Born at Kumilnga, west of the Pollock Hills in Western Australia, Naata Nungurrayi was about 30 years of age when she encounter the welfare patrol in 1963 and was brought with her family to Papunya the flowing year. Forced to leave behind her beloved desert homelands, the memory of these places and the life she led there continues to provide the wellspring of her inspiration and the subject matter for her highly sought after paintings. After initially moving to Docker River with family members in the late 1970’s she finally settled in the KIntore region in the early 1980’s. Naata began painting for Papunya Tula Artists in 1996, encouraged by the arts coordinator at Haasts Bluff, Marina Strochi who was immediately impressed by her particular style. She participated in Papunya group exhibitions for the first time during the following year including exhibitions during the Desert Mob weekend and at Chapman Gallery in Canberra.
Naata’s paintings combine the carefully composed geometric style that developed at Papunya amongst the Pintupi painting men, with the looser technique and more painterly organic style introduced by the women after the paintings camps of the early and mid 1990’s. She was included in the exhibition Twenty-Five Years and Beyond at Flinders University Art Museum in 2000 and Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius at the At Gallery of NSW during the same year.
Now in her seventies, Naata is one of the leading Kintore women artists and a respected elder within the Pintupi tribal group. Traditional initiation into the sacred knowledge of Women’s Law has given Naata the authority to paint designs depicting women’s sites and journeys and the sacred ceremonies they performed. The designs women painted on their bodies during these ceremonies are carried over onto the picture surface and project the same rhythmic quality felt in a live performance. These ceremonies enact and celebrate the ancestral Tingari women who, like the Tingari men, also travel the vast stretches of country, creating and shaping the features and creatures of the landscape and teaching the ways of survival within this often physically demanding terrain. Naata includes visual references to the food collected, the waterholes they visited and the encampments where they came together in large groups to share their wisdom and teach the young. Her preference for pale creamy ochres imparts a calming softness to her paintings while her unhurried compositions seem to bring all elements together with a spacious sense of harmony and inclusiveness. Like other women artists of her painting group, Naata likes to apply paint thickly, as though molding a rich and textured surface, reflecting her feel for the earth, which underscores her own spiritual and cultural foundations and that of her people.
Much like her contemporary Walangkura Napanangka, she is able to paint in a number of quite different, yet consistent, styles and can be quite adventurous with colour given the opportunity. Her most successful works at auction however have been created in relatively conventional ochre tones, while those that contain bright pinks, reds, or laden with orange and yellow ochres have tended to be less popular.
Her imagery varies from strikingly bold compositions created gesturally, to tight grids with contrasting in-filled dotting. Most recognisable are her paintings in which scallop shaped sites, denoting women, sweep in from the borders of the painted surface enclosing a combination of scattered roundels and striated bands and works consisting of an irregular grid, most effective when the colouring is subtle and the shading results in a clever balance.
Naata is the sister of George Tjungurrayi and Nancy Nungurrayi who are also highly sought after artists. In recent years, Naata along with George, Nancy, and her son, Kenny Williams Tjampitjinpa, have painted principally for Chris Simon of Yanda Art in Alice Springs, as well as a small number of others. The fact that artists of this calibre have been producing high quality works for others outside of their ‘official’ art centre has resulted in a great deal of tension between Papunya Tula and a number of independent dealers operating in Alice Springs. Much of the contemporary politics surrounding industry ethics has stemmed from such disputes. Yet Naata seems oblivious to this as she consistently produced works of the highest calibre while moving freely between Alice Springs and her country, deep in Central Australia. While her paintings have travelled the world, appearing in important exhibitions and have become amongst the most collectable of all Aboriginal art, Naata herself appears as if unaffected by it all, preferring to remain close to her family and her beloved country and eschewing the debate over ‘provenance’ that has spread like a brush fire around her. Should anyone doubt that she is being remunerated and cared for in an exemplary fashion they need only look to the quality of her output for reassurance. Her works consistently border on the sublime.