Last year, when we were in Darwin, we saved up a special treat for our last (and always sad) day in town: the retrospective of the work of Warlpiri painter Lorna Fencer Napurrurla at Chan Contemporary Art. Well, it turned out we were too smart by half, for we’d failed to check whether the Chan was open on Mondays. We missed our chance, doubly disappointed because everyone who had seen the show raved about it. So I was delighted when Bob Gosford mentioned in passing in a post on The Northern Myth that there was a catalog available. I was doubly intrigued by the title of Gosford’s review: “Yulyurlu: ‘wry, mischievous, shitty, demanding, defiant, fond of a drink, and a party gal.'”
Now Bob’s not one for exaggeration. Much. And while Bob’s review of the show pointed out that it wasn’t a “best-of” collection of Napurrurla’s work, the paintings that he reproduced in his piece were certainly splendid and diverse examples of the artist’s love of dense color and expressionist brushwork. Bob also didn’t attribute the quotation in his title, although after conducting an advanced internal linguistic analysis of his column, I wouldn’t be far surprised to discover that these were the words of the artist’s longtime friend and admirer, Chips Mackinolty, who spoke at the opening of the Darwin exhibition and who also contributed one of the several sterling essays that comprise the catalog’s documentation of a remarkable career.
Yulyurlu: Lorna Fencer Napurrurla (edited by Margie West, Wakefield Press, 2011) is a fine piece of work, the rare example of an artist’s monograph that celebrates and dissects it subject, informs and advances our understanding of both the artist and the work.
Two short essays introduce one of the most colorful, dynamic, and independent personalities in the recent history of Indigenous art. Barbara Ambjerg Pederson was the manager of Mimi Arts and Crafts in Katherine in the early years of the 21st century at the time when Napurrurla’s career had launched into widespread recognition and admiration. If the fiercely self-motivated and autonomous artist could be said to have had a “home base” for her work during her glory years, Mimi might qualify, but one of the stories that emerge from this catalog is that Napurrurla managed her own career, made her own connections, and governed her relationships with galleries and dealers in a way that few other artists coming out of remote Australia have managed to do in the last half century. Ambjerg Pederson’s brief memoir is elegiac and affectionate; it is clear that Napurrurla, who passed away in 2006, remains dear to her.
Chips Mackinolty fills us in on an earlier stage in Napurrurla’s life, during the early 1980s, when he was in and out of Katherine and Lajamanu on a variety of education and art gigs, and in those days before painting commenced at Lajamanu, Napurrurla was nonetheless a presence to be reckoned with in the Warlpiri community. Their friendship persisted over the next two and a half decades, with Napurrurla often appearing unannounced at Mackinolty’s Nightcliff home on her trips to Darwin. Here too the story is one of affection mingled with awe and admiration.
The major essay in the catalog was written by Christine Nicholls and it constitutes an exemplary contribution to Aboriginal art criticism and history. Nicholls lived in Lajamanu for the decade spanning 1982 to 1992, the period when acrylic painting began to extend from its beginnings around Papunya into Warlpiri country, first at Yuendumu, and later, around 1986, to Lajamanu. She witnessed firsthand the initial suspicion that accompanied that spread, the concerns about the inappropriate revelation of sacred knowledge in painting, the gradual embrace of the movement, and the struggles to establish an art centre that could support the ambitions of the Warlpiri people on the edge of the Tanami. Her long immersion in the culture as linguist, educator, and finally art centre manager give her the knowledge and perspective to author an absorbing and penetrating analysis of Napurrurla’s art and the cultural traditions it embodies.
Nicholls begins her story with her first impressions of Napurrurla in 1982 and recapitulates the portrait offered by Ambjerg Pederson and Mackinolty before backtracking to provide us with the details of Napurrurla’s early life out bush and the establishment of the Hooker Creek Reserve (which grew into the settlement of Lajamanu). Having established this historical background, Nicholls then tackles the relationship between Napurrurla’s art and the Dreamings from which they proceeded.
Those familiar with Napurrurla’s career will recognize this catalog of Dreamings: Yam, Vine, Snake, Boomerang, Water, Kangaroo Bush Tucker. Nicholls’ long history with the Warlpiri allows her to retell many of these stories in detail, and to trace the connections among them, showing how they relate not only to one another but to the manifestations of them in Napurrurla’s paintings. For example, she tells the story of the Yam Dreaming, in which two Jakamarra brothers, Yumurrpa (the elder) and Wapurtarli, fought a series of bloody battles across the countryside, occasionally involving people of the Caterpillar and Water Dreamings.
