NAATA NUNGURRAYI – ICONOGRAPHY
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Alongside the few remaining vibrant abstract works available in the primary market, Piermarq now exclusively brings Naata Nungurrayi’s final body of work Iconography to collectors. Intrinsically linked to Nungurrayi’s own culture, these icons represent the beginnings of all human language and art before people became sedentary – examples of which can be found on ancient petroglyphs (rock carvings) on all habitable continents around the world. They are historical documents that will soon be our only link to the genesis of culture. Completed over five years, Iconography is recognised as one of the most significant bodies of indigenous art completed since the Papunya boards of the early 1970’s.

The rock art of Central Australia is one of the most spectacular artistic legacies of a pre-historic people. The fact that it is virtually unknown in no way diminishes its significance. While the Palaeolithic cave art of southern France and northern Spain has been the subject of investigation and scholarly research for more than a century, the rock art of Central Australia which predates the European images of animals and humans has yet to find its Abbe Breuil [1] or Reinach [2]. Most Australian rock art research has concentrated on the highly decorative images which adorn rock shelters in Arnhem Land, the Kimberleys and Cape York.

The Central Australian rock art, however, consists mainly of petroglyphs [3], an engraving created by a process of abrading or chipping the rock surface to create a pattern or an image. With the passage of millennia these original images undergo a process of change from exposure to the weather which can take two forms – either leaving an exposed oxidised outline projecting from the rock face, or a depressed surface which has been eaten out by the action of the elements.

To the north and west of Alice Springs lie an unbroken belt of ranges more than 400 kilometres long which contain innumerable examples of petroglyphs on their exposed faces as well as in sheltered recesses. We can only speculate as to who created these images and what their intention was in doing so. “The peopling of Australia’s deserts represents one end of an arc of dispersal involving the diaspora of early modern humans from Africa”. [4] These petroglyphs are the only record which the first people to dwell in Central Australia have left us.

Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth and this reality has imposed its own logic on the pattern of human occupation of the desert regions. For desert hunter-gatherers the strategy for survival in a harsh and unforgiving environment was to be highly mobile and opportunistic in response to the vagaries of the climate which cause vital resources such as water and wildlife to increase or decrease. This life of constant mobility also determined the material culture of the desert dwellers of Central Australia. They had few possessions, only what could be carried from one place to the next, and these consisted only of hunting equipment such as spears, throwing stick and stone blades. Because their material possessions were minimal, Europeans when they first encountered desert dwelling Aborigines in Central Australia dismissed them as primitive people who had barely reached the first rung of human development on the evolutionary ladder.

But in contrast to the paucity of their material culture, the Central Australian Aborigines possessed a highly developed spiritual life. Their belief system was based on an understanding of cosmology, the environment and the natural world around them. Their lives were regulated by survival skills which were embodied in complex creation stories which were handed down through the generations in songs and stories and elaborate ceremonies. While they lived a nomadic lifestyle, these people would come together at regular intervals to perform ceremonies which they believed could regulate the seasons and ensure the supply of animals for food. These gathering places were around semi-permanent water which was usually in gorges deep within the mountain ranges. These periodic gatherings of desert nomads may explain the presence of multifarious examples of petroglyphs around water.

The images in these petroglyphs are universal as they occur all over the world in places of early human occupation in Africa, India and North and South America. A prime example of this is the symbol referred to as the Eye of God in the Middle East and in numerous other parts of the world which researchers believe is the symbol of the Sun. The circle is one of the most elementary and basic symbols in the world. The universality of the circle means that down through the ages numerous meanings have been incorporated to it. In Aboriginal iconography it can signify a person, or a campsite or a sacred place. Another recurring image throughout Central Australia is a series of lines carved onto rock surfaces. These irregular lines may signify movement over the land, or they may represent a pathway taken by creation figures in the Dreaming. [5] An interesting image which is sometimes encountered on lower rock faces is to our modern eye resembling a stick figure, but to traditional Aborigines it has a much deeper meaning.

