This unconventional review of an exhibition, Jinjilngali, Kurlukuku Minpiya, Yirdingali, now on show at the Vivien Anderson Gallery in Melbourne, also constitutes a tribute to three Warlpiri women artists – Molly Tasman Napurrurla, Rosie Tasman Napurrurla and Lily Hargreaves Nungarrayi of the Warnayaka Art Centre in the Northern Territory – and their largely unsung achievements.
It’s simply not possible to separate the extraordinary lives of these women from their contemporary art-making. And neither is it possible for me to take an objective view of their artworks – as, to be fair, is the case with most art criticism.
The lives of the artists
All three Warlpiri women artists were born “out bush” in the Tanami Desert of Central Australia, delivered by Aboriginal midwives. Rosie and Molly are sisters (half-sisters in terms of how “whitefellas” calculate kinship) and Lily, their older cousin. Their births were unrecorded on any official register.
As young children, before coming into regular contact with Kardiya (the Warlpiri word for non-Aboriginal people), these women “foot-walked” their country – Warlpiri familial estates that extend over vast tracts of country in Australia’s Central Desert.
Travelling with their extended families on foot, as young girls they’d gather and eat seasonally available bush fruit and vegetables. They’d hunt, cook and eat small game including lungkarda (bluetongue lizards), wardapi (goannas) and other reptiles, and drink from rockholes and other water sources.
At night the children would sleep in rows beside close family members, more often than not the stars in the night-sky their only canopy.
This way of life made for people who were physically and psychologically tough - and very able.
In those early years the girls began learning their Jukurrpa (“The Dreaming”, in inadequate English translation), their sacred religion, their Law, a belief system grounded in the earth itself. This process of knowledge acquisition included mastery of Warlpiri ceremonies, Warlpiri iconography and the lengthy oral narratives accompanying their Jukurrpa.
The women’s profound knowledge of such matters is encrypted in the artworks currently on display in the exhibition.
That was then, this is now
Despite the usual aches and pains that go with aging, all three women still walk practically everywhere. They’ve never learnt to drive. The women’s legendary self-sufficiency and continuing care for others means that they’re regarded as role models for others in the small community of Lajamanu – for both Yapa (Warlpiri people) and those Kardiya (non-Aboriginal people) who take the trouble to attempt to understand Warlpiri people and their culture.
These three women, along with the other old Warlpiri people living at Lajamanu, represent the heartbeat of that small community.
At the same time these women are strongly individual, a fact that’s evident in the artworks on display in Melbourne.
The brief cameo portraits that follow provide a glimpse into the unique identities and artistic styles of these three women artists and the artworks they continue to create in their old age. The following account is also, on my part, unavoidably autobiographical, to some extent at least.
Yirdingali (Lily) Nungarrayi
I first came to know Yirdingali Nungarrayi (Lily) in early 1982. At the time she was known far and wide by her nickname ‘Council Woman’ because, after the Welfare Days ended in the late 1970s, she’d taken on a cleaning position at the Lajamanu Community Council.
Later, beginning in early 1982, Lily started work as one of a team of three Warlpiri women who, beginning at dawn, cleaned the school every morning before the kids arrived. The Warlpiri cleaning team, including Lily, were under the direction of a young white woman who had been appointed “head” cleaner by the then school principal.
The young white woman didn’t disguise her disdain for Warlpiri people and their cultural practices. One day, fed-up with such talk, Lily simply walked off the job, never to return. Quick to fly off the handle, Lily has never accepted shabby treatment, let alone from those considerably less experienced than her in life and work.
Lily’s “resignation” was damaging to the school because like everything else that she has done in life, she cleaned the ever-dusty school with great gusto, energy and commitment.
Today, as an increasingly frail nonagenarian, Lily Nungarrayi devotes her remaining days to the maintenance and intergenerational transmission of Warlpiri culture and language. She’s particularly dedicated to her visual art practice. Each morning she turns up early outside the Warnayaka Art Centre, waiting with her beloved maliki (dogs) until she can begin painting.
Nungarrayi’s educative zeal extends from teaching younger Warlpiri, to interacting with the succession of the sometimes recalcitrant Kardiya (non-Warlpiri people) who have lived or are now living at Lajamanu, whom she accurately perceives as being badly in need of education in Warlpiri life-ways and mores.
Lily’s quintessentially Warlpiri selfhood is evident in her visual artworks. In a field of accomplished Warlpiri artists, Yirdingali is a true original. Lily and her artworks are ultimately indivisible. Bold. Bright. Raw. Uncompromising. And charismatic.
She completes her artworks quickly, impatiently, although in this rapid execution Lily’s mark making is never slapdash. She is an action painter who works at an instinctual level, placing increasingly gestural, minimalist, assured strokes on her canvases. The Jukurrpa inhabits each one; the making of each artwork constitutes a grand gesture on her part.
