The Australian
Forging a language of emotion
Nicolas Rothwell
December 27, 2007

Quoted from the article:

A little more than a year ago, the style of Makinti Napanangka, queen of the Western Desert’s Pintupi painters, began to change.

The trademark yellow and white arcs of her canvases that traced out the hair-string skirts of ancestral dancing women became broader and freer, almost perilously unconstrained.

Makinti, old, frail and celebrated, seemed to be moving beyond the painting of country and story towards pure abstraction. She was entering that most elusive chapter of a career, the late phase, when the themes and emotions of a life’s work find concentrated, undisguised expression.

Whether viewed as final masterworks, desert abstracts or simply as descriptive canvases imbued with the deepest rhythms of the landscape, these new works of Makinti’s, which were on view earlier this month at the gallery of Papunya Tula Artists in Alice Springs, highlight the capacity for change and innovation that has been characteristic of many traditional desert painters in recent years. They also call forth reflections on the way we see and receive the new art currents emerging from the desert, the way we frame these works and give them meaning and value in our minds and hearts.

Makinti, one of the most keenly studied and collected of the Papunya Tula art stars, tiny in stature, great in self-possession, serves as a fine challenge for the connoisseurs and curators who would break through the barriers of desert reserve.

What, in these sensuous, small-scale works, is she seeking to convey? How, indeed, to forge a language for capturing and understanding the newest transformations of Pintupi art, that austere, elusive realm?

How to explain the appeal of Makinti’s majestic canvases as they hang in the great public galleries and private collections of Australia, seeming to gather the light of their exhibition spaces in their shimmering, waving lines, then radiate forth the pulse and dance of sand-dune country and the hazy hot-season sky?

Discussion with the artist is not the easiest way to gauge her intentions: she is protected by the fence of her Western Desert language and by a slight stammer in her delivery, though this effect mysteriously vanishes as soon as she begins to whisper.

She likes to identify her country and her constant subject: the site of Lupul, where the two ancestral creator women danced. She likes to remind her visitors that she is No1 among the women at the painting studio in her home community of Kintore. But she is rather less forthcoming when asked about the evolution in her work.

Makinti’s first paintings, large pieces filled with roundels, had a soft, shimmering, instantly captivating style. As the catalogue essay prepared for her Alice Springs retrospective says, “Compositionally, her paintings were worlds apart from those being produced beside her. From the very outset Makinti defined herself with a purely painterly technique, which reflected an unwavering confidence and ability to write in paint exactly what she wanted to say.”

This precise comment bypasses the standard froth of gallery and auction house blurbs and cuts to the core of Makinti’s art. Rather than offering up a version of Makinti as a constant chronicler of the tales and topography of Lupul and its ceremonies, it provides a psychological portrait: the voiceless painter, through her art, speaks.

It is tempting to deepen this account of Makinti’s way of capturing the emotions and the patterns that her country holds, and bring in a medical detail that suggests a clue to the changes in her art. About the time of the survey show, Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius, held at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2000, the year of the Sydney Olympics, Makinti underwent an operation to remove cataracts in her eyes, and a distinct shift in her work followed.

The loose roundels vanished: thick-scored lines of white and orange, which seemed to outside eyes like shorthand for the waving sand dunes of the Western Desert, appeared and soon became Makinti’s new signature style. But this simplistic, physiological version of Makinti’s development fails to hold: she painted lines before and even today, on occasion, the roundels come back into her work.

Papunya Tula’s long-time manager, Paul Sweeney, prefers to dwell on Makinti’s tone and intent. Throughout the past decade, as her technique has changed, the feel of her art has stayed recognisable, he believes: it is an art of deep emotion, alive with a personal vision that escapes verbal definition. And why would she paint it if she could say it, one begins to ask, only to realise that she paints it precisely because she cannot say it to the wider world.

“For someone to interpret her stories repeatedly, so frequently and for so long, and for them to be done with such confidence and such devotion is an indication of her love of, and respect for, those things she holds so dear,” concludes the new show’s essay.

“To the observer they may seem simple, but to study the care and emotion spent marking out those simple lines is to begin to understand her, not as an artist but as aperson.”

As a person: here, perhaps, is the missing key to criticism of traditional desert art. Those who know and spend time with the artists know well how clearly defined are their personalities and how strongly the art of the pre-eminent painters and carvers of the Western Desert reflects their natures.

But this tends to get lost in the critical literature being written to accompany and support the Aboriginal art vogue.

The older artists, who rarely speak with confidence to the outside world of art buyers, are reduced to stereotypes, or it is their authenticity, their closeness to tradition, that is valued, more than their individual reworking of that tradition.

Many factors have encouraged this trend: the distance between the desert communities and the art markets, the relatively closed nature of Pintupi society, the difficulty of access, the long-maintained preference for group shows, which is only gradually being replaced by a shift towards individual exhibitions in city galleries.

Indeed, it is only now the place of the desert tradition is secure that its early masters are being subjected to critical study: their themes, lives and characters are coming intofocus.

Makinti, the minuscule princess in the Kintore painting studio, distinctive even amid a vivid cast of characters, seems a natural choice for close attention.

At the opening of the Alice Springs show, one of the most gifted of the new generation of art centre field workers, Sarita Quinlivan, gave a brief account of Makinti’s life and work, and presented an intriguing portrait not just of the artist but of the philosophy behind her art.

“I believe what we must understand and accept is that the communication of the stories, feelings and memories these paintings contain are only a part of what Makinti achieves,” Quinlivan began. “It is the opportunity to create a dialogue with those who seem so distant, that is what she cherishes and aspires to.”

Desert travellers who have seen Makinti at work in her community studio, dwarfed by her canvases, brow knotted, painting with rapt concentration, will sense the depth and subtlety of this interpretation: “It is with paint that Makinti has slowly revealed herself. When she paints, everybody listens. Paint has given her a voice.”

But this account of Makinti’s work, its continuities and transformations, not only gives us a biography of a living creative artist, it demands a response. If we conceive of desert women as painters who are seeking to speak to their far-off audiences, the question remains: what should be the reply?

Rather than just admiring the canvases of Makinti and the other female painters of Kintore and the surrounding art centres of the Western Desert, a form of active engagement becomes natural.

Once these paintings are seen as the works of artists with biographies, with life histories and personal challenges surrounding them, then our understanding of Makinti and her sisters begins to change.

Her life, rather than her ancestral stories alone, affects her art. She becomes a contemporary, rather than the transcriber of ancient, fixed belief systems. And this is how those who live closely alongside the Papunya Tula female artists have always seen them.

Quinlivan, as she looks back on Makinti’s year and her creative evolution, feels that the body of new works in her retrospective can best be understood not just as a reprise of traditional themes but as a kind of pure pictorial innovation.

“Makinti will never detach her paintings from the site at Lupul,” she says. “But she now feels a strong pride in her art and her art’s success: she feels a joy in being able to work and communicate her story, whether you describe the subject as her country or as her experimentation with paint. I think there’s a strong element of that now, of pure artistry, just painting.”

And if Makinti takes her place as a painter alongside the established masters of landscape art, then her bright canvases undergo a transformation in the minds and eyes of those who see them.

If they are not symbols of secret ceremonies but the expressions of deep, shared emotions, then they shift from being magic, elusive screens of difference, to being doorways, lustrous doors of colour, ushering the viewer into the desert world.