Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri
Untitled (Artist’s Grandmother’s Country), 1990
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Property from a Private Collection, Connecticut
Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri
Circa 1926 - 1998
Untitled (Artist’s Grandmother’s Country), 1990
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
63 in by 63 in (160 by 160 cm)
The painting appears in excellent condition overall, with no visible repairs or restoration. Minor scuffing to the corners, where the canvas meets the stretcher.
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Dr Geoffrey Cornish OAM, attended a Rotary Meeting in Alice Springs in 1971 that was addressed by Geoffrey Bardon, in the fledgling days of the painting movement at Papunya. Following the meeting he purchased five "early boards" by Namarari and others. In 1990, with the help of Geoffrey Bardon he exhibited these early paintings and others at Bond University in the exhibition, Aboriginal Art of the Western Desert. Namarari and fellow artist Maxie Tjampitjinpa, together with Geoffrey Bardon, attended the exhibition in Queensland. Namarari produced one major painting, and Maxie Tjampitjinpa five smaller works while in residence. This collection of early boards and later paintings were sold at Sotheby’s in Melbourne in 1994, and this painting sold for A$17,250, above its auction estimate of A$6,000-8,000, and set a new world auction record for Aboriginal Art.
Untitled (Artist’s Grandmother’s Country), 1990
By John Kean
Mick Namarari was a founder of the contemporary painting movement at Papunya in 1971; he continued to paint with understated intensity until his death in 1998. Recognized for his consistent brilliance, Namarari was the ‘featured artist’ in Genesis and Genius, the first large-scale survey of Papunya Tula painting presented at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2000. He was also the inaugural recipient of the Australia Council’s Red Ochre Award, an acknowledgement of his ‘outstanding contribution to the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Culture at a national and an international level’. Notwithstanding the acclaim with which he is held, Namarari remains an enigma, for he was a quiet man who for the most part, held his own council. His paintings possess a reserve characteristic of the man, yet one always senses the layers of meaning that animate his vision. Like much art from Australia’s arid heartlands, Mick Namarari’s paintings are more autobiographical that a simple gloss of their ‘story’ may suggest. Notwithstanding their apparent abstraction, Namarari’s paintings reflect the arc of the artist’s life.
Namarari’s family relied on a handful of permanent waterholes dotted over a vast land, none more important than Marnpi, a cryptic well, between two large dunes on his father’s country. Pintupi people would scan the horizon for summer storms, and when a cloudburst was spotted, small family groups would march out to make the most of resources at a distant rockhole or claypan. As these ephemeral waters evaporated, the group would return to a ‘fallback’ water, where they would wait for the next rain. Namarari was conceived at Marnpi during an extended drought when the people of the desert faced extreme privation. After the tragic death of Namarari’s father and grandmother, and on hearing of the abundant water and ‘sweet’ food available at a mysterious station to the east, Namarari’s mother Maiyenu and her sisters, Iluka and Kurangki, followed a chain of waterholes towards unfamiliar country. The family eventually encountered Pastor F. W. Albrecht and the Arrernte evangelist Titus Renkaraka, at a tiny ration station established at Putarti spring at the base of a rocky outcrop, on the edge of a sandy plain.
Having made their first contact with a non-Aboriginal person, the small family continued their eastward journey to Yamunturrngu/Mt Liebig where they became the unsuspecting subjects of elaborate ethnographic experimentation. Scientists, including a young Norman B. Tindale, filmed all sorts of activities, took photographs, created plaster casts and made exhaustive anthropometric measurements of 100 Pintupi, Ngaliya and Kukatja participants who had been assembled for the purpose. Namarari, and several other boys who would go on to found Papunya Tula Artists, were present at this extended ethnographic circus. It must have been a bizarre yet intriguing introduction to Western culture. The year was 1932, and Namarari was estimated to be nine years of age.
When the scientific activities had concluded, Namarari and many of his Pintupi relatives followed a well-worn track adjacent to the rugged spine of the great mountain range, eventually reaching the Finke River Mission at Hermannsburg. After some time living as ulerenye (strangers) among the Western Arrernte people of the area, Namarari was taken to Utju (Areyonga) where he was initiated into manhood. After his initiation, Namarari travelled south to become a stockman at Tempe Downs in Pitjantjatjara country, where, on being oblivious to the exigencies of the cash economy, he burnt his first pay cheque. While naïve to the ways of whitefellas, Namarari was an accomplished bushman, and as opportunities arose, he accompanied older countrymen out west, following familiar routes and sacred songlines. It was on these journeys that Namarari was inducted into the metaphysical significance of the totemic landscape, a land he had previously seen through the eyes of a child.
The course of Namarari’s life had been set — periods of residency were interspersed by hard travel — episodic passages from one site to the next according to the necessities of survival, for ceremony, to visit country and to reconnect with distant kin. This is the shape of life in the Australian desert, a pattern that informs storytelling, ceremony and visual expression.
