Susie Bootja Bootja Napaljarri
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.
During her lifetime, Susie Bootja Bootja was one of a handful of women, including Freda Gemma Napanagka and Bridget Mati Mudjidel who were the lifeblood of the art centre at Balgo Hills. All were prolific painters who would not let a day pass without painting and making a daily visit to chat with other artists and pay their respects to the art coordinator of the day.
Susie and her husband Mick Gill Tjakamarra had six children, including Mathew Gill, who along with Sister Agnes Dempsey started the art centre in Balgo Hills in 1985. She became one of the first painters at Wirrimanu, creating figurative works in which snakes lay in and emerged from permanent rockholes. While her earliest works were dark in the manner of Kaningarra 1989 which sold at Sotheby’s in July 2004 for $3,600 (Lot 445) she soon became a leader amongst the women that willingly embraced the more highly charged palette provided by art coordinator Michael Rae. By 1991 her paintings were colourful jewel-like renditions of waterholes as in Water Dreaming at Winpa 1991 which first appeared at auction in a Sotheby’s catalogue in 1997. Measuring 100 x 75 cm and estimated at $3,000-4,000 it sold for $4,370 (Lot 261). It was offered again in Phillips July 2001 sale estimated at $4,000-6,000 but would have disappointed the owner when it achieved exactly the same price as had been paid for it four years earlier (Lot 221).
Susie’s innovative double-dotted colour field paintings began in 1996 and this style has been responsible for all of her eight highest prices. They reached their zenith creatively toward 2000, the year three of her highest priced works were painted. Her highest price was achieved for a work that is by far the best painting by Suzie Bootja Bootja I have ever seen. The soft delicate palette and brilliance of execution set this painting apart from any other and leaves one wondering how it was possible that just one single work could be so distinctively different from others painted in the same style and manner. Entitled Waterhole, Kurtal Country 2000 it had been originally sold through Gallery Gabreille Pizzi and used to illustrate the cover of the 2002 Jurkupa Diary published by Jukurrpa Books and IAD (Institute of Aboriginal Development) Press. When offered at Lawson~Menzies in May 2004 with an estimate of $8,000-10,000, the 120 x 80 cm work sold for a staggering $43,050. However, five years later the buyer was persuaded by Sotheby’s to reoffer the painting in its July 2009 sale. In what was an a extremely disappointing result it went under the hammer for just $26,400, still the artist’s second highest recorded result. Also painted in 2000, Kaningarra sold in 2010 for $13,200 at Deutscher and Hackett to make a new third place record (Lot 113). A far more vibrant work than the premier record, it heralded a better year for Susie than preceeding ones, with a 2010 AIAM ranking of 101 compared to an overall career rank of 111. Again in 2011 a vibrant Waterhole in Artist's Country 1990 created a new fourth place record, fetching $8,400 at the Sotheby's June Auction. The sale was insufficient, however, to budge her overall ranking form 111th place.
From 2012 to 2017, eleven works were offered of which seven sold. Of these seven, only Kaningarra 2000, which sold for only $6,600 in 2014 through Deutscher and Hackett, is noteworthy. The work, which represents the highes result of this 5 year period, had been purchased in 2010 for $13,200 and sold for less than half of that when it was sold off only 4 years later. This would have been a dire dissapointment to the owner.
Susie Bootja Bootja painted prolifically for well over a decade and it is likely that her total oeuvre exceeds 400 paintings. Her most dynamic works are those that were painted between 1990 and 1993, which depict Kurtal and other rockholes with permanent water. These ‘living water’ paintings with snakes spouting water are not as numerous as the later works with which most collectors are more familiar, but they are animated dynamic paintings that are sufficiently rare to be worthy of collecting. Her more familiar 1996-2000 paintings are of mixed quality and should be selected with a certain degree of discrimination.