1921 - 1994
Milliga was born near Kiwirrkura in 1922, long before contact with others beyond the reaches of her Great Sandy Desert homeland. She moved with her family in to the old Balgo Mission some time after it was established in 1942 and later moved to the new community after it relocated further north where permanent water could be found in the 1960’s. She took up painting shortly after the establishment of the Warlayirti art centre in the community in 1987, although there is little evidence of paintings completed prior to 1990. Unfortunately, her painting career was brief as she passed away in 1994, having completed no more than 30 paintings. Like other Kukatja women, Milliga’s works were concerned with depicting food and wood sources in the country of her birth. Her depictions of country included sites where mangarta and warlku (which are ground into a paste to make damper) and nyuwari, a blackberry, are rife. Milliga was matchstick thin and frail during the final years of her long life. One of a last group of desert nomads in the Balgo Hills community that had grown to adulthood prior to contact with Europeans. Her home was a shelter comprising cyclone wire suspended above four star pickets on which her bedding and all of her possessions, meager though they were, lay piled during the day providing her with enough shade to sit comfortably and watch passers by. Here she painted impasto-like clusters of coloured dots, in a manner akin to finger painting, over an under-layer representing the body designs for women’s rituals. Milliga 'used to put her fingers into the paint, and then dab them on the canvas, just like people telling stories on the ground' (Watson 1999: 171). Sitting on the red earth in Balgo Hills, Milliga’s ability to be simultaneously abstract and traditional was seen, at the time, comparable to only one other artist whose work she never saw. Geographically located a world away in the reaches of the Eastern Desert, Emily Kam Kngwarraye created works with a similar layered technique of spontaneous over- dotting. As with Emily Kngwarray, Milliga’s work was informal, layered and ‘at all times free of artifice' (1994: 61). In works typified by Purrunga 1991, a lack of visible structure is supplanted by clusters of light colours over the dark underlying designs, giving distinct sections to the canvas. The shimmering fields of yellow and white dots, with hints of subtle pinks are evocative of the profuse colour in the desert landscape as the bush blooms in the spring time. This penchant for lustrous colour also paid tribute to the ancestral beings, who were thought to have radiated with shimmering fluorescence, and to the very notion of health and wellbeing amongst Kukatja people who rub their bodies with animal fat and red ochre in order to radiate health and well being. In contrast to such ancient cultural connotations in Milliga’s use of colour, the medium was a very inexpensive and poor grade of acrylic paint that was provided to the artists in Balgo Hills at that early stage of development at the art centre. While the Warlayirti Artists cooperative began in 1987 under the guidance of the first art coordinator Andrew Hughes, the dynamism in colour that followed began under Michael Rae’s administration of the cooperative. Driven by 'the empowering of women as daring innovators, willing to take risks' (Ryan 2004: 107), a new art form was forged of gestural freedom and luminous colour. Milliga joined Warlayirti Artists in 1989 at the moment this artistic evolution began. It was the environment of an arts community that encouraged the inclusion of both men and women from Walpiri, Pintupi, Ngardi and Kukatja peoples that fostered this climate of experimentation. It was as Watson describes 'one of the most successful examples of cultural bricolage in contemporary Australia' (2004). Arthur Tjapanangka, alongside Jimmy Njamme, performed a ceremony to imbue the new acrylic pigments with the power of the ancient ochres; a symbol of their embrace of what the contemporary world could offer them. In this acrylic medium profoundly important and glorious works were created. None more so than Milliga’s wondrous canvases. She painted for such a short period and left a precious and rare legacy. Her last works have found acclaim for their reach at pure abstraction. The loose, large brushwork in Walku, Wild Peach and Grasses 1994 has great aesthetic appeal, but the grandeur of her earlier compositions is largely lost due to their relatively small size, the degrading vitality of their pigmentation over time, and the lack of historical perspective in an art market constantly allured by the new.
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