Nyarrapyi Giles and her ideographic thrills - Art Collector

Issue 48, April - June 2009

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Although she didn’t start painting until her mid 60s, Nyarrapyi Giles quickly found her own signature producing work with a confidence and dynamism that is instantly identifiable as her own. With accolades gathering and institutional and collector interest mounting, Giles’s forthcoming solo exhibition in Perth is highly anticipated. Text by Susan McCulloch.

In early 2009, Western Desert artist Nyarrapyi Giles was photographed smiling, full cheeked and bright-eyed in front of one of her paintings in Perth’s Randell Lane Fine Art. She looks healthy, happy, and confident and it is hard to believe that this is the same person as the emaciated young woman with two young sons she was desperately trying to keep alive who was photographed in a remote region of Western Australia in 1955.
The 1950s photograph was taken by Tasmanian-born amateur filmmaker Keith Adams, who from the 1950s had undertaken numerous safaris throughout desert and northern regions. It is reproduced in Adams’s 2000 autobiography Crocodile Safari Man, which relates the stories of his trips and the success of his subsequent documentaries.

“She was exhausted, she had no food or water and was miles from anywhere, trying to survive on goodness knows what,” wrote Adams.

Adams took the young woman and her children to a nearby settlement from where she later went to hospital in Adelaide. She and her sons survived, but she lost track of her husband who had left the family in search of provisions – returning to find them gone. The two were reunited some time later by chance at the Northern Territory town of Docker River, west of Uluru.

As Randell Lane’s director Mark Walker says, while her story is extraordinary, it is also very typical of the lives of many people from these regions who, like Giles, have come to painting in their later years. “With lives such as these, it’s no wonder that paintings by these artists have such a rich confidence and strong sense of place,” he says.

Giles’s country is thousands of square kilometres of Ngaanyatjarra lands of Western Australia, stretching from the Rawlinson and Petermann Ranges region (around 350 km west of Uluru) more than 300 km north to Kintore (Walungurru) and several hundred kilometres west into the Gibson Desert. With its blue hazed ranges filled with rock holes and caves and red sanded plains studded with desert oaks, it is often a supremely beautiful and peaceful country. Yet for much of the 20th century it has suffered droughts that have forced people into settlements. Giles’s own near death experience is a testament to the fragility of life in these remote regions, even for those who know the country well.

Nyarrapyi was given the English name “Giles” after the community around the Giles weather station where she came to live as young girl. Her homeland community these days is Tjukurla, closer to that of her birthplace. A tiny community established in 1970s as an outstation of Docker River, its arts centre Tjarlirli (named after sacred rock holes) is one of Australia’s smallest and most recently established arts centres, representing some 15 to 20 artists. The community, however, has had a long history of fibre work, and carving of wooden artefacts (punu) as well as supplying paintings to Maruku Arts at Uluru.

Giles started painting in 2006, aged in her mid 60s, under the tutelage of long-time painter Katjarra Butler. Immediately, however, Giles’s paintings had a quality and style entirely her own. As with many who start painting later in life, her work has both a great gestural looseness and confidence derived from years of storytelling in sand painting. “She is absolutely sure of herself when she paints,” says Mark Walker, who has been working with Giles and other Tjarlirli artists since the arts centre was established.

Giles’s main painting themes are the rock holes and creation stories, such as that of the emu, of her birthplace at Warmurunngu near Kaarku where she says the “emu spirits are released like a wind to take physical form again”.

And although her medium is acrylic, the thickness with which she applies paint gives her work a quality and texture akin to that of ochre, reflective perhaps of the sacred ochres derived from her birthplace. With their swirling circles or loosely mapped heavily dotted squares, her canvases are especially distinctive for their “dynamism and surface tension” as the judges of Perth’s Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital biennial acquisitive award noted when they awarded her the $7,500 acquisitive prize in 2008.

Having exhibited in leading galleries in Alice Springs, Melbourne and Adelaide as well as Perth, in 2008 Giles was also a finalist in the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award.
“If I had to choose one word to describe her paintings – as well as their lushness and fine aesthetic quality – I’d say that they have huge integrity,” says Mark Walker.

Nyarrapyi Giles’s solo exhibition will be held at Randell Lane Fine Art in Perth from 23 May to 6 June 2009.

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