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Desert Art comes to Yuendumu

Christine Michaels

Early colourful forays into acrylic painting began at Yuendumu in the early 1980s when women were provided with art materials by anthropologists researching women’s body-painting. In 1983 male elders were invited to paint Jukurrpa Dreaming stories on the doors of the school, with the purpose of sharing cultural knowledge with young Warlpiri children. One of the contributing artists, Paddy Japaljarri Stewart (c1940- 2013) had also been involved in painting the mural at the Papunya School. The painting of the school doors set in motion a significant art movement in the area. Years later these doors became famous, touring nationally throughout the 1990s.  

The art centre operating at Yuendumu was established in 1985, and has grown steadily since its inception. The Warlukurlangu art centre is named after the main Dreaming story portrayed by the early women painters working with anthropologists. The art centre also now represents artists from the small nearby community of Nyirripi.

Artists of the Warlukurlangu Artists Association at Yuendumu have embraced a diverse palette of vivid colours in recent decades, developing a bright and distinctive painting style. Brilliant hues of green, pink, purple, blue and yellow have featured in the works since painting with acrylics began in the early 1980s. The artistic style at Yuendumu is often described as unrestrained and enthusiastically rendered – noted particularly when the paintings are compared to the more precise Papunya Tula paintings, which adhered to a strict use of traditional colours.

Many artists from the Yuendumu settlement have become very successful nationally and internationally. Paddy Japaljarri Sims (c1917- 2010) worked on the Yuendumu Doors, and in 1988 travelled with four other artists (including Paddy Japaljarri Stewart) to exhibit a large collaborative painting at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. His personal story was recorded for the 2006 documentary ‘Singing the Milky Way,’ first shown alongside the Yuendumu Doors at The Museum of Aboriginal Art in Utrecht. Paddy Japaljarri Sims was the senior custodian of the Milky Way or Night Sky Dreaming stories, a theme that is featured in many of his works. His daughter Alma Nungurrayi Granites (b.1955) continues to maintain and preserve this tradition, painting detailed depictions of the Seven Sisters Dreaming and Milky Way Dreaming. Alma Nungurrayi Granite’s mother, Bessie Nakamarra Sims (c.1932), was another of the founding artists of Warlukurlangu.

Maggie Napangardi Watson (c1921- 2004) and her younger sister Judy Napangardi Watson (c.1935) who both paint with vivid colour have become prolific artists, exhibiting in major collections. Judy Napangardi Watson’s paintings often comprise of bright winding lengths of colour, where her ‘dragged-dotting’ style produces tangible stripes. In some of her works these intense streams of colour reference the traditional Mina Mina hair-string story, a theme also favoured by Maggie Napangardi Watson. This ‘dragged-dotting’ style can also be seen in the works of Mary Anne Nampijinpa Michaels (c1935- 2012), whose similar line-work references the passage of water to the Lappi Lappi rock hole. Shorty Jangala Robertson (c1925- 2014) is another Yuendumu artist known for painting Ngapa Jukurrpa – Water Dreamings. His paintings are characterised by stark bright blue (or sometimes red, or yellow) curving lines, signifying water, surrounded by blocks of multi-coloured dotting.

Whilst the Yuendumu Doors are widely credited to be a major catalyst for art production in Yuendumu, recently a lot of attention has been given to anthropologist Mervyn Meggitt’s collection of crayon drawings made in the 1950s. The drawings are important historical records, tracking distant ancestral journeys through Warlpiri country and depicting significant places and Dreamings.

Yuendumu artists continue to be a productive source of story-telling from the Warlpiri culture, and their diverse styles of artwork are exhibited widely in major galleries.

Links

Alma Nungarrayi Granites

Judy Napangardi Watson

Warlpiri Star Gazers

Alma Nungarrayi Granites – Night Sky

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