Dorothy Napangardi spent her early childhood living a nomadic life at Mina Mina near Lake Mackay in the Tanami Desert during the late 1950s and early 1960s. She recalled camping at claypans and soakages with her mother, Jeanie Lewis Napururrla, learning to collect the plentiful bush tucker and grinding seeds for damper cooked on hot ashes. This idyllic life came to a close when her family was forcibly relocated to the government settlement at Yuendumu. Dorothy’s father, Paddy Lewis Japanangka greatly regretted the move, particularly for its impact on the traditional education of his children. However his attempt to return to country with his family failed and they remained in the government settlement until Dorothy married. She moved with her husband, an elderly man to whom she had been promised at a young age, to Alice Springs and bore him four daughters and later, after the marriage eventually broke down, gave birth to her youngest child, Annette, by another man. It was here, in Alice Springs in 1987, that she began painting. Dorothy’s early artistic endeavors were heavily influenced by memories of her childhood. Her subject matter was principally the Bush Plum and Bush Banana, wild fruits that grow in abundance near Mina Mina, changing in colour as they ripen, which she mirrored in her depictions. The paintings, at such an early stage in her career, clearly marked Dorothy as an artist of great talent. Her superb sense of composition created a rhythmic effect as semi-naturalistic depictions were entwined in an altogether geometric formation. In the late 1980s, the government marketing company Aboriginal Arts Australia closed its Alice Springs outlet and its manager Roslyn Premont opened her own, Gallery Gondwana. After meeting Roslyn in 1990, Dorothy began painting exclusively for her gallery and the close personal relationship that developed between the two women lasted up until her tragic death in 2013. The studio environment and financial security that Premont provided enabled Dorothy to experiment freely and develop her artistic repertoire rapidly. As it did, she created works that drew on her innate visual consciousness, developed during those early years spent in the vast unlimited expanses of the desert. From 1997 onward, Dorothy began producing works which traced the grid-like patterns of the salt encrustations on the Mina Mina clay pans marking a significant artistic shift in her work. Over a three-year period, her paintings became less and less contrived and increasingly spare, all detail pared back to the barest essentials. These new works, in which Dorothy began to explore the Women’s Digging Sticks Dreaming and other stories related to the travels of the Karntakurlangu, compel the spectator's eye to dance across the painted surface, just as these ancestral women danced in the hundreds across the country during the region's creation. Dancing digging sticks magically emerged from the ground at Mina Mina, equipping the large band of women for their travels over a vast stretch of country. The tall desert oaks which are found there today symbolise the emergence of the digging sticks that literally rose up out from beneath the ground itself. As these works developed, her extraordinary spatial ability enabled her to create mimetic grids of the salt encrustations across the claypans of Mina Mina. The lines of white dots trace the travels of her female ancestors as they danced their way, in joyous exultation, through the saltpans, spinifex and sandhills, clutching their digging sticks in their outstretched hands. Kathleen Petyarre has been quoted as saying 'those Walpiri ladies, they’re mad about dancing, they go round and round and round dancing, they’re always dancing' (cited in Napangardi 2002: 22). Little wonder then, that the surfaces of Dorothy’s canvases become dense rhythms of grids, as she mapped the paths of these dancing women. In 2001 Dorothy Napangardi was the recipient of the 18th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award and in the following year a solo exhibition of her work was curated for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. Through her association with Roslyn Premont and her Gallery Gondwana, Dorothy’s paintings have enjoyed considerable commercial success. Yet despite this close and nurturing relationship, Dorothy continued to occasionally paint for others when moved to do so. These ‘outside‘ paintings are rarely as good as her Gallery Gondwana works. However, there have been exceptions and these have included a number of major canvases painted for Peter Van Groesen and sold through Kimberley Art Gallery in Melbourne. Creating these paintings has in no way undermined her personal integrity. While Dorothy Napangardi’s paintings may be seen as important commodities and major investments, her work can be so beautiful and ethereal, as to border on the sublime.
