From first canvas to national collections in three years

The story of senior women from Kintore, Northern Territory

Just three years after first putting brush to canvas, a small group of senior women from the remote community of Kintore have become Central Australia's most sought after artists. Existing orders from around the country for work by them will take four months to fill, according to Papunya Tula Artists, an Aboriginal owned company founded in 1972 to support and promote Western Desert art. They have recently exhibited in a very successful joint show at Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi in Melbourne, at the Utopia Gallery in Sydney last year; and are represented in the collections of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the National Gallery of Victoria. Their meteoric rise, made the more impressive by their age and the brevity of their painting careers, is not as unusual as it might be in any context other than the dynamic and still expanding Aboriginal art movement, loosely termed Western Desert.

East Kimberley artist Billy Thomas was also in his seventies when he started to paint in 1995; he achieved attention from collectors within 12 months. The phenomenon is summed up in the words of Vivien Johnson: 'The power of cultural practices within Aboriginal society dating back millennia, from which Western Desert artists draw their inspiration, seems the only possible explanation of their ability to confound the expectations of art audiences by continually turning up with astounding new paintings.'(1)

Kintore (Walungurru), in the heart of Pintupi traditional country, is directly west of Alice Springs, some 50 kilometres from the Western Australian border. Men in this community have been painting since the earliest days of the Western Desert movement, among them the "big names" Turkey Tolson, Yala Yala Gibbs Tjungurrayi, Pinta Pinta Tjapanangka, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa and Mick Namarari.

In 1992 Marina Strocchi, a community artist from Melbourne, started work as coordinator of the women's centre in Haasts Bluff (Ikuntji), roughly halfway between Kintore and Alice Springs. Women's centres in desert communities have commonly operated as de facto art centres. With Strocchi's support, painting in the community revived. Papunya Tula Artists had serviced Haasts Bluff in the late seventies but subsequently the community's prominent male artists passed away or ceased to paint. Now women and two men, including Long Tom Tjapanangka, took up the relay and very quickly began exhibiting and selling work. Their emergence has been documented in the book Ikuntji, Paintings from Haasts Bluff, 1992-1994, compiled by Strocchi.

The Haasts Bluff community share strong family and cultural ties with the Kintore community. Kintore women visited Haasts Bluff for the opening of their women's centre, dancing and singing in the traditional way over four days and nights. During the next two years they reminded Strocchi at every opportunity of their desire for 'big canvas', pressing it home with gifts of hair string necklaces and coolamons.
In the winter of 1994, with some financial support from the Aboriginal Development Unit of the Northern Territory Department of Education, Strocchi organised canvas and paint for a women's camp in bushland not far from Kintore. Some 15 women worked on three canvases, three metres by three metres, and two canvases, two metres by three metres.
This was the occasion of the first work by Makinti Napanangka, a tiny, frail woman in her seventies. Younger women apparently thought she was too old to paint and shouldn't be disturbed, but she had her own ideas. Equally determined were the sisters, Wintjiya and Tjunkiya Napaltjarri, both of whom at that time had their vision impaired by cataracts. Tatali Nangala also joined in the work, as did Nyurapayia Nampitjinpa. Inyuwa Nampitjinpa, who has since come to prominence amongst this group of Kintore painters, was at the camp but did not paint. During the camp, the women received a visit from kinsman Turkey Tolson, at that stage chairman of Papunya Tula Artists. He watched the work in progress and gave it his sanction: 'Good canvas'.

Strocchi immediately appreciated the strength of the work. She reports that the women wanted to 'change it for cash' in Alice Springs but she urged them to let her try to place it more appropriately. She sent out photographs of the work and among the encouraging responses was that of Doreen Mellor at the Tandanya Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide: she wanted to organise an exhibition if more work could be done. Strocchi reported back to the Kintore women who responded with enthusiasm.
'They piled into the football bus.' Strocchi recalls. 'It was driven by Riley Major, an established painter himself and chairman of the Kintore Community Council. This was a strong endorsement of the project.'
The women camped at Haasts Bluff and worked for two weeks, by the end of which they had enough work for the show. An Australia Council grant enabled the women to accompany their work to Tandanya, where they danced and sang at the opening. For all of them, it was their first trip away from Central Australia.The show sold well and subsequently the five canvases from the original painting camp were placed at the Kelton Foundation (USA), the National Gallery of Victoria, the Supreme Court in Darwin, the Campbelltown Regional Gallery and the University of Tasmania.

Papunya Tula Artists recognised the worth of supporting this group of painters and engaged an additional field-worker to service the area more adequately. Today the two field-workers, painter Wayne Eager (one of the founders of Melbourne's Roar Studios in the early eighties, where Gabrielle Pizzi held her first show of Western Desert art) and Paul Sweeney, spend four out of six weeks moving between Kintore and Kiwirrkurra, lying across the border in Western Australia at the edge of the Gibson Desert.

Eager describes his work as that of a painter's assistant. He supplies stretched canvas and paint, and during a painting session is on hand to replenish supplies and to keep potential damage to the work at bay. The painters generally work in a communal setting, with children and dogs often present or nearby.
'Sometimes I've had to wash a canvas under a tap after spillage' reports Eager, 'but generally, if a field-worker is there, we can prevent it from happening.'

The field-workers spread their attention among all the active painters within a community. Eager is anxious to mention artists who are less successful in market terms than the women who have moved to the fore, (among them Walangkura Napanangka). Strocchi, who maintains her interest in the group, although she hasn't worked with them since the Tandanya show, acknowledges in particular Makinti's special qualities: 'She's not obstructed by any of the insecurities typical of an emerging 'Western' artist, nor by any of the clich├ęs of Aboriginal art. She has a great will to live and absolute clarity about her [dreaming] stories which she paints with a free, expressive brush and palette. For the Western viewer and collector, this and her freedom from representational imagery, mean that she fits perfectly into a lyrical abstract expressionist stream of work while at the same time having the fascination of an artist drawing on ancient cultural traditions.'

1 Johnson, Vivien, Aboriginal Artists of the Western Desert, A Biographical Dictionary Craftsman House, 1994.