 25th Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award will be on display at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin until 26 October 2008.

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