Lorna Fencer Napurrula, c. 1925-2006

I expect many of you have already seen the news from Vivien Anderson:

Lorna Napurrula Fencer passed away last night in Katherine from complications arising from a stroke earlier in the evening.

Lorna Napurrula Fencer was the uber Warlpiri warrior woman. Her fortitude and zest for life will continue to be mirrored in her paintings that were created over the past twenty years.

Lorna Napurrula  Fencer experienced tough times,  maintaining her painting practice whilst living through personal tragedy and harsh conditions in Katherine and her country, Lajamanu in the late 1990’s. In spite of these difficulties, she still managed to captivate collectors and museums and was the recipient of two significant art awards; the John McCaughey Memorial Art Prize at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1997 and the Conrad Jupiter Casino Art Award in the same year. She resurfaced as an artistic force about five years ago after an interval of minor painting production. Her paintings have been acquired by many state galleries, with a recent major acquisition currently on display at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.

Those who knew her were astonished by her mental toughness and agility. Many will find it hard to believe she is gone, somehow believing she was indestructible.

Lorna Napurrula Fencer was a dynamic artistic force who left a generous legacy in her art and she will be greatly missed.

Little Snake, 1999, courtesy of Ochre Gallery, Melbourne

Napurrula was, for me, the last of the great Lajamanu Warlpiri artists that hold a special place in my memories. On our second trip to Australia, the first where we went determined to bring home some “serious” art, we saw an advertisement in the QANTAS magazine for a gallery (which one escapes me now) that was featuring works by Abie Jangala. That was the beginning of a serious infatuation that led to, among others, Jimmy Robertson and Napurrula. There was a boldness to the works–this was in the early 90’s, not too long after the controversy in Lajamanu about whether the people should paint at all for the commercial market had been settled. The unconventional use of white was startling back then in Jangala’s work. 

Napurrula’s painting was brilliant, and deep. I remember first seeing photographs of the paintings and being surprised by the color combinations, and then the next day seeing the actual paintings themselves and discovering that there were layers and layers of other colors hidden beneath the surface. In this painting, you can barely see the purple underpainting at first, but it becomes the most salient feature of the work after a while. I found a metaphor for the slow revelation of knowledge here and understood that all great art partakes of that slow revelation; I guess that’s why we keep coming back to it.

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