Tracking down Elsie Napanangka Granites for a chat can be a challenge. There’s a couple of reasons for this. Firstly Elsie’s been away from Alice Springs attending family funerals back in her community. The second reason is that Elsie, like many artists, prefers doing her art rather than talking about it.
We did get to chat this week when she spoke to me from her studio at Yubu Napa. The Gallery Director, Karl told me that Elsie has her own private studio. This is set apart from the more public open studio space where visitors can meet artists. The private studio means Elsie can avoid visitors and that works well for her. She likes to be able to shut herself away and concentrate on painting. Her airconditioned space looks out onto a citrus grove. It has large windows that fill the room with natural light. It’s a comfortable place to work.
If the gallery sells a major work Elsie is encouraged to meet the buyers and answer questions. She sometimes struggles to put into words the meanings and emotions behind her art. If you ask Elsie where she gets her ideas and inspiration from she’ll tell you “it just happens”. It’s not hard to understand why responding to the detailed questions is something she would rather avoid. She joked with me, “I want to tell them to go away.”
Elsie comes from a family of painters. She explains that her own style is different from theirs. It developed over time and took practice she tells me. She started out with using sticks which might only do eight dots before needing to have paint reapplied. These days Elsie does her fine dot work using a piece of equipment called a Gutta bottle. This makes it easier for her to apply the thousands of dots in her paintings without having to constantly stop and start to get more paint.
Elsie is well known for her Mina Mina Jukurrpa paintings which relate to the stories of her father and grandfather’s Dreaming. Other works are about Ngalyipi Jukurrpa – the Snake Vine Dreaming. This is about the thick vines that climb up the trees. The vines were traditionally used for binding and rope making. In some communities they are used for bush medicine as well.
Elsie also paints about Jintiparnta Jukurrpa (Edible Fungus Dreaming). Her other works focus on Jayinki Jukurrpa, the Dreaming of the Country, Jayinki, which is Elsie’s traditional country.
Elsie spends most of time in Alice Springs and goes back to community for visits. I asked her whether there were any elements of community funerals that are still traditional. She said that her community still follow “sorry business”. People get together from different places. They might have traditional “sorry business” first followed by a church ceremony. The event is about getting together and crying she explained. The possessions of the person who has died are given to close family.
It is a time for talking and comforting each other but the person who has died is not spoken of by name during “sorry business”. They are referred to indirectly using terms like “your father” or “your sister”.
The practices of “sorry business” vary from community to community. The period of time may be days, weeks or sometimes even years depending on the the standing of the person in the community. Sign language is sometimes used between a grieving family and the rest of the community. Images of the person are no longer displayed. Communication with someone in “sorry” often needs to be done through some other person from the broader kinship group.
Elsie told me that she might express some of her grieving through her art. This a very personal process and not one that she ever talks about with other people..
Elsie has been painting since 1987 and her work has been well received. Elsie has had a long and successful career as an artist in Australia. Her work is also widely exhibited in Paris as well as other French regional galleries. Apart from a few years spent in Adelaide, she spent most of her life in Yuendumu. She is an active member of the community. She has worked for the Women’s Centre, Old People’s Program, Women’s Night Patrol, and the Warlukurlangu Art Centre.
Elsie has seven grandchildren. She is pleased that her grandchildren attend school and enjoy it. Two of her grandchildren are interested in painting and regularly watch her paint. She’s hopeful they might take it up when they are older.
This year was also special for Elsie for an entirely different reason. For a very long time she has been a fan of the Australian Football League (AFL) team The Bulldogs. Recently they defeated the Sydney Swans to win their first Grand Final in 62 years. Elsie said the victory was even more fun because she watched the game with friends and they were Sydney Swans supporters.