Watiyawanu Artists, Mt Liebig - Art Collector

Issue 45, July - September 2009

Some of the most interesting art being made in Australia today is coming from the Mount Liebig community – 325 km west of Alice Springs in the heart of the Western Desert. Sasha Grishin visited the home of the Watiyawanu Artists of the Amunturrngu Aboriginal Corporation.

The name Watiyawanu relates to the main dreaming story of the Amunturrngu region, which deals with the willy wagtail bird. The story, in brief, is about a woman who left her baby unattended in a coolamon while she went to gather berries. On her return she found her baby had been swapped for an ugly hairy devil baby by the ‘devil woman’, so she set out in search of her real child. After following the tracks of the ‘devil woman’ for several days up the mountain she found her baby, but it was suffering so badly from malnutrition that it died shortly after being found. At death, the baby turned into a willy wagtail, while the place where she found the baby formed a large crystal rock. The mother also died from grief and turned into a bird and the two birds flew on to Kintore and became the protectors of women and children. The whole story is commemorated in song and dance.

Watiyawanu Artists, now an Aboriginal owned art centre, was initiated by Glenis Wilkins, who arrived in Mount Liebig in 1988 as the local store manager. (Previously Wilkins had worked for three years as the store manager at Haasts Bluff, where she started selling canvases and paints to people who wanted to paint.) At Mount Liebig, Wilkins also started supplying art materials to the mainly Luritja and Pintupi people of the area, some of whom were already painting, many associated with Papunya Tula. In 1990, Peter Malavisi, a nurse, arrived at Mount Liebig and along with Wilkins, established an arts centre operating from a large tin shed at the back of the store. In May 1995, Watiyawanu Artists became incorporated and today remains one of the few Aboriginal arts centre in the Northern Territory that attracts no government funding.

The early artists at Mt Liebig included Billy Stockman, Long Tom Tjapangardi, Mitjili Napurula and Lilly Kelly Napangardi. Subsequently the whole galaxy of Watiyawanu Artists emerged to include Wentja Napaltjarri, the daughter of the famous artist Shorty Lungkata Tjungurrayi, Ngoia Pollard Napaltjarri, a winner of the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award, Topsy Peterson Napangardi, Clarice Morgan Nungarrayi and Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri. Some of the less well known, but interesting artists include Christine Peterson Nangala, Clarice Morgan Nungarrayi, Fabrianne Peterson Nampitjinpa, Lynette Corby Nungarrayi, Maureen Morgan Napaltjarri, the sisters Jennelle Eggley Napaltjarri and Jenetta Eggley Napaltjarri, Sally Rowe Napanangka, Ulkalara Kantamarra Napaltjarri and Maylene Marshall.

In 2003, a small group of Watiyawanu women artists were invited to exhibit in Japan and in March 2007 a major exhibition of their work was held in Singapore. This year in May two of the artists, Wentja Napaltjarri and Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri, held a joint exhibition in London.

At 87, Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri has become a legend among western desert artists with his canvases commanding astronomical sums on the art market. He dabs away with an absolute sense of supremacy of touch as he squats on the concrete floor. At times other members of the family, his wife Colleen Nampitjinpa and daughter Kathleen, will join in working on the canvas, but under his strict supervision. His colleague Wentja Napaltjarri, prefers to work squatting on the concrete on the front porch of her house surrounded by her family. Beside her lies a long stick whose purpose in her art making was quickly established before my eyes. Every time a dingo would stray over her wet canvas, the distinguished artist Wentja Napaltjarri would wack it with her stick. So her process of art making continued.

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