Despite having produced paintings from the late 1980s, Dorothy Napangardi's popularity and the high prices achieved for her works are a relatively recent phenomenon and relate almost entirely to her post-1997 works. In fact, all of her ten highest sales have been for works produced after 2000. All are restricted to the limited pallet and grid-like patterns of vertical and horizontal dotted lines, which mimic the salt encrustations at Mina Mina. Despite the beauty of her highly accomplished and colourful Bush Plum and Bush Banana works, as demonstrated in the Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition and accompanying catalogue Dancing Up Country, the very best of these have never been offered at auction and minor works in this style have attracted very little interest when compared to the more abstracted paintings created after 1997. Before 2012, the highest results for these had been the meagre $3,055 each, realised when two small colourful floral works were offered for sale at Bonham Goodman in 2004 and Shapiro in 2002. Gaia Auction in Paris sold a colourful Bush Banana Dreaming canvas measuring a large 130 x 200 cm in 2011, for AUS$14,550. Though insufficient to indicate a clear market preference for her more muted style, it is notable nonetheless, and perhaps significant that it was sold overseas. Her solo exhibition held from December 2002 to March 2003 at the Museum of Contemporary Art threw those interested in Aboriginal art into a spin. In a controversial and extremely unusual move, Gallery Gondwana held a commercial exhibition of her work at the Danks Street Depot Gallery concurrent to the MCA show. Dorothy’s major large black canvases featuring tight grids of carefully dotted white lines sold for around $60,000-80,000 each, double the prices similar works had attracted just six months earlier in her Gallery Gondwana Alice Springs exhibition. Similarly, 120 x 120 cm paintings previously exhibited for $10,000-12,000 and 150 x 90 cm works at $8,000 had jumped in price to $25,000 and $18,000 respectively. Dorothy was definitely the artist of the moment, and the show was a sell-out. This intense primary market interest subsequently declined. By 2012 a 150 x 90 cm work of impeccable provenance had decreased in value to around $15,000. Still a healthy increase in value over its value pre-2002. In 2015, a very fine black and white gridwork measuring 122 x 198 cm and purchased by Dutch uber-collector Thomas Vroom in 2001 sold for just $24,400 at Bonham's, a far from desirable outcome regardless of the depth of Vroom's pocket. Dorothy's MCA show and the success that followed heralded a dearth of quality paintings in relation to the demand generated by serious collectors, setting the preconditions for a sudden rash of works on the secondary market from 2002 onward. While only one painting was offered for sale at auction in 2002, seven appeared in 2003, 27 in 2004 and 26 in 2005. 2015 was her Dorothy's best year since 2009 when her sales total was $200,930. Dorothy Napangardi's most successful paintings at auction have featured a network of closely knit interconnected dotted squares which build to form duotone patterned grids on dark, most often black, backgrounds. By randomly in-filling white dotted squares with yellow or deep red ochre dots, a mottled effect is produced as demonstrated in her top-selling lot, Karntakurlangu. When this work sold at Sotheby’s in July 2004 (Lot 113) it more than doubled its high estimate of $60,000 taking $129,750. In the same auction, a larger subtler piece failed to reach its low estimate of $50,000 and was passed in. The work later sold at Lawson-Menzies in November 2006 sale for $55,200. Dorothy’s second-highest result at auction was for Karntakurlangu Jukurrpa 2003 a much larger 183 x 350 cm work on linen. Carrying a presale estimate of $80,000-100,000 it sold for $120,000 at Lawson~Menzies in November 2007 (Lot 62). Sales in 2008 were poor, in line with the market slump and the end of Lawson~Menzies specialist sales. This resulted in her career clearance rate dropping below her somewhat respectable 65%. 2009 brought a mixed bag of results, with 13 of the 32 works on offer selling, including a number of impressive sales upwards of $20,000 that sit just outside of the artist’s top ten records. Generally, the majority of the failures carried poor provenance or were smaller paintings. These results should not diminish the results for her finest pieces. Without these failures, her sale rate would have been closer to a spectacular 81%, despite the vast majority of these works having spent such a short time between their original purchase and subsequent appearance at auction. Dorothy Napangardi was an artist of top calibre and her highest auction results gave her one of the best records for any living artist at the time. Since 2009 she has constantly hovered between 20th and 25th on of the top 100 artists. However, this acclaim is unlikely to last indefinitely. She tragically died a relatively young woman. At just 50 years of age should have had many productive years ahead of her. The heat her career generated from the late 1990s to 2009 will be difficult to maintain now that her repertoire is finite. At the time of her death, her art practice was being severely compromised by the quantity of ‘copycat paintings’ that were being produced by members of her family and others that were sold under her name. The closure of Gallery Gondwana, her principle agent, did not help. Still, 2019 saw Napangardi included in a Sotheby's New York sale of important indigenous artists, where her two somewhat impressive works sold for AUD50,000 Buyers lucky enough to purchase works prior to her MCA show in 2002 will always be able to make a very good profit on their paintings at sale. However, those paying higher prices in her exhibitions during the following decade will need to rely on a buoyant market and excellent provenance if they are to reap financial rewards.