Ningura Naparrula wa born at Watulka, south of Kiwirrkurra c.1938. In her early 20s, in the company of a welfare patrol, she traveled with her husband Yala Yala Gibbs and her severely burnt young son Mawitji to the Papunya settlement for hospital treatment. Although they returned to the western desert, their brief encounter with settlement life saw them return to live in the newly established community the following year. Soon after their arrival they gave birth to the second of their four children.
During their years at the settlement, after Yala Yala Gibbs became a founding member of the Papunya Tula artists group, she assisted him on his precise and detailed Tingari Paintings. By 1995 this influence was apparent when she began painting in her own right in the second year of the Haasts Bluff/Kintore women’s painting camp. Her dynamic compositions are characterized by strong linear designs, which are slowly built up through intricate patterning, and appear boldly defined upon a background of dense, monochrome infilling. Yet her aesthetic, anchored in the activities and sacred rituals of women’s business, reflects a softer, more organic vision in comparison to the intellectual strictures of the early classic style devised by the Pintupi painting men.
Daphne Williams, who was appointed as the coordinator of Papunya Tula Artists in 1981, finally approached the painting men regarding the distribution of art materials amongst the women during the early 1990’s. Up until this time, women had access to paints and canvasses only through assisting their fathers, brothers or husbands. Williams organized painting projects for the women of Kintore and nearby Kiwirrkurra and slowly, over the following decade, the women have become a driving creative force, infusing new life into the company and furthering its international renown. Initiating this process in 1994, the older women of Haasts Bluff and Kintore organized a painting camp at a sacred women’s site away from the men and the rest of the community. Ningura began painting during the camp at this site the following year when the women reaffirmed important rituals and narratives associated with their mythological ancestors. At first the women worked on large joint canvasses that were noted for their expressive exuberance and confident style. Their immediately apparent competence with technique was the result of years of quiet learning alongside their men folk.
Within a year, Naparrula and many of these women were painting their own smaller works regularly, creating ‘some of the most radiant and richly textured surfaces in the history of the painting company…and helping to revitalize painting in the community after the deaths of many of the older group of painting men’ (Johnson 2000: 197).
Naparrula’s focus centers upon her female ancestors who travelled the vast country, creating sacred sites and establishing customs and ceremonies. Features of the landscape and women’s interactions with it are explained and honoured. The complex relationship between Aboriginal country and culture is difficult for outsiders to fully appreciate but Naparrula’s work manages to convey the vibrancy of an embodied corpus of knowledge. The ongoing life activities of the women such as gathering bush tucker, giving birth, or the dancing and singing of ceremony, are fused with a living understanding of the environment. In what has become her most defining image, Wirrulnga 2001, smaller arcs surround the large rounded shape at the centre of the canvas. A woman is about to give birth at this traditional ‘borning’ site that also features a waterhole (Wirrulnga) and surrounding sand hills. The old midwives wear nyimparra/hair-string skirts/bush belts. Two women are often depicted sitting either side of a nulla nulla that they have used to catch a goanna for everyone's tucker. Larger circles radiating outwards represent women’s hair twirled and plaited onto the top of the heads in order to carry food and water. Thickly layered acrylic paint emphasizes an earthy substantiality. The visual intensity of the uncomplicated yet detailed line work draws contiguous shapes into a dynamic harmony. One senses the moment as the earth awaits new life.
Ningura Napurrula was one of the eight Australian artists selected for the new Indigenous art museum, the Musee du Quai Branly, in Paris. In typical unassuming fashion she declined her invitation to attend the grand opening in 2006; ‘its too far away,' she said through an interpreter, 'and I have grandchildren to look after’ (Greagh 2006).
While still an active member of the Papunya Tula organization, Ningura is one of a number of artists that has taken advantage of the renown that her art has brought her by painting for a wide array of dealers in Alice Springs and beyond. While still painting for Papynya Tula she has also painted for Mike Mitchell, Robyn Moloney, Chris Symons, Tony Mason and Steve Ariston. Works from these and other sources have been exhibited at Aranda Aboriginal Art, Mason Gallery and Yanda Aboriginal Art, Fireworks Gallery and elsewhere. Her works for Papunya Tula have been exhibited at Gabrielle Pizzi Gallery and William Mora Gallery in Melbourne and Utopia Art in Sydney. The prominence she received following the Paris commission sits atop a steady public esteem that is evident in the extensive number of exhibitions and collections in which her paintings have appeared, both in Australia and overseas.
