This coming week a funeral will be held for the renowned Papunya Tula artist M. Napanangka, who passed away in Alice Springs earlier this month. Her age, like that of many senior, bush-born people, is not known exactly, but she was at least 80, and perhaps close to a decade older. According to the official company biography that accompanied sales of her works,
Napanangka was born at Lupul rockhole south of Kintore c.1930. She gave birth to her first child in the Lake MacDonald area and later had children in Haasts Bluff, Papunya, and Alice Springs. Her first contact with Europeans was with men travelling on camels near Lupul. She walked in with her family to Haasts Bluff before the Papunya community was established. Napanangka began painting regularly for the company in 1996.
Her early works were full of circles and bright colors. The yellows and whites were set off with swirls of intense red and bright lilac and deep orange. The patterns of the composition in places suggested the outlines of ochred breasts and the ovals of hairstring suspended between women’s hands as they danced. Or perhaps you could imagine the desert sands stirred up by the dancers’ feet, patterns left behind after the women had retired to sit under the river gums when the ceremonies were paused.
Around the turn of the century, the pattern of her painting changed. The forms she described became more linear, the colors became more muted. Yellow and white were still dominant, but the bold red end of the spectrum receded from view. Lilac highlights balanced green shadow between attenuated shapes that now suggested the rolling sandhills of Pintupi country. Sunset pinks were woven into the fabric of the landscape.
Early on May 30, 2007 I arrived in Kintore with a small group of American travelers who were touring Indigenous communities under the auspices of Austrade. It was a fine, chilly winter morning and the newly opened art centre was quiet and nearly deserted. Tim Dilworth gave us a tour of the facility for about thirty minutes and by the time we emerged back into the central courtyard, the community was gathering to enjoy the first of the sun’s warmth. One member of our party was seated on the ground next to a tiny figure; Tim pointed out Napanangka to me, and with a little trepidation I walked over and leaned my back against the wall behind her. I was far too shy to speak, but delighted to observe. This is what I later wrote about the experience.
Reports from the women’s show at PTA in Alice Springs in November 2006 all remarked on Napanangka’s fragility, but even so I was astonished at what a tiny women she is. With her feet curled under her, 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 her words 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.
Twenty-four hours later I was standing in front of Papunya Tula’s Todd Mall gallery in Alice Springs, shivering in the shade and transfixed by one of Napanangka’s paintings. It was a good-sized canvas, 107 x 91 cm, painted entirely in white and ochre-yellow stripes. Down the left side of the painting, rivulets of yellow ran its length, growing broader as they moved away from the edge, running together like floodstreams, blotted, irregular, above all forceful. The right hand side of the canvas was gentler, the yellow and white bands more regular in width, curving slightly to produce paired arcs top and bottom that once more evoked the roll of desert sandhills. It was a strange combination of furious energy and peaceful resolution, and it was utterly captivating. It followed me home to America, a physical memory of an extraordinary encounter.
A year later, Napanangka won the top honors at the 25th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. Although she was still living at Kintore then, she was already too frail to travel and it was a bittersweet moment when Paul Sweeney accepted the award on her behalf.
Now she is gone from amongst us, survived by a legacy of extraordinary paintings and fond memories. I won’t be there next week to farewell her, of course, except in spirit. But my brief meeting with Napanangka taught me that spirit is what really matters.