Viewed during her lifetime as one of the brightest stars of the Haasts Bluff art movement, Mitjili Napurrula was deeply involved in the formative years and ongoing development of modern desert art. Her mother, Tjunkiya Napaltjarri - herself later becoming an artist of public repute - was forced from her drought-stricken Pintupi/Lurjita country. She arrived in the remote community of Haasts Bluff seeking refuge. 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.
By gradually reducing the complexity of her imagery, Mitjili worked towards creating a tapestry of repeated shapes and symbols. Her distinctive iconography is often highlighted by dazzling combinations of strong, complimentary tones. Contrasting colours may also be starkly juxtaposed, jumping from the canvas in vibratory shapes and patterns. 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 more flowing rendition of the plants and places associated with the cutting of wood and assembling of spears.