Born at Kumilnga, west of the Pollock Hills in Western Australia, Naata Nungurrayi was about 30 years of age when she encountered the welfare patrol in 1963 and was brought with her family to Papunya the flowing year. Forced to leave behind her beloved desert homelands, the memory of these places and the life she led there continues to provide the wellspring of her inspiration and the subject matter for her highly sought after paintings. After initially moving to Docker River with family members in the late 1970’s she finally settled in the KIntore region in the early 1980’s. Naata began painting for Papunya Tula Artists in 1996, encouraged by the arts coordinator at Haasts Bluff, Marina Strochi who was immediately impressed by her particular style. She participated in Papunya group exhibitions for the first time during the following year including exhibitions during the Desert Mob weekend and at Chapman Gallery in Canberra. Naata’s paintings combine the carefully composed geometric style that developed at Papunya amongst the Pintupi painting men, with the looser technique and more painterly organic style introduced by the women after the paintings camps of the early and mid 1990’s. She was included in the exhibition Twenty-Five Years and Beyond at Flinders University Art Museum in 2000 and Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius at the At Gallery of NSW during the same year. Traditional initiation into the sacred knowledge of Women’s Law has given Naata the authority to paint designs depicting women’s sites and journeys and the sacred ceremonies they performed. The designs women painted on their bodies during these ceremonies are carried over onto the picture surface and project the same rhythmic quality felt in a live performance. These ceremonies enact and celebrate the ancestral Tingari women who, like the Tingari men, also travel the vast stretches of country, creating and shaping the features and creatures of the landscape and teaching the ways of survival within this often physically demanding terrain. Naata included visual references to the food collected, the waterholes they visited and the encampments where they came together in large groups to share their wisdom and teach the young. Her preference for pale creamy ochres imparts a calming softness to her paintings while her unhurried compositions seem to bring all elements together with a spacious sense of harmony and inclusiveness. Like other women artists of her painting group, Naata liked to apply paint thickly, as though molding a rich and textured surface, reflecting her feel for the earth, which underscores her own spiritual and cultural foundations and that of her people. Much like her contemporary Walangkura Napanangka, she was able to paint in a number of quite different yet consistent styles and could be quite adventurous with colour given the opportunity. Her most successful works at auction, however, have been created in relatively conventional ochre tones, while those that contain bright pinks, reds, or laden with orange and yellow ochres have tended to be less popular. Her imagery varies from strikingly bold compositions created gesturally, to tight grids with contrasting in-filled dotting. Most recognisable are her paintings in which scallop shaped sites, denoting women, sweep in from the borders of the painted surface enclosing a combination of scattered roundels and striated bands and works consisting of an irregular grid, most effective when the colouring is subtle and the shading results in a clever balance. Naata was the sister of George Tjungurrayi and Nancy Nungurrayi who are also highly sought after artists. In recent years, Naata along with George, Nancy, and her son, Kenny Williams Tjampitjinpa, painted principally for Chris Simon of Yanda Art in Alice Springs, as well as a small number of others. The fact that artists of this calibre have been producing high quality works for others outside of their ‘official’ art centre has resulted in a great deal of tension between Papunya Tula and a number of independent dealers operating in Alice Springs. Much of the contemporary politics surrounding industry ethics has stemmed from such disputes. Yet Naata seemed oblivious to this as she consistently produced works of the highest calibre while moving freely between Alice Springs and her country, deep in Central Australia. While her paintings have travelled the world, appearing in important exhibitions and have become amongst the most collectable of all Aboriginal art, Naata herself appeared unaffected by it all, preferring to remain close to her family and her beloved country and eschewing the debate over ‘provenance’ that spread like a brush fire around her. Should anyone doubt that she was being remunerated and cared for in an exemplary fashion, they need only look to the quality of her output for reassurance. Her works consistently bordered on the sublime.
