As a young woman in her 20’s Ningura Napurrula traveled with her husband Yala Yala Gibbs and her severely burnt young son Mawitji to the Papunya settlement for hospital treatment in the company of a welfare patrol. Although they returned to the western desert, their brief encounter with settlement life saw them return to live in the newly established community the following year and soon after their arrival they gave birth to the first of their four children.
She had been born at Watulka, south of Kiwirrkurra c.1938, and, during their years at the settlement, after Yala Yala Gibbs became a founding member of the Papunya Tula artists group, she assisted him on his precise and detailed Tingari Paintings. By 1995 this influence was apparent when she began painting in her own right in the second year of the Haasts Bluff/Kintore women’s painting camp. Her dynamic compositions are characterized by strong linear designs, which are slowly built up through intricate patterning, and appear boldly defined upon a background of dense, monochrome infilling. Yet her aesthetic, anchored in the activities and sacred rituals of women’s business, reflects a softer, more organic vision in comparison to the intellectual strictures of the early classic style devised by the Pintupi painting men.
Daphne Williams, who was appointed as the coordinator of Papunya Tula Artists in 1981, finally approached the painting men regarding the distribution of art materials amongst the women during the early 1990’s. Up until this time, women had access to paints and canvasses only through assisting their fathers, brothers or husbands. Williams organized painting projects for the women of Kintore and nearby Kiwirrkurra and slowly, over the following decade, the women have become a driving creative force, infusing new life into the company and furthering its international renown. Initiating this process in 1994, the older women of Haasts Bluff and Kintore organized a painting camp at a sacred women’s site away from the men and the rest of the community. Ningura began painting during the camp at this site the following year when the women reaffirmed important rituals and narratives associated with their mythological ancestors. At first the women worked on large joint canvasses that were noted for their expressive exuberance and confident style. Their immediately apparent competence with technique was the result of years of quiet learning alongside their men folk.
Within a year, Naparrula and many of these women were painting their own smaller works regularly, creating ‘some of the most radiant and richly textured surfaces in the history of the painting company…and helping to revitalize painting in the community after the deaths of many of the older group of painting men’ (Johnson 2000: 197).
Naparrula’s focus centers upon her female ancestors who travelled the vast country, creating sacred sites and establishing customs and ceremonies. Features of the landscape and women’s interactions with it are explained and honoured. The complex relationship between Aboriginal country and culture is difficult for outsiders to fully appreciate but Naparrula’s work manages to convey the vibrancy of an embodied corpus of knowledge. The ongoing life activities of the women such as gathering bush tucker, giving birth, or the dancing and singing of ceremony, are fused with a living understanding of the environment. In what has become her most defining image, Wirrulnga 2001, smaller arcs surround the large rounded shape at the centre of the canvas. A woman is about to give birth at this traditional ‘borning’ site that also features a waterhole (Wirrulnga) and surrounding sand hills. The old midwives wear nyimparra/hair-string skirts/bush belts. Two women are often depicted sitting either side of a nulla nulla that they have used to catch a goanna for everyone's tucker. Larger circles radiating outwards represent women’s hair twirled and plaited onto the top of the heads in order to carry food and water. Thickly layered acrylic paint emphasizes an earthy substantiality. The visual intensity of the uncomplicated yet detailed line work draws contiguous shapes into a dynamic harmony. One senses the moment as the earth awaits new life.
Ningura Napurrula was one of the eight Australian artists selected for the new Indigenous art museum, the Musee du Quai Branly, in Paris. In typical unassuming fashion she declined her invitation to attend the grand opening in 2006; ‘its too far away,' she said through an interpreter, 'and I have grandchildren to look after’ (Greagh 2006).
While still an active member of the Papunya Tula organization, Ningura is one of a number of artists that has taken advantage of the renown that her art has brought her by painting for a wide array of dealers in Alice Springs and beyond. While still painting for Papynya Tula she has also painted for Mike Mitchell, Robyn Moloney, Chris Symons, Tony Mason and Steve Ariston. Works from these and other sources have been exhibited at Aranda Aboriginal Art, Mason Gallery and Yanda Aboriginal Art, Fireworks Gallery and elsewhere. Her works for Papunya Tula have been exhibited at Gabrielle Pizzi Gallery and William Mora Gallery in Melbourne and Utopia Art in Sydney. The prominence she received following the Paris commission sits atop a steady public esteem that is evident in the extensive number of exhibitions and collections in which her paintings have appeared, both in Australia and overseas.