Lorna Fencer Naparrula
Lorna Fencer Naparrula
1920 - 2006
Yulyulu, Napurrurla, Pinja
Born c.1925, at Yarturlu Yarturlu, a Yam Dreaming site, Lorna Fencer was the custodian of inherited land Yumurrpa situated near Chilla Well, south of the Granites Mine in the Tanami Desert. Her father’s country was Wapurtali. She spent her early years living a traditional life, until in 1949 she, along with many of her Warlpiri countrymen, were forcibly transported to the government settlement of Lajamanu at Hooker Creek, situated in the country of the Gurindji people. Lajamanu lay 380 km north of the traditional Warlpiri homelands and it became a disconsolate community, as its governance during the 1950’s was militant and suppressive. Many Walrpiri walked the 800 km back to Yuendumu only to be forcibly returned once more, thereby creating a deep sense of disempowerment and loss. Despite this, the Warlpiri elders kept their customs and ceremonies alive with a fierce determination. Lorna Napurrula in particular maintained and strengthened her cultural identity through ceremonial activity, thereby asserting her position as a prominent elder and teacher in the community. Aware of the growing popularity of painting amongst the Pintupi and other groups in the Western Desert, the Warlpiri men of Lajamanu were deeply concerned and determined to safeguard secret and sacred knowledge. In 1983, 12 Warlpiri men from Lajamanu and Yuendumu traveled to Paris to create a traditional sand-painting and dance at the Musee d’Art Moderne. Nevertheless, they remained strongly opposed to committing these designs to any permanent medium. However, three years later the Warlpiri position changed as a result of an adult education course run by John Quinn, during which western art materials were introduced at the local school. As this artistic activity strengthened, the women in particular were encouraged by the much-needed income that painting could provide and the role art could play as a means of preserving and maintaining their culture. Due perhaps to their dislocation from their own country to the south, the way that income from art had enabled the Pintupi, who initially lived at Papunya to re-establish their links to country closer to Lake MacKay, resonated strongly with their own hopes and desires for a better future. The women of Lajamanu were anxious to see their children provided with some source of spiritual grounding in the face of so many modern influences and distractions. However, Lajamanu's isolation, due to its great distance from the urban art centres and the difficulty of communication with the outside world, slowed the public emergence of Lajamanu art significantly. As late as 1989, there were still no telephones to connect the inhabitants of the community with the outside world. However, the arrival of a satellite dish from Yuendumu resulted in a teleconference link up with the director of Coo-ee Gallery, Curator Christine Watson and Allan Warrie of the Aboriginal Arts Board, during which Abie Jangala, Lorna Fencer and other Lajamanu artists presented their work and arranged to participate in an exhibition the following year. Soon after the women started painting in 1986, they began to outnumber their male counterparts. The ‘hitherto sleeping giants of the Aboriginal Art world' ( Ryan 2004: 104), produced works that were astoundingly inventive and bold. Amongst them, Lorna Fencer stood out. Her powerful, gestural brushstrokes and uninhibited, bold, and intuitive application of colour produced haptic effects in works characterized by fluidity and movement. The classical dotted infill never suited her whimsical nature and unique vision of Warlpiri culture. She adored colour and would sit solidly on the ground, painting with urgency until her pot of paint was depleted. Then, in the middle of this storm of creativity, she would pick up the empty pot. ‘Orangy Orangy’ she would insist as if she could wait not a second longer for a refill of that sensuous liquid yellow paint. Her completed paintings executed in vivid yellows, pinks, purples, lime greens and brilliant reds pick up on the bursts of thousands of tiny blooms that fill the desert after rain, emphasising them in an exuberant ‘celebration of pure painting’. Her more expressive, modernist style has an impulsive, organic logic, mirroring the plant or root structures of desert bush tucker. Lorna was the custodian of the sacred country of Yumurrpa and for the Yarla (bush potato), Luju (caterpillar), Bush Tomato, Onion and Plum Dreamings, many different seeds, and, importantly, spring water for the Napurrurla-Jupurrurla and Jakamarra-Nakamarra skin groups. She also had ancestral rights over the Water Snake, which become numerous when the country is in flood and the riverbeds and claypans fill with water. She painted these as sinuous lines upon a watery expanse of liquid colour. Her paintings reflected the traditional stories of Ancestral women journeying through the bush, singing and dancing as they collected food. Sometimes her female ancestors would come upon a caterpillar, ‘that cheeky one’ that bites them while they are picking fruit, making them itchy. In other works, Lorna would paint the digging sticks they used to find the bush potato or yam that spread underground in a meandering complex of roots and bulbs, a primary source of foot in their arid homeland. Apart from brief periods during the early and late 1990’s, the Warnayaka Art Centre at Lajamanu has been extremely poorly served by the Aboriginal arts bureaucracy. After John Quinn’s departure, the art centre was run on a voluntary basis by the wife of the administrator, Lava Watts, with assistance from Valda Dixon and later by Brent Hocking. During intermittent periods between the late 1980’s and the end of the 1990’s artworks were supplied through the art centre for exhibitions with Gabriele Pizzi, William Mora, and Alcaston Galleries in Melbourne, Coo-ee Aboriginal Art in Sydney and Sharon Monty in Perth. However, by the end of the 1990’s the art centre had fallen into decline due to lack of funding and, following meetings with all of the stakeholders, I personally proposed that the Lajamanu Council fund the coordinator's position on a three month trial basis. Vanessa McRae was appointed art adviser. Unfortunately, this move still did not establish the art centre on a secure footing. Lorna Fencer painted throughout this period alongside Lilly Hargeaves, the Rockman sisters, Abie Jangala, and others, working for the