For an artist who has never had a solo exhibition or a book published about her work, Naata Nungerayi’s success is nothing short of staggering. Prior to 2007 her sales statistics were already impressive with her total sales at auction standing at $476,890 and a success rate of 62%. By 2007, her average price was $10,920, and her record price stood at $153,250, the fourth highest price ever paid for an Aboriginal woman’s work at the time. However, in a remarkable developement, her total sales almost doubled to $915,462 just a year later. By the end of 2008 she had joined the $1 million club, the exclusive preserve of less than 50 Aboriginal artists. Importantly by the end of 2016 her total sales had reached $1,889,619 and her clearance rate had jumped to 70%. Her average price has increased by $6,000 per work over the past decade to reach $15,455, a quite remarkable result given the large number of smaller works which dominate her sales results. Although Naata began painting as early as 1994, only works painted from 1999 onward have appeared on the secondary market. A new record price was set in 2007 and this contributed to the phenomenal increase in her career average after that year. The soakage Water Site of Unkunya, created as recently as 2005, sold for $216,000 and eclipsed her previous record to then install Naata Nungerayi in the top ten most successful Aboriginal female artists of all time. This record was set against an estimate of $70,000-100,000 at Sotheby’s in July (Lot 101). Created originally for Papunya Tula, the painting measured 183 x 153 cm. and featured radiating striated sandhills mimicking the movement of ancestral women at a major site West of the Pollack Hills in Western Australia. Bought by the Luczo Family Collection in the USA, this painting was re-offered for sale in 2016 and achieved just $146,400 representing a decrease in value of 33% even though it became the 4th highest price paid for any work by this artist. Her previous record created an equal but opposite result when re-offered following its original sale for $153,250 at Sotheby's in 2005(Lot 89). Similar in size and provenance to the record holding work, it actually increased in value by 41% when it sold for $216,000 in the Laverty sale at Deutscher & Hackett in 2015 (against a pre-sale estimate of just $60,000-80,000). In 2015 two works entered her top 10 results and the sale of 13 of the 14 works on offer saw her end the year as the 6th most successful artist. She was 7th in 2016 with two top 10 results including the sale of one of her new duotone (black on red) paintings based on ancient iconographic petroglyphs. One hundred and fifty of these late career paintings are the subject of a new book and are on offer in the primary market for $80,000 each. On this first secondary market outing Iconography #66 achieved $98,182 including buyer's premium. 2017 was a decent year for the artist, with 8 of the 9 works on offer selling, all etiher within or slightly above their estimates. The average price for those eight was $10,970 and her success has continued with 6 of 6 selling in 2019. Naata's most successful painting in her tight grid style has been Marapinti 2002 which measured 183 x 122 cm and sold for $60,000 when offered with an estimate of $50,000-70,000 in Sotheby’s July 2006 sale (Lot 126). Importantly, prior to 2007 only four of Naata’s top ten results were painted for Papunya Tula, with two of these being her best results and another two her fourth and seventh. By the end of 2016 however, there were six Papunya Tula works occupying top-ten places including 5 of her 6 highest results. Never-the-less, collectors should be aware that there have been many equally good works produced for independent dealers, which have sold to collectors with a more ‘devil may care’ attitude. Expect these to steadily, if not dramatically increase in value once they can be judged on their own merits, untainted by industry politics. In particular, Naata painted a number of extremely high quality works for Chris Simon of Yanda Art during the period post 2010. Naata is not known for having painted large paintings so these are extremely rare. Her two highest prices have been for works measuring just 153 x 183cm. The largest offered for sale measured 180 x 300 cm, and achieved $44,650 when sold by Bonham’s and Goodman in November 2004 (Lot 49). Undoubtedly these results place Naata Nungerayi amongst the most highly successful Aboriginal artists of all time. Many of her finest works have been painted for Chris Simon’s Yanda Art and are unlikely to appear in any quantity at auction during the next decade. Collectors would be very well advised to seek out her best works currently in galleries and, be unafraid , given contemporary art politics, of paying a premium for those few paintings available through Papunya Tula or its agent galleries. In time provenance is likely to matter less than it does currently, the quality of her works being enough to demonstrate how well she has been looked after and cared for whilst creating them. At their best, Naata’s paintings have great strength and vitality. They emanate the power that can only be associated with an artist whose ceremonial knowledge is as deep as her attachment to the land. These paintings will endure as some of the most satisfying and culturally important works of their time.