Papunya Tula Artists, Kintore (Walungurru), WA

On the morning of the fourth day of our Austrade delegation’s tour through Aboriginal art centres we left chilly Warakurna behind at eight in the morning, flew northeast across the border and the timezone back into the Territory and landed at Kintore (known locally as Walungurru) at about the same local time (eight a.m.) that we’d left WA. Along the way we passed out of the rocky hill terrain (shown in the inset below) into a country of sinuous sand hills.

Rockhills give way to sandhills NE of Warakurna, WA

Farther along in our flight, nearing the NT border, we flew over the country around Lake MacDonald, or Kaakuratintja, the homeland of artists Willy Tjungurrayi and George Tjungurrayi. Here’s the photo of it from Google Earth.

Kaakuratintja (Lake MacDonald), courtesy of Google Earth

And here are some snapshots from the airplane as we flew overhead.

The landscape on the ground is dominated by the iconic Pulikatjara (two hills). They are a magnificent pair, one soft, green, wearing away into the ground, the other thrusting up into the sky at a greater distance. They were so imposing that at first I even overlooked the paintings that are mounted around the airport and along the road leading into the town. 

Pulikatjara, the two hills at Walungurru

We were met by Papunya Tula Artists fieldworker Tim Dilworth, who was our host and guide for the morning’s visit to the new painting studio that opened back in March. When we first arrived, the chill was still in the air and there weren’t a lot of people around yet. Most of those who had come in to the studio at that point were sitting in the sunlight, soaking up what warmth it provided, like Narrabri Nakamarra and Hilary Tjapaltjarri. The exception was Charlie Tjapangati, who was already hard at work on the front verandah, but more about that later.

Narrabri Nakamarra (left) and Hilary Tjapaltjarri
Charlie Tjapangati at work early in the morning

The studio space is very impressive, large, well lit, and comfortable. (For more photos of the studio, see the Papunya Tula website news page devoted to the opening.) The largest interior spaces are the painting rooms, women’s to the right and men’s to the left as you enter. These rooms are actually one long space, well lit by high clerestory windows fore and aft, and divided by a central storage area containing painting supplies. Paints were being handed out that morning by another fieldworker named Tim, and my apologies to him for not catching his last name at the time. Works in progress lined the walls of the painting space, some hanging, some leaning up along the benches built into the walls.

Work in progress by Nyilyari Tjapangati

Off to one end of the painting galleries was the prep room where canvases are stretched and primed for the artists in the whole range of sizes. Tim Dilworth explained the process to us and answered our questions about the distribution of canvas. Pretty much anyone who wants to paint will be supplied with materials, although new practitioners are given smaller canvases to start with. The staff does “close up shop” during infrequent major holidays, but even at those times artists who are seriously engaged will be left with a supply of canvas that allows them to come in to the studios and work if they so desire.

The prep room at the Kintore studio

We passed out of the prep area into the stock room, the space where recently completed paintings are stored and documented before being sent into Alice Springs. I think that, had we been allowed to, we would have bought out the contents of the room right then and there. The latest canvas by the grand old lady of PTA, Makinti Napanangka, lay next to a work by Ruby Lee Napurrula, Wintjya Napaltjarri’s 35-year old daughter who has just begun to paint. 

New work by Makinti Napanangka, left, and Ruby Lee Napurrula

A new work by Narrabri Nakamarra, a glowing orange creation that looked equally like the back of a lizard and a parched patch of sun-baked desert clay competed for our attention with a 4×4′ depiction of Umari rockhole near Kiwirrkura by Tjunkiya Napaltjarri. A smaller work by Tjunkiya was partially hidden by a new work by Yala Yala’s son Adam Gibbs Tjapaltjarri. Another large and dramatic work convinced me that Kawayi Nampitjinpa has truly come into her own. She began painting less than ten years ago by helping her husband, Benny Tjapaltjarri in his last years, when his eyesight began to fail. (Those last paintings* of Benny’s are among the most beautiful works to come out of PTA this century, in my view, delicate canvases almost devoid of incident, almost monochromatic, built out of blocks of color barely differing one from the other.) 

PTA fieldworker Tim Dilworth surveys the new stock. In front of Tim, a new painting by Tjunkiya Napaltjarri partially obscures one by Narrabri Nakamarra. At the extreme left, new work by Kawayi Nampitjinpa.