art centre when it operated and for private dealers when it did not. As Lorna would paint wherever there was a supply of canvas and paint, she was happy to live in the Walpiri camp in Katherine. While there, she worked for Alex and Petrina Ariston, owners of Katherine Art Gallery, with Mimi Arts and Crafts, with Mike Mitchell and others. She worked in Sydney during the Olympic Games and later, after returning to Katherine, began producing a large body of work with the support and financial encouragement of David Wroth of Japingka Gallery in Fremantle. The quality of her works depended greatly on who she worked with and the materials that were supplied to her. Despite the difficulties she faced as a practicing artist, she was able to produce a large proportion of extremely accomplished and highly original works for more than 30 group exhibitions and ten solo shows over a 15 year period. Beside the galleries mentioned above, solo exhibitions were held at Chapman Gallery in Canberra, Vivien Anderson Gallery in Melbourne and Gow Langsford Gallery in Auckland, New Zealand. Lorna Fencer Napurrula’s lively and brightly coloured paintings injected new energy into the living tradition of desert art. Her sheer joy and vitality when painting was a constant re-affirmation of the restorative spiritual power of traditional desert life. Lorna’s late career works, created in her 80’s, are a revelation. The combination of her unrivalled knowledge of tribal lore and Dreamings along with her intuitive use of colour and free gestural brush strokes in telling her stories, lead to comparisons with the late Emily Kngwarreye, yet Lorna’s work was decidedly and uniquely her own. At her best she mastered colour, carefully considering its impact before laying it down on the canvas. Her large epic canvases created in the eighth decade of her life were final and compelling statements about the power of the great Warlpiri stories that she painted for over twenty years.
At the time of her death in 2006, Lorna Fencer was represented in the Australian National Gallery and National Gallery of Victoria, in state galleries and major private collections including Gantner Myer, Holmes a Court, Margaret Carnegie, Leewin Estate, Laverty and Kerry Stokes. She had won the Conrad Jupiter’s Casino Gold Coast City Art Award and been a finalist in the John McCaughey Memorial Art Prize. A year later she was named in the list of top 50 most collectible artists in Australia in Art Collector magazine. Her major three meter paintings were selling in retail galleries for $18,000-22,000, while smaller two meter works attracted prices of $12,000-15,000. Yet her highest price as late as 2009 was the $11,352 paid for Traveling Napurulla and Nakamarra, painted for the Warnayaka Art Centre and exhibited originally at Alcaston House Gallery, which sold through Christies in August 2005 (Lot 152). In June 2009, however, this record was marginally superceded with the sale of Warputi 2003 for $14,400 by Lawson-Menzies. Sotheby’s have offered only three works by Lorna. Auction houses that have championed this artist have been Lawson~Menzies, Christies, Shapiro and Elder Fine Art. The fact that Sotheby’s have demonstrated such indifference is worthy of note. As with Minnie Pwerle, Paddy Fordham Wainburranga and many others, including Emily Kngwarreye and Rover Thomas who either preferred, or were forced to paint for independent dealers, Sotheby’s have eschewed all but those works created for an official art centre or for those few sources that they have been prepared to link their brand with. Nevertheless, buyers and sellers should not be put off by this. Sotheby’s no longer offer Aboriginal art in stand alone sales and there have been no shortage of others prepared to take their place. The earliest sales amongst Lorna’s top ten results were recorded in 2002 and 2004 while eight of the ten have sold since 2005. Only three works have sold at auction for more than $10,000 while 13 have achieved prices between $5,000-10,000. This is extremely disappointing in the light of the number of highly esteemed works that have failed to attract buyers. Her career success rate is very poor, with less than half of the offered works finding buyers. The most highly valued of these was Murkari (Little Bush Plum) 2003 created for Japingka Gallery and sold through Vivien Anderson Gallery in Melbourne. This beautifully coloured virtuoso work measured 144 x 255 cm and carried a presale estimate of $20,000-24,000, though it failed to justify Lawson~Menzies faith when offered in their May 2005 sale (Lot 35). 2016 however was a very good year for this artist with 3 sales achiving top 10 results. A very unusual piece which was offered at Deutscher & hackett in its Laverty Collection sale topped the list that year. The work entitled Grief, was extremely atypical and was said to have prestaged the death of a child in 1997. It equaled her highest result ever at public sale when sold for $14,400. Another distinctive work in the Laverty sale achieved her 5th highest result when sold for $8,400. But arguably the best work to be offered for sale in many years, Owl Hunting Catapillar 2001, achieved her tenth highest result ever when offered in the Alan Boxer sale at Mossgreen. Carrying a presale estimate of just $1,000-1,500, it incited spirited bidding but eventually sold for just $6,710, less than half its real value. FOur works were offered in 2017 and all sold, most notably a 182 x 183 cm painting entitled Warna (Snake) 1997, which sold for $7,930 and placed in her top ten highest results. It is possible that in time Lorna Fencer’s work may resonate more closely with prevailing aesthetics and taste and should that be the case, there are a large number of very fine examples that will be available at far more reasonable prices than say works by Emily Kngwarreye or even Minnie Pwerle. Both spring to mind as equally gestural artists who were renowned as great colourists. That Lorna Fencer’s work should languish by comparison has always seemed to me an utter mystery. All those institutions and major collectors who have added her works to their holdings can’t be wrong. One of her stunning works is the first thing I see each morning as I open my eyes in bed. It is so full of joy, freedom, and energy that I am unable to look at it without recalling the irrepressible spirit of one of the most delightfully funny, irreverent Aboriginal women I have ever known.
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