Despite completing her first paintings in 1995, and her current international acclaim, works by Ningura Napurrula did not begin appearing in the secondary market until 2001 and remarkably, as 2003 drew to a close, of the seven paintings that had been offered only one had sold for the paltry sum of just $1,880.
Ningura’s selection to complete the large ceiling panels for the Quay Branly Museum in Paris in 2004 catapulted her into the public eye, and as a consequence drew her out of Kintore and into Alice Springs, where she could more easily meet the burgeoning market demand for her works. With so few galleries able to acquire paintings through Papunya Tula it became inevitable that she would paint for the many other dealers ever ready to pay for paintings with ‘up front’ cash.
Since 2001 a remarkable 223 works have been offered for auction including 20 in 2008, 17 in 2009 and 14 in 2010, 2011 and 2016. As would be expected these were met with very mixed results depending on the health of the market at the time. In fact, only 54% of all works offered have sold. The overheated primary market for her work post 2000 saw paintings available through a wide variety of outlets from the best exhibiting galleries right through to downmarket tourist shops. Since the beginning of 2005 this has meant that buyers have been able to purchase works by Ningura from the growing band of auction houses selling Aboriginal art at more affordable prices than primary market galleries. For example, the average price on the secondary market for a 122 x 152 cm work with Papunya Tula provenance has been around $20,000, while works from independent dealers have sold at auction for an average of around $10,000. Yet equivalent works have sold for up to $40,000 on the primary market.
Nevertheless, one should be careful when interpreting these results. In 2004, Papunya Tula Artists was one amongst several industry organizations, to ‘draw a line in the sand’ and refuse to deal with galleries and agents who purchased works by ‘their’ artists that painted for others. Amongst the most contentious Papunya artists were Ningura Napurrula, Naata Nungerayai, and Makinti Napanangka all of whom began painting for a wide array of dealers from around this time. It is interesting to note that during 2006, at the time this argument was most virulent, Papunya Tula provenanced works by Ningura held the top two places amongst her results at auction and four of the top six results. A year later all but one of the top six results carried Papunya Tula provenance. In 2007, of the 17 works offered only eight sold and none of these came from Papunya Tula but still these sales set her third, seventh, ninth and tenth highest records. It seems that works with this art centre provenance are more tightly held and will sell for a premium when offered, as they are likely to comprise a much smaller component of the artist’s work at auction in the future. This was evidenced in 2015 when two works with Papunya Tula provenance sold in Sotheby's London sale of works from the collection of Dutch uber-collector Thomas Vroom.The combination of PT provenance with that of a branded collection proved irresistible. The major work set the artists best record to date when it sold for $154,644 and the other finished as her 10th highest record. 2015 ended as her best year since 2006 at auction. Of 19 works offered 15 sold for a total of $219,020. Results in 2016 were also encouraging with 9 of 14 works selling for a total of $145,419. Formost amongst these was the re-sale of the Papunya Tula masterpiece Women at Wirrulnga, 2005 measuring 244 x 183 cm which had originally sold for $84,000 in 2009. This time around it achieved $91,500. The same painting now holds the artist's 3rd and 4th highest result s at auction. 2017 brought middling results with 7 out of the 11 works offered selling, at an average price of $6,615. None of the four unsold works had PT provenance. And in 2019, 7 of 9 paintings on offer sold for an average price of $7094.
Paintings by Ningura work best on a large scale where she has room to create freer sweeping and more gestural shapes prior to infilling with a thick pastiche of dots. Given that the average price paid at auction for a work measuring 152 x 122 cm is $17,000 regardless of provenance while that for a 120 x 90 cm work is only $2,500, it seems there is a great deal of difference between works that are perceived to be ‘collectable’ and the more ubiquitous minor paintings. There is evidence that a significant number of very large works procured from theis artist by private dealers, many up to 3 metres in length, were sold through 'investment' brokers for $80,000-100,000. I expect their owners to be bdeeply disappointed at the market reaction when they are offered for sale. Over time the preference for works with art centre provenance may possibly wain, yet I suspect the best of these will always fetch a premium over the better non-Papunya Tula paintings for which there is likely to be a ‘buyers market’ for some time into the foreseeable future.