Behind her diminutive frame, Susie Bootja Bootja was a ‘larger than life’ character whose artistic practice epitomized the Balgo women’s panache for experimentation. Her early figurative works predominantly featured waterholes with snake creators spouting ‘living water’ with a dual use of both traditional and western representations of country. At that time she would take the ear of anyone watching her paint and whisper reverently to them 'libbing water, this one…that shin-ake he been making libbing water‘ and then always startlingly, she would emphasise the inherent magic in this by making a gushing whoosh as if the snake was spouting water right there, in front of your eyes. Over time however, these figurative elements gave way to more abstracted forms and late in her career culminated in an innovative style of double-dotted colour fields representing the abundance of bush food.
Susie, like all Kukatja people, inherited ownership rights over specific sites and ancestral designs from both her father’s and her mother’s side. Her country lay around White Hills and Helena Springs (Kurtal), and Kangingarra waterhole where she spent her youth.
The depiction of water amongst both men and women painters at Balgo is a vital element in passing on knowledge of the location of permanent waterholes (living water) in this often harsh and forbidding landscape. The preciousness of water in the arid desert landscape and its spiritual essence, was a primary theme in the works of both Suzie Bootja Bootja’s and her husband Mick Gill Tjakamarra, an important rainmaker, whose use of acrylic blue to depict water foreshadowed the influence of luminous acrylic colours in the Balgo community. Mick Gill was Susie’s second husband. Her first, whom she met at the old mission at Balgo where she made bread for the dormitory children, was killed on a mustering trip due to inter-tribal conflict. She later eloped with Mick Gill, bearing him six children. A devoted couple, their artistic cross-fertilization was evident from the outset of the painting movement in Balgo, particularly in their avid adoption of blending traditional ochres with new paints available through the adult education centre in the late 1980’s.
The women’s desire to employ the full colour spectrum stemmed from their preoccupation with bush food and vegetation in its profusion that accentuates the colours of the desert landscape after rain. While Susie’s concern for her mother and father’s country was paramount in paintings, her depiction of bush food and the emblems of women’s food gathering are speckled throughout her work. The importance of these paintings lie in their culturally regenerative properties, as if the artist were saying, ‘I was born right here, right here,‘ as she did when introducing her works to a crowded gallery in 2002, just six months before her death in January 2003. Of all the female first generation Balgo artists, Suzie Bootja Bootja displayed the freest use of colour and expression in often startlingly beautiful works and could be said, more than any other, to have been a prime mover in the establishment of the art movement in her remote desert community.