There are also many examples of petroglyphs which are more complex and contain many more images than the examples above which occur in isolation or on single rock faces. These galleries of petroglyphs are a treasure house of knowledge which dates from time immemorial. The accumulation of images over millennia gives these petroglyph galleries an appearance of complexity which may in fact belie their real raison d’être. Desert people down through the ages have been viewing these petroglyphs without necessarily knowing their original meaning. However through millennia of exposure to these rock engravings they have incorporated them into their storehouse of visual imagery.

Naata Nungurrayi was born in the deep desert in the 1930s and led a completely nomadic existence for the first 30 years of her life. She was raised according to the strict rules of her Pintubi [6] family group and acquired all the knowledge which had been handed down through the generations of how to survive in the desert.

The stripped-back images contained in this suite of work painted over the last six years of her career as an artist relates directly to the petroglyph imagery which she imbibed as a young woman. It was one of the main sources of imagery, along with body painting and ground painting, which was embedded in her psyche and within which was contained her whole understanding of the world in which she existed.

These paintings comprise the initial outline of a work which Naata would then cover with dots to produce a finished painting. This original outline, however, is to an Aboriginal artist the most important part of the painting process as it embodies the story concerning a particular dreaming site which is the subject matter of the painting. The process of dotting to produce the finished work is what to our Western eyes makes desert art so attractive and visually striking, however to the Aboriginal artist the fields of coloured dots are simply a means of highlighting the story contained in the underlying outline.

These remarkable and visually striking paintings which comprise the suite of works contained in this book were produced at the end of her career and incorporate in their iconography the petroglyph images from the desert which Naata imbibed as a young woman growing up in Central Australia. What makes Aboriginal art such as the work of Naata Nungurrayi so appealing is that it takes its subject-matter from time immemorial and presents it in a medium which can be appreciated by a modern-day audience. It is our good fortune to be the beneficiaries of this interchange of ideas not just between cultures but also across the ages.

The book Naata Nungurrayi – Iconography, a major book publication which is currently under preparation, will be published as a tribute to Naata Nungurrayi, one of the greatest of the Pintubi women artists. For more than a decade after 2002 she chose to paint for Yanda Aboriginal Art in Alice Springs. Her advancing age did not diminish her ability to produce masterpieces, many on a large scale, which now adorn the walls of collections both in Australia and overseas. It is my hope that this book in some small way will be a lasting memorial to one of the greatest Australian artists of the early twenty-first century.

Text: Christopher Simon, Managing Director Yanda Aboriginal Art, Alice Springs, NT, Australia

 

NOTES

 

[1] Henri Breuil & Raymond Lantier, The Men of the Old Stone Age, London, Harrap, 1959;
[2] S. Reinach, Antiques Naturales, Paris, 1889;
[3] The term petroglyph is derived from the Greek words ‘petra’ = rock and ‘glyph’ = engraving
[4] Mike Smith, The Archeology of Australia’s Deserts,  London (Cambridge University Press), 2013, p. 1;
[5] The term ‘Dreaming’ refers to the time during which the ancestral creation figures travelled across the landscape in the process of which they created the world as Aboriginal people know it.
[6] The Pintubi are a language group who inhabit the Great Sandy Desert of Central Australia and whose members comprise many of the famous artists who established the Australian Aboriginal art movement.

Naata Nungurrayi, Iconography #8, Acrylic on Belgian linen, 183x244 cm
Naata Nungurrayi, Iconography #18, Acrylic on Belgian linen, 183x244 cm
Naata Nungurrayi, Iconography #25, Acrylic on Belgian linen, 183x244 cm
© Chris Simon, Yanda Aboriginal Art, Alice Springs, NT, Australia
© Chris Simon, Yanda Aboriginal Art, Alice Springs, NT, Australia
© Chris Simon, Yanda Aboriginal Art, Alice Springs, NT, Australia
© Chris Simon, Yanda Aboriginal Art, Alice Springs, NT, Australia
© Chris Simon, Yanda Aboriginal Art, Alice Springs, NT, Australia
© Chris Simon, Yanda Aboriginal Art, Alice Springs, NT, Australia
© Chris Simon, Yanda Aboriginal Art, Alice Springs, NT, Australia
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