Namarari was living at Haasts Bluff in 1956 when he was reacquainted with the scientist who had taken his photograph as a boy. Norman Tindale had grown in stature since the Mt Liebig expedition. Now recognized as a senior anthropologist, Tindale was busy interviewing Aboriginal people for what would become his opus, Aboriginal tribes of Australia: their terrain, environmental controls, distribution, limits, and proper names (1974). Following a technique honed during a quarter of a century of fieldwork, Tindale asked his informants to illustrate their worldview with crayon on brown paper. Instrumentally, Namarari produced a drawing whose essential form closely resembles the central motif of Untitled (Artists Grandmother’s Country) 1990. Namarari’s first drawing, now in the archives of the South Australian Museum, traces his path from Ngankiritja (near the Haasts Bluff station), though a chain of nine named sites into the heartland of his country, via the site of his conception at Marnpi, thence to Nyunmanu (his mother’s country) and Tjilka, (on his father’s country in Western Australian over the border with Northern Territory). Namarari drew a circle to represent each locale, while the interconnecting lines index travel between places. The resulting ‘site-travel motif’ is a fundamental semiotic device used for the expression of space in desert iconography.
While the site-travel motif used in his first known drawing resembles that used in Untitled (Artists Grandmother’s Country), it is likely to convey subtly different connotations in the later work on canvas. Whereas the drawing is intended to show the water places that Namarari visited on return to his ancestral country, his 1990 canvas is more likely to illustrate an ancestral ‘songline’. In this context, each of the eight roundels would represent a site where an ancestral hero (or heroes) created landmarks that distinguish those places into the present. Assuming this reading is correct, the intervening bars indicate the path along which the ancestor(s) travelled. The canvas is notable for the way in which Namarari evokes particular environmental markers along the songline.
The dark blue area is a rocky outcrop which is a "bad" place nothing grows there and people stay away. To the right of that (top to bottom) is good country, "plenty tucker " The bright red is bush tomato, the dark red is yams. The area (top left) is the best land of all good rain and it also has many springs. The golden square (bottom left) is very good grass country, but only in spring, it dries out quickly in summer.”
The painting can therefore be equated with a ‘map’ that indicates the location of specific resources along a defined route. Yet the significance of the painting runs much deeper, for it demonstrates the artist’s enduring association with the land of his ancestors. When painting, the artist no doubt recalled locales where his family dug for yala (yams), picked kampurarrpa (bush tomato) and collected wangunu (the seed of woolly-butt) on the songline. Thus, the artist’s life experience, and his ancestral lineage are intertwined in a prolonged mediation of travel and place. The subtle repetition of form reinforces how the living present is folded into an ancestral past.
Untitled (Artists Grandmother’s Country) was created at a critical juncture on Mick Namarari’s artistic and personal trajectory. In the early 1980s, after decades of exile at Haasts Bluff and Papunya, most Pintupi people moved back to their homelands. They created a new community at Walungurru/Kintore, the site of a familiar fallback water. In turn, Walungurru was used as a base to support the construction of smaller outstations on surrounding clan estates. Namarari established his outstation at Nyunymanu on the Dingo Dreaming songline. Already known as a painter of elusive and varied compositions, Namarari incrementally refined his work to become one the first masters of desert minimalism. Minute variations in the viscosity of his paint and mark making, imbue his mature works with compelling yet reserved energy - like the verses of the songlines voiced while painting – uttered under his breath to be shared with close countrymen.
Namarari’s canvases hum with desert heat. Over and above his capacity to evoke a particular creation story, the meaning of Namarari’s mature work can be fathomed through his immersion in the infinitely repeated dotted gesture. The artist’s love for his country is codified with unassuming references to water places, imbedded in a familiar and bountiful land - Marnpi, Mintjilpirri, Nyunmanu, Tjilka.
Circumstances demanded that Namarari forsake his country as a boy, yet he took every opportunity to renew his connection to his ancestral homeland as young man, learning of its mysteries beyond the horizon of recorded history. Slowly, yet inexorably Namarari returned to places where he lived as a child – naked - before contacting whitefellas and their strange culture. Fittingly, Namarari spent the concluding decades of his life reflecting in paint, his multi-levelled association with his ancestral country.
In 1994, this painting was sold with an explanatory note made by Dr and Mrs Geoffrey Cornish in consultation with the artist, that read:
"This painting shows an important place for Mick"s people in his grandmother's country, a long, long way west of Alice Springs. It is their traditional 'walkabout' route - the yellow strip from the top to bottom through a big meeting place in the centre. A river (usually dry) runs horizontally through it and good places lo dig for water are shown. The dark blue area is a rocky outcrop which is a 'bad' place nothing grows there and people stay away To the right of that (top to bottom) is good country, 'plenty tucker ' The bright red is bush tomato, the dark red is yams. The area (top left) is the best land of all good rain and it also has many springs. The golden square (bottom left) is very good grass country, but only in spring, it dries out quickly in summer."
Dr John Kean was Art Advisor at Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd (1977-79) and has specialized in Indigenous art at Australian state and national institutions over several decades, recently completing a PHD in Art History at the University of Melbourne.