After Tim finished showing us around the facility we were free to wander as we chose, and I asked Tim if he’d do me the favor of making an introduction to Charlie Tjapangati, whose work I’ve admired for its combination of simplicity and understatement since I first saw a painting** of the rockhole in Tjarriyinya cave at the PTA gallery in Alice in the early 90s. As I mentioned above, Charlie was seated on the verandah in front of the painting rooms when we arrived, at work on a large canvas. He was still drawing the main design in red on a black underpainting. I’ve had the chance to watch artists at various stages of the creation of works (and would have many more opportunities before this trip was over), but I realized I’d never seen this stage of the process before. Charlie worked rapidly and assuredly, and what I found most interesting was that after completing one stroke, he would quickly move his hand maybe two or three inches farther along the intended track of the line, lay down a short dash of paint, and then unhesitatingly fill in the space between that mark and the place where the previous brushstroke had ended. Then he’d move on another few inches, lay down another quick dash of the red paint, and connect it back to the previous stroke.

Tim introduced me to Charlie as an American collector, and in a few moments, the name of Charlie’s old friend Fred Myers entered the conversation and Tim got a quick lesson in the history Charlie’s painting career as well as his friendships with Americans. After a few moments we were joined by Charlie’s wife, Violet Nakamarra (who is the sister of the Warlpiri painter Michael Nelson).

I said my goodbyes soon after, and thanked Tim for the introduction and for translating for me. On my way back into the studio, I ran into a young girl who had been in the studio when we first arrived. I never did learn her name, or get a chance to take her picture, but both times we quickly got engaged in dribbling her pink and white basketball back and forth to one another. It started out as a game of bounce-and-catch, but once again my near non-existent Pintupi vocabulary proved sufficient unto the day, and a few shouts ofpalya (good!) on my part were enough to encourage her to show off her skills with the ball. This second time our game ended when a group of dogs got into the midst of it and a fast bounce resulted in an explosion of canines amidst the old ladies who’d gathered in the porch.

Returning inside, I was introduced to George Tjungurrayi, recently shorn of his dreadlocks, and happily greeting the visitors to the studio. Wandering out to the courtyard, I found Sherry in conversation with Makinti, and leaned my back against the wall of the porch near where they were both seated. This was the first time that I’d ever been in Makinti’s presence, and I choose that phrasing deliberately, because her presence is astonishing. 

Sherry listens to Makinti (thanks to Wolf for this shot and the closeup of Charlie Tjapangati’s brush above)
Makinti regina

Reports from the women’s show at PTA in Alice Springs last November all remarked on Makinti’s fragility, but even so I was astonished at what a tiny women she is. With her feet curled under she, she seemed like the merest sketch of a woman–until she turned to stare me in the eye and unleashed her voice at me, a torrent of words rushing, stopping, stumbling, turning back on themselves, and leaving me thinking that even had I been able to understand her language, the intensity with which she almost seemed to hurl them at me would have rendered me incapable of reply. There could hardly have been a more striking contrast between the energy of her voice and the collection of twigs that her body seems. Although I felt like I could easily cradle her enitre body in one arm, I was sure I could never constrain her spirit.

Khadija takes advantage of a quiet moment in the courtyard to record her impressions

The studio at Kintore had the feel of a real community centre–a centre of the community. By the time we left, several women had taken up painting in the women’s half of the main room at the gallery, but Hilary Tjapaltjarri was still sitting in the sun in the courtyard, canvas at his side, talking now with Kawayi Namitjinpa. Makinti’s teen-aged grandson was there to look out for here, and more children had joined my young friend with the basketball. Of course, there were dogs aplenty, though they seemed mellower than many we’d met on earlier days of the trip. A goodly crowd of people assembled as the morning grew warmer, though very few of them appeared to be there to engage in art work. Perhaps because visitors to Kintore are so frequent, no-one seemed terribly impressed that a planeload of Americans had dropped in that day. Rather, I had the feeling that it was just another beautiful winter’s day in the desert, and life hummed on at its own slow and easy pace.

Leaving Walungurru

The two paintings below are older works from Papunya Tula Artists referred to in the text above.

*Benny Tjapaltjarri and Kawayi Nampitjinpa, Warna, SE of Lupulnga, 2000 **Charlie Tjapangati, Tjarriyinya Rockhole, 1995

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