Described as one of the brightest stars of the Haasts Bluff art movement, Mitjili Napurrula has lived a life of absolute involvement in the formative years and ongoing development of modern desert art. Her mother, Tjunkiya Napaltjarri, who also became an artist of public repute, ‘came in’ from the drought-stricken Pintupi/Lurjita country seeking refuge and rations in the remote community of Haasts Bluff. Along with her extended family, she was settled at Papunya, where Mitjili was born in 1945. Mitjili grew up in Papunya and later married the artist, Long Tom Tjapanangka. The couple returned to Haast’s Bluff as part of the 1980’s outstation movement and both artists, often in conjunction, proceeded to contribute significantly to the emerging art community there.
Mitjili began painting in 1992, encouraged by the opening of the Ikuntji Women’s Centre, the social and artistic hub of Haast’s Bluff and nearby desert communities. Under the guidance of art coordinator Marina Strocchi, Ikuntji rapidly developed an exciting style of its own, propelled in part by the older women who had been assistants to Geoffrey Bardon’s first painting men. As a member of a family of distinguished artists, including her brother Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula, Mitjili grew up watching artists paint. Her mother became one of the foundation group of female artists that formed after the Kintore/Haasts Bluff painting project in 1994. Mitjili learned the symbolic language of her tradition from her mother who would relate the mythic stories to her and draw them in the sand. While it took years before she developed her own mature style, Mitjili gained an international following after winning the Alice Springs Art Prize in 1999. By then she had confidently embraced her own naturalistic approach to painting. Her individualistic style conveys a personal vision, anchored always in the country of her ancestors.
Through the process of gradually reducing the complexity of her imagery, Mitjili works towards creating a tapestry of repeated shapes and symbols. Her singularly distinctive iconography is often highlighted by dazzling combinations of strong, complimentary tones. Alternatively, contrasting colours may be starkly juxtaposed, jumping out from the canvas in vibratory shapes and patterns, captivating audiences of modern sensibility. The beautiful desert oak, Watiya Tjuta, is one of Mitili’s familiar motifs, originating from her father’s country at Uwalki where red sand hills, native grasses and wirt trees stretch to the horizon’s edge. Like her famous brother, Turkey Tolson, Mitjili inherited the right to paint her Ilyingaungau, a site in the Gibson desert where the ancestors prepared their spears (kulata). Turkey’s iconic Spear Straightening paintings should be seen as the complimentary balance to his sister’s feminine rendition of the plants and places associated with the cutting of wood and assembling of spears.
Mitjili’s record price at auction was achieved in November 2004, when a large three metre canvas originally commissioned by Mason Gallery in Darwin sold for $26,400. Entitled Uwalki: Watiya Tjuta, 2004 it had justified the $25,000 – 30,000 presale estimate placed on it by Lawson~Menzies specialists.
Interestingly, not one single work in the artist’s top ten results has been achieved by market leader Sotheby’s. In fact Sotheby’s have offered only two minor works, which both failed to find a buyer. This is doubtless due to the fact that since the mid 1990’s Mitjili has increasingly painted for dealers outside of art centre patronage. Mitjili’s results at auction are dominated by small and minor works and this has resulted in an average price at auction of just $2,475 for works on canvas and $873 for works on paper. In 2015 for instance, no less than 17 works appeared for sale at public auction and although 13 of these sold, the highest price acheiveed was only $1200.
Nevertheless, due principally to the large number of works that have appeared at auction since she began painting, Mitjili’s Aboriginal Art Market Rating ranks her amongst the top 100 living artists. Her works are generally bold, with a strong decorative design appeal. Collectors should seek out good works, with a preference for larger pieces with a strong contemporary aesthetic. These should continue to satisfy and find a ready market when offered for resale in the future.