It would be these basic shapes, whether circles, lines or triangles which would impress modernist painters in the early twentieth century when they sought to re-invent their modern way of seeing. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Joan Miró (1893-1983), Georges Braque (1882-1963) and Paul Klee (1879-1940) emulated these primitive shapes in their paintings knowing that these symbols communicated integral elements of the human condition.
Naata Nungurrayi is a tribal Pintupi nomad. She was born c1932 at the Rockhole site of Kumil, west of the Pollock Hills in Western Australia. Her western desert people were the last of the traditional nomads to wander into the new world. She came from a sophisticated culture where art and song was as important as food gathering. Law and order was strict, and ceremonial life expressed spiritual values through the continuation of the mythological traditions of the past. Naata was never influenced by the iconographies of Christian and Enlightenment thinking. Her vision was raw and had more in common with those primitive societies who, like her, utilised squares, circles, triangles and parallel lines to represent topography. In aboriginal art, the circle is used as a boundary and an enclosure in that it marks the place of a gathering or an event as much as it represents creation and manifestation.
Naata Nungurrayi first started painting in 1994 at the age of 62. Her paintings deal with “Woman’s Law” and the campsite experiences of her people: gathering seeds, fruit and berries for the preparation and cooking of food. Essentially, her prime interest is in women’s business. She is concerned with the Dreamings that are inextricably fused with women’s sacred sites and women’s ceremonies however, like most traditional elders will not disclose any ceremonial content.
Dreamings are conceived within time; simply because they were there in the beginning and therefore underpin the present, ensuring continuity into the future. Her Dreamtime is not a metaphor, it exists. Dreamings are central to indigenous paintings in that they are situated in space and place, as much as they are within and beyond time. The spirit world is very real to Naata and her dreams are a great source of inspiration and play an important role in her artistic expression.
From 2011 to 2014 she became less interested in dotting her paintings in the usual manner of the traditional desert painters, preferring to use primarily lines and circle formations to represent the iconography of her country. In a significant way her paintings are complex road maps that show elements of her ancient culture situated endemically within the landscape.
Naata’s paintings reflect the most elemental experiences of living with the earth. Her paintings essentially deal with the idea of the collective of female dreaming not only in one particular ceremony but those across time and place that engage with a world in which the beginning is co-existent with the present and of the future. The symbol of the circle in her art signifies her connection with ancient sources that continue to have relevance in her current world.
What Naata Nungurrayi has produced during the last few years of her working life is a series of paintings depicting her tribal iconography. In these particular works she has stopped dotting her paintings in the colorful, traditional way of the desert painters. However, she continues to paint her iconography using black lines on a red background: the red represents the color of the soil and the black the tracks and what she calls her “stories from country”. Iconography is a culturally and historically important body of work completed over a three year period: these works are topographical road maps of her country; they are the story and the journey of her life.
Dr Ken McGregor