These Jukurrpa include the Wardilyka Jukurrpa (“Bush Turkey Dreaming”), Ngapa Jukurrpa (“Water Dreaming”), Karnta-kurlangu Jukurrpa (“Women’s Dreaming’”) and more. This continuing hunger to evoke, to paint her Jukurrpa, repetitively and on a daily basis, even into advanced old age, comes from Lily’s passion to retain the best of the past in order to influence the present somewhat difficult circumstances of settlement life.
Each artwork that Lily creates manifests itself as a pulse of energy that will never be grasped by conventional aesthetics or mere intellectual control.
Jinjilngali (Molly) Napurrurla
My first meeting with Molly was in 1983 when she, along with Japanangka, her second husband, and extended family, moved onto the vacant patch of dusty red earth immediately next door to my home. Japanangka, Molly’s husband, was a small, thin, wiry, gentle and gracious man who had a patrician bearing.
Within a matter of hours after moving in, Molly’s family group had worked quietly, quickly and efficiently to construct a smallish hut-like dwelling. An immaculate housekeeper, Molly would sweep the path leading into their little home several times daily with a broom that she’d fashioned from spinifex grass and the leaves of a gum tree.
Adorning their family home, hanging neatly from its exterior walls, were numerous billycans and tin mugs. Stacks of tin plates were artfully balanced on top of the humpy-home. At any given time there were 10-15 people living there, but never once was a raised voice to be heard.
Like the other two women with works on display, Molly epitomises the Warlpiri core values of pre-contact days. Family, the Jukurrpa and the Warlpiri Law mean everything to Molly. To re-frame W.H. Auden’s words in a totally different context, these elements constitute her North, her South, her East and her West.
She’s a model of Warlpiri good citizenship: independent, self-reliant, consistently considerate to all-comers. Molly Napurrurla is also a wonderfully gifted storyteller with highly developed dramaturgical skills and she’s an infinitely patient teacher. In her own unassuming way, she’s a profoundly committed political and cultural activist who has been in it for the long haul.
The Jukurrpa that Molly paints (and she commands an extensive repertoire) are indicative of the brilliant intellect she brings to bear on everything she does, whether recounting lengthy Jukurrpa narratives, teaching her grandchildren or interacting with a lively group of Warlpiri pre-schoolers.
In terms of her artistic practice, Molly brings to her artworks her deep Jukurrpa knowledge, her organisational skills and an orderly, well-developed compositional sense.
Kurlukuku Minpiya (Rosie) Napurrurla
Unlike my earliest encounters with Lily Nungarrayi and Molly Napurrurla, I have no clear recollection of my first meeting with Molly’s older sister, Rosie Napurrurla. It seems that Rosie was simply always there, in the background. In daily life Rosie isn’t one who seeks to stand out.
But ultimately it’s Rosie Napurrurla’s extraordinary ability to dramatise her Jukurrpa that attracts attention in the ceremonial context of yawulyu (“Warlpiri women’s ceremonies, dancing, and the accompanying ritual designs”). The same quality may also be glimpsed in her visual art.
While she shares a broad repertoire of Jukurrpa with her younger sister Molly, for some years now Rosie has had as her principal focus the Ngurlu (“Seed”) Dreaming, although not to the exclusion of her other Jukurrpa.
Rosie has made the role of the greedy little bird in the Ngurlu Jukurrpa completely her own, through dancing and re-enacting it countless times, always to rapt audiences. In these performances Rosie, a small, slight woman by Warlpiri standards, transforms herself into the little bird, actually becoming the greedy little pigeon at the centre of this Jukurrpa.
The Ngurlu Jukurrpa is “owned” by the Warlpiri “skin” groups of Napurrurla and Nakamarra women and Jupurrurla and Jakamarra men. This narrative reflects the strongly competitive elements in a particular food chain: a group of women who follow the tracks of the Diamond Dove (Kurlukuku – a pigeon) in order to locate and gather grass seeds (“lukarrara”), which the birds like to eat and feed to their babies, and which are also scavenged by ants (“nama”).
After collecting the lukarrara, the women winnow, grind, and add water, transforming the seeds into a dough, which they then bake in the embers of an open fire, eventually producing delicious small seedcakes.
To her artworks Rosie Napurrurla brings vibrant colour, imbuing her canvases with a sense of three-dimensionality and movement. Through repetitious mark-making, in each of her artworks Rosie recreates that performative virtuosity. This is a form of action painting that produces the finest surprises – although stylistically more controlled than Lily Nungarrayi’s wildly gestural line of attack.
The Australian anthropologist A.P. Elkin wrote of Aboriginal men “of high degree”, men endowed with deep ritual and other knowledge, describing such persons as “clever men”. The semantic scope of that nomenclature is considerably wider than it is in everyday English. It didn’t seem to occur to Elkin or his contemporaries that Aboriginal women might also possess such powers.
If you’re in Melbourne, this exhibition of extraordinary artworks by these three Clever Women, Warlpiri women of high degree, Lily, Rosie and Molly, is something you should visit.
As for the artists themselves, to paraphrase Shakespeare, we shall not look upon their like again.
Jinjilngali, Kurlukuku Minpiya, Yirdingali is currently showing at the Vivien Anderson Gallery in Melbourne until June 7th 2014.