As one of the last generation to remember a childhood lived in the desert hunting and gathering with her family, Walangkura Napanangka’s paintings recall the stories of country and the location of specific sites in her traditional homeland west of the salt lake of Karrkurutinjinya (Lake Macdonald). Born in 1946, at Tjitururrnga west of Kintore, in the remote and arid country between the Northern Territory and Western Australia, she lived with her father Rantji Tjapangati and mother Inyuwa Nampitjinpa and later, while still a teenager, travelled by foot with her family over the hundreds of kilometres from their remote desert home eventually joining Uta Uta Tjangala’s group as they walked into the settlements of Haasts Bluff and then Papunya. The lure of settlement life with its promise of plentiful food and water belied the harsh conversion they would make to an alien lifestyle with its many problems and unfamiliar demands. The upheaval however, was ameliorated to some degree by the proximity of her immediate family including her mother Inyuwa, adoptive father Tutuma Tjapangati, and sister Pirrmangka Napanangka all of whom became artists.
Relocated to the community of Kintore in 1981 when the outstation movement began, Walangkura participated in the historic women’s collaborative painting project (1994) that was initiated by the older women as a means of re-affirming their own spiritual and ancestral roots. It was a time of specifically female singing, ceremony and painting, away from the gaze of outsiders and men folk. The huge and colourful canvases that emerged from the women’s camp were 'alive with the ritual excitement and narrative intensity of the occasion' (Johnson 2000: 197). Within a year, Papunya Tula Artists, now established at Kintore, had taken on many of these women as full-time artists, revitalising the company after the deaths of many of the original ‘painting men’. While individual women forged their own stylistic trajectory, these paintings were immediately distinguishable from the men’s more cerebral and symmetrical style. They radiated an exuberant and vibrant energy, the felt heart-beat of women’s affinity to country and spirit.
Walangkura’s early works, created from 1996 onward, are characterized by masses of small markings and motifs covering large areas of canvas. Her favorite colour, a deep sandy orange predominates, accentuated against more somber blacks and reds and dusky greens or yellows. More recent works show a gestural quality though still tightly packed with an intensity of geometric line work representing sandhills. In a sense this provides a strong visual and contextual link to the men’s linear style as exemplified by the works of George Tjungurayi, Turkey Tolson and Willy Tjungurayi. They are rich with a sense of rhythm and unimpeded movement: they show sandhills, rockholes, journeys and gatherings of ancestral women, the flow of colours in subtle shifts of light. Many of these are monumental works that transmit the confidence of an assured and dynamic creativity. Walangkura transmits the power of the desert, soaked up during her childhood years, and imbues her works with the mystery of a sacred perception.
In time Walagkura became one of Papunya Tula’s most senior women artists. After the death of her mother Inyuwa and the tragic death of her half sister Pirrmangka in 2001, she moved for a time to Kiwirrkura where she lived with her husband and fellow artist Johnny Yungut Tjupurrula and their six children. Her first solo exhibition was held at Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi in 2003, and this was followed by another at Utopia Art Sydney in 2004. As her fame spread from this time onward she began painting increasingly for a number of private independent dealers outside of the Papunya Tula company. As a result her works could be seen in a great many galleries and retail shops throughout the country. At her best, Walangkura Napanangka was a formidable artist capable of creating masterpieces on canvases up to three metres in size and many of these are likely to become emblematic examples of Pintupi women’s art.
Walagkura’s earliest paintings created from 1996 onward became popular for their exploration of aspects of principally Tingari stories. She was quick to develop an identifiable style in which sparsely dotted circles in a variety of colours became more densely painted in a more restricted pallete over time. The connecting lines, typical of Pintupi men’s paintings, were removed and small circles rendered in various shades became spaced, as if the wind had blown them into tighter and looser groupings. The first work appeared at auction in 1999 in a Sotheby’s mixed offering. Un-illustrated in the catalogue and measuring just 91 x 46 cm Rockhole Site of Yukatjirri had been created in 1996 and sold for just $747 (Lot 519). It was not until July 2001 when the next work was offered and by this time Walankura had become quite conspicuous in the primary market. The small 91 x 61 cm work, created in 1997, doubled its high estimate selling for $6,000, then the artists 26th highest record. By the end of 2004, roughly corresponding to the time from which she began painting for others outside of Papunya Tula, nine works had sold of 12 offered. Thereafter a flurry of works were offered on the secondary market. No less than 68 paintings appeared for sale in just three years between 2006 and 2008, with only 51% selling.
Her most successful work in a conventional Pintupi style was the Tingari image Rockhole at Tjintjin Tjintjin at sold at Elder Fine Art in June 2007 for what was a bargain price. The painting measured 182 x 151 cm and carried a very low presale estimate of just $10,000-15,000. Lucky indeed was the buyer who paid just $7,300 hammer for what is, in my opinion, close to a masterpiece.
Her highest result was for a work offered through Lawson~Menzies in May 2006 and later in March 2008. When first offered, the massive Kutungka Napanangka at Papunga 2005, created for independent dealer Tony Mason sold to a Menzies investment consortium for $45,600 eclipsing the $20,400 record held by the Papunya Tula provenanced Travels of Kutungka Napanangka 2001, that had stood since 2004. Advised to offer the work again two years later, it realised a 16% increase in value to $52,800, not enough profit to cover the buyers premium even if the owners were given 0% sellers commission.
In her works of the 2004-2008 period, Walangkura played with conventional Pintupi icons by moving them around and stretching out the shapes with a mastery over balance and form. Like Naata Nungurayi and several other Pintupi women she embraced grid-like forms and striated bands of alternating colour. Her fourth highest result was for a fine example created at the beginning of this period. When offered at Lawson~Menzies in November 2006 the 154 x 184 cm non-Papunya Tula work sold for $28,800 against a presale estimate of $30,000-40,000 ( Lot 173). In 2015 no les than 20 works were offered for sale, of which 13 found new homes. Deutscher & Hackett showed such strong confidence in a 183 x 244 cm major Papunya Tula provenancned work that they sent it to auction carrying a presale estimate of $40,000-60,000. It sold for $48,800 thereby achieving the artist's second highest price to date.
While her works performed badly in 2017 and 2018 all eight of the eight paintings on offer in 2019 found new homes. Though none enetered her highest records thse sales were enough to see her become the 22nd most successful artist in that year against her standing in 49th place in the annuls of the movement overall. Interest in Walangkura centres principally on those works she created in her more recent style. During the period 2008-2011 her prodigious talent and independent nature saw her work for a variety of reputable alternative dealers. By 2012 she was no longer able to paint. Still, Papunya Tula works occupy six of her top ten results and the vast majority of her top 20. As time goes by, those works created for independent dealers will become more and more acceptable by a maturing market. Nevertheless, her finest paintings will require excellent provenance if they are to achieve prices that will see them displace works amongst her 10 highest sales to date.