Eventually, the two brothers faced off in single combat, attacked one another with hooked boomerangs until the Wapurtali brother’s leg was amuptated. Ultimately, the two brothers reconciled and the younger of the two bound up his leg with a nyirawu vine, which Nicholls tells us resembles a small snake, and limped homewards. Nicholls concludes her discussion of the Dreaming stories by quoting Lee Cataldi, with whom she served as coordinator at the Lajamanu art centre from 1989 to 1991:
It took me some years to find out what those little lines and curves [in Nappurrurla’s paintings] mean. When I asked Warlpiri people they simply said, ‘the little snakes’, Finally Michael Nelson Jakamarra told me that the little snakes jump up and bite people on the leg. The central image of the Wapurtarli song, which parallels the narrative, is that of the wounded hero limping home, his damaged leg bound in a vine. If you speak of limping in relation to a Dreaming narrative, Warlpiri understand that you are referring to this narrative in particular. Iconically the snake resembles a vine, and by way of biting the leg it relates to a leg wound. In other words in the painting the snake signifies the wounded hero. The figurative route is not just iconic, it is also by way of metonymy, i.e: snake > leg > wound > hero (p. 43).
After thoroughly explicating the Dreaming complexes that underlie Napurrurla’s work, Nicholls turns in the latter half of her essay to a comprehensive history of the Lajamanu art centre’s developments and tribulations, of Napurrurla’s contributions to the development of painting there, and to the vagaries of the artist’s career. This is fascinating stuff. I knew many parts of the story from many sources over the years, including Judith Ryan’s seminal Paint Up Big: Warlpiri Women’s Paintings from Lajamanu (National Gallery of Victoria, 1990), and from my own early encounters with Napurrurla’s art at Sydney’s Coo-ee Gallery in the late 90s. There are anecdotes from the likes of Alcaston’s Beverly Knight and Darwin artist/curator Gary Lee. There is the tragedy of Brent Hocking, who hid himself away as “Japaljarri” and nearly resurrected the art centre at Lajamanu in 1997, and the heroism of the great artist Jimmy Robertson Jampijinpa, who kept the centre running despite impossible odds. But I’ve never seen the story told in its fullness as Nicholls does here, and in doing so, she not only provides context for Napurrurla’s career, she documents an extraordinary chapter in Aboriginal art history.
Nicholls’ essay is entitled “Painting Alone: Lorna Fencer Napurrurla,” and it is on this note that she concludes her story. Napurrurla certainly went her own way throughout her career, painting for whomever she could entice to support her ambitions, sometimes falling afoul of carpetbaggers, sometimes working for established and reputable galleries, sometimes painting in concert with other women from Lajamanu. But even in that last case, there was something singular and solitary about Napurrurla’s passion for her painting, and there is an air of melancholy to Nicholls’ final assessment.
Happily, that air is dispersed immediately by the brilliance of the art represented in the plates that fill the latter half of the catalog. In his essay at Crikey, Bob Gosford tells how it took several visits to the exhibition before he became entranced by the work and, as I noted above, he judges the work included here to be of somewhat uneven quality. And while it is true that many of the earliest paintings are undistinguished, even generic examples of desert women’s painting at the dawn of the acrylic movement, the vast majority of the work reproduced here is simply spectacular.
At first, I was annoyed by the arrangement of the plates in a seemingly random order. After reading Nicholls’ history, I hoped I could recapitulate the development of Napurrurla’s artistry through a chronological survey of her output. But that proved impossible, as the work is presented in no apparent order: paintings from early in her career are interspersed with large, majestic canvases from her final days, prints and carvings scattered among them.
But once I let go of my agenda, I was amazed at the consistency, the vigor, the daring of these paintings. Napurrurla changed her palette over time, and changed it back again–or perhaps it is better to say that she chose her colors according to an inner logic that is mirrored in ceaseless changes in her paint handling. There is a vivacity to the creative process on view here, and it never seems to falter. Whether she is dotting her canvases or spreading the paint in thickened brushstrokes, laying color upon color in great sweeping movements across the surface, painting in primaries or pastels, Napurrurla’s energy and passion leap from every page. I found myself caught up in sheer delight, and at the same time teetering into dismay at having missed the chance to see these masterpieces in person.
I first saw Napurrurla’s work in Sydney, probably in 1998, at Coo-ee, when Adrian Newstead brought out dozens of smallish canvases and left us alone to peruse them. My memories of that day are primarily of being overwhelmed, unable to take in any sense of coherence. I followed Napurrurla’s career over the next eight years with a similar and persistent sense of disorientation. I could never quite pin her down, always felt that an understanding and appreciation of her work lay just beyond my grasp. These sentiments are echoed in Gosford’s reaction to the show, which he found disappointing at first, but somehow inescapable. For Gosford, and for me, the key to that mysterious, tantalizing appreciation lay in this extraordinary catalog. In the end, he calls the exhibition “a brutally frank exposition of the life and career of a national treasure who didn’t practice her art, she lived it.” If you were lucky enough to see it during the national tour which has just ended, and even if you weren’t, what is saved here in Yulyurlu: Lorna Fencer Napurrurla will repay your attention many times over. It’s a bit of a national treasure in itself.