Naata Nungurrayi, from Kintore (Walungurru): Luke Scholes

SYDNEY- 8 March 2015

Naata Nungurrayi was born deep in the Gibson Desert at the rock-hole site of Kumil, circa 1932. Together with members of her immediate family, Naata led a traditional bush life, travelling among the sandhills and clusters of rocky outcrops that erupt ceremoniously across the desert floor. The cycle of nomadic life continued until April 1964 when, in the midst of severe drought conditions, the family decided to join the growing migration of Pintupi people who had made their way to the government settlement of Papunya, some 500 kilometres to the east.

During their journey in to Papunya, Naata’s family was joined by another small family group which included Yala Yala Gibbs Tjungurrayi, his wife Ningura Napurrula and their family. Together they travelled nearly 400 kilometres to the foothills of Yamunturrngu (Mount Liebig). A Northern Territory Welfare Branch patrol led by Jeremy Long and Nosepeg Tjupurrula met the group there after spotting the smoke from their early morning fire.

The group arrived at Papunya during a particularly difficult period in the troubled settlement’s history. The ailing inhabitants, separated from their traditional land and source of food, were experiencing a significant increase in their already high mortality rate. Naata, along with her sister Nancy, began working in the community kitchen, where they helped provide
meals and rations.

In the dismal conditions that prevailed at Papunya, Naata would have witnessed the genesis of the Western Desert art movement in mid-1971, under the encouragement of school teacher Geoffrey Bardon. From this poor circumstance a miraculous period in Australian art emerged, one that expressed most vividly the Pintupi’s deep desire to return to their distant homelands in the west.

Initially, Naata and her family spent brief periods at the Pintupi outposts of Yaiayi and Waruwiya, approximately 50 kilometres west of Papunya. Once the settlements of Kintore (Walungurru) and Kiwirrkura were established in the early to mid-1980s, they were at last able to relocate closer to the country Naata had traversed in her early life.

Naata, along with a small group of women from Kintore and Kiwirrkura, began painting for Papunya Tula Artists in June 1996. Her brother George Tjungurrayi and son Kenny Williams Tjampitjinpa were already established painters for the company. Initially Naata was a reticent member of the women’s painting group, often sitting quietly beside her inseparable late sister Ngangi (Nancy Nungurrayi). She worked slowly on small compositions of lines and roundels that loosely reflected the classic Tingari paintings made famous by the male painters of Papunya Tula.

Naata, like many of the new women painters, began painting the sites and narratives that chart the vast tracts of country surrounding Kiwirrkura. Many early works depicted the rockhole site of Marrapinti, which is a pivotal destination in Pintupi life, where men and women gathered to have their septums pierced for ceremonial purposes. As Naata’s confidence grew, so too did her presence among the painters. She developed a unique  iconography teeming with giant ‘U’ shapes, mollusclike forms depicting rocky outcrops and deep-etched lines representing the endless surrounding sandhills. She has emerged as an instinctive painter whose command of line, colour and form is immediate and breathtaking. Artist and art are rarely so inextricably linked, each a precious balance of cultural authority, artistic spontaneity, conviction and whim.

Few contemporary Aboriginal painters have sustained the attention of curators and collectors so feverishly. Naata has contributed to many major national and international exhibitions including Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2000 and the landmark 2009 exhibition in New York City, Nganana Tjungurringanyi Tjukurrpa Nintintjakitja – We Are Here Sharing Our Dreaming. A solo exhibition of her work appeared at the Papunya Tula Artists gallery in Alice Springs in 2011. Paintings by Naata have been acquired by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the national Gallery of Victoria and the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. She has been a regular exhibitor at the Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award and in 2002 her entry depicting the rockhole site of Marrapinti was highly commended by the judges.