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In Her Words: Meet the Artists of Marking the Infinite

In Her Words is a three-part series (adapted from the exhibition pamphlet edited by MOA Curator Carol E. Mayer) that offers a closer look at the artists behind the extraordinary art featured in the exhibition Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia. Each artist is presented here individually as she reflects on her work: how she learned to paint, what subjects she has painted, and why. The artists’ words are accompanied by a detail of selected paintings, offering a glimpse of the intimacy between each woman and her practice.

Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia—on from November 1, 2018 to March 31, 2019—makes its Canadian premiere at MOA and marks the first exhibition of all-women artists at the Museum. The nine artists—Nonggirrnga Marawili, Wintjiya Napaltjarri, Yukultji Napangati, Angelina Pwerle, Carlene West, Regina Pilawuk Wilson, Lena Yarinkura, Gulumbu Yunupingu, and Nyapanyapa Yunupingu—are important cultural leaders held in high esteem in their communities as well as renowned artists, locally and internationally.

In this first of three posts, we meet Nonggirrnga Marawili, Wintjiya Napaltjarri and Yukultji Napangati, and take a look at their histories, process and inspiration.

Members of Indigenous communities are respectfully advised that a number of people mentioned in writing or depicted in photographs below have passed away.

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Nonggirrnga Marawili. Photo by Will Stubb.
Lightening and the rock, 2014 (detail), by Nonggirrnga Marawili.

Nonggirrnga Marawili 

Madarrpa/Australian. Born circa 1939. Lives and works at Yirrkala, Northern Territory.

“I paint water designs — the water as it splashes onto the rocks at high tide. The painting that I do is not sacred.”

Nonggirrnga Marawili is a member of the Madarrpa clan and a respected elder in her community with deep ceremonial knowledge. She grew up during a time when women were prohibited from painting sacred designs.

“This Yirritja painting I’m doing is coming from the heart and mind, but it’s not the sacred Madarrpa painting. It’s just an ordinary fire, not the Madarrpa fire: tongues of fire, fire burning backwards. This is just my thinking. No one told me to do this pattern. I did this on my own. When the elders see it they will let me know what they think.

I just do my own design from the outside. Water. Rock. Rocks which stand strong, and the waves which run and crash upon the rock.”

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Wintjiya Napaltjarri. Photo by Will Stubb.
Women’s Ceremonies at Watanuma, 2007 (detail), by Wintjiya Napaltjarri.

Wintjiya Napaltjarri

Pintupi/Australian. Born circa 1930, died 2014 in Walungurru, Northern Territory.

Wintjiya Napaltjarri passed away in 2014, and recordings of her voice have not been located. In her essay Force and Fragility in the exhibition catalogue (available in the MOA Shop), Sarita Quinlivan, a long-time friend of Wintjiya’s writes, “Wintjiya would call out each site, creature, or bush food as she pointed with her finger or digging stick to the corresponding symbol in her painting.

“For Wintjiya, the final act of each painting was all consuming as she surrounded her iconography in a swath of white paint. This illuminated each symbol in the same way that white ochre was used traditionally to encase body paint on naked breasts and arms. Using the wooden handle of a paintbrush, she embarked upon a rhythmic and lyrical process, dipping it deep into a pot of paint and then merging and dabbing dots together until all of the unpainted surface of the linen was covered in white. In my hours of watching this stage, the repetitive sound of this action became an allegory for the pulse of time and the knowledge that is passed through it.”

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Yukultji Napangati. Photo by Greg Weight.
Women’s Ceremonies at Yunala, 2007 (detail), by Yukultji Napangati.

Yukultji Napangati

Pintupi/Australian. Born circa 1971. Lives and works in Kiwirrkurra, Western Australia.

“I was only little when living at Murruwa [Marawa]. We would eat damper made from mungilypa and also bush potato and maku [witchery grubs]. I wasn’t aware of them [family living at the settlement] back then or about white people either. I didn’t know.”

Yukultji Napangati lived isolated with her family in the desert until she was fourteen years old. Her world changed dramatically when they came to live in the settlement where she was introduced to painting, “I became used to it all and I thought, ‘They’re doing canvases.’ I saw them painting. I would sit down and watch them as they were painting canvas, long time.” When she started to paint she chose the subject of her mother’s country, “My mother’s country, Marrapinti, that’s what I paint about. The ancestors were coming this way and they entered the place called Wilkinkarra [Lake Mackay]. I paint that, and the places Ngaminya, Wirrulnga. They travelled and arrived at Lake Mackay from Yunala. Yunala is the place of bush-potato Dreaming. The ancestors would dig them up and eat them—my mother’s country.”