Brave new wave: desert women painters

A ‘small and unassuming’ Papunya board was the inspiration behind ‘Brave new wave: desert women painters’, I am told by the exhibition’s curators, Celia Dottore and Madeline Reece. Flinders University Museum of Art’s (FUMA) collection of 122 Papunya boards is of national significance, yet one board in particular holds a special position in the collection. This ‘very unique, early’ work was acquired by FUMA from Papunya Tula Artists Inc. in 1980 during a research trip. It is titled Woman dreaming of young man (c.1971-77) and was painted by Rosie Riley Nakamarra.

‘This work is an anomaly amongst FUMA’s Papunya boards as it’s painted and attributed to a woman, and is also coincidentally the first work the Museum acquired by an Aboriginal woman’, Dottore and Reece explain. ‘At the time most women assisted their husbands and fathers with painting and were usually not listed as contributing artists.’ This work, therefore, led the Museum’s custodians ‘to consider the genesis of Central and Western desert women painters held in FUMA’s collection and acknowledge their prolific contribution to the development of contemporary Aboriginal art.’ Hence the title of this exhibition, ‘Brave new wave’, which celebrates the Aboriginal women who, in the curators’ words, ‘broke from convention to inspire generations of women to paint.’

Rosie Riley Nakamarra, unknown (Western Desert region) Papunya, NT, Woman dreaming of young man, c.1971-1977, synthetic polymer paint on plywood, 39.7 x 30.1cm. Flinders University Art Museum Collection 1520. © the artist 2019. Courtesy the artist and Flinders University Art Museum, South Australia

Twenty-two paintings from 20 Aboriginal women of the Central and Western Desert regions make up the exhibition, representing such communities as Papunya, Utopia, Yuendumu, Kalka, Lajamanu, Walungurra (Kintore), Wirrimanu (Balgo) and Patjarr. Dottore and Reece describe the works of the exhibition as ‘bright and full-bodied’, by artists who utilised ‘innovative approaches to mark making,’ and many of whom ‘broke away from the formality of dot painting and the restricted palette of early desert painting to produce adventurous and unexpected visions of their ancestral stories.’ Though each individual work included in the exhibition is significant in its own right, the curators help me to realise that the influence these artists had on each other further elevates their artistic contributions.

Judy Napangardi Watson, for example, was a Warlpiri artist who painted in an ‘abstracted and energetic manner’ at Yuendumu, pioneering a modern approach that spread to Lajamanu. While Yulurlu Lorna Fencer Napurrurla had a ‘recognisably loose and liberal style’ that helped empower women such as Susie Bootja Bootja Napaltjarri to paint at Wirrimanu, ‘shaping the rich and dynamic Balgo movement’. Then at Utopia, the best known artist in the exhibition, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, paved the way for the success of others ‘through a visionary use of colour and gestural mark making.’ As the curators surmise, the pushing of ‘the boundaries of the painted medium’ serves as the exhibition’s ‘unifying thread’.

Kutungka Napanangka, c.1950–2010, Pintupi, Alice Springs, NT, Untitled, 2009, synthetic polymer paint on linen, 61.5 x 55.3cm. Gift of Emeritus Professor JVS Megaw and Dr M Ruth Megaw. Flinders University Art Museum Collection 4559. Photograph: Flinders University Museum of Art. © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Flinders University Art Museum, South Australia

Naturally, gender is an important aspect of this exhibition. Of course ‘gendered expressions’ are resultant from the female perspectives, experiences and embodied understandings of these women. However, in this exhibition, gender resonates at a more profound cultural level, too. Dottore and Reece illustrate this for me via a return to the work that inspired the exhibition: ‘As signalled in the descriptive title [… of] Nakamarra’s painting [Woman Dreaming of Young Man], these ancestral designs allude to sacred and powerful ‘love magic’ traditions passed down in desert communities through matrilineal lines. Such practices, encompassing sand and body painting, ritual singing and dancing, express romantic feelings and sexual desire, as well as cautionary tales of illicit and transgressive love.’

‘Brave new wave’ celebrates key moments of fissure, of breaking from convention, and received wisdoms; but it also traces a trajectory that reaches this day, and propels us into the future; where women painters – who have been inspired by the artists on show – continue expressing their unique relationship to Aboriginal life and land. What this shows us is that these critical ‘gendered expressions’ continue long after Nakamarra began expressing-through-painting in the late 1970s and early 1980s: reverberating with the vibrancy of contemporary Aboriginal art.

Founded in 1978, the FUMA collection contains 8,000 works of art across four main areas: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander; Australian political posters; post-object and documentation; and European prints. This exhibition forms part of ‘Tarnanthi: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art’. The curators hope to tour the exhibition through regional South Australia, though venues are yet to be confirmed.

Dr Joseph Brennan is an art critic, magazine editor (National Safety) and media scholar based in Sydney.

Bay Discovery Centre, Glenelg Town Hall
Until 2 February 2020
South Australia