It is with immeasurable sadness that we write to let people know that Napangardi died peacefully last night in her beloved home town of Yuendumu.
She was much loved by all of us. We will all miss her and her formidable talent very much.
Judy Napangardi Watson was indeed formidable. I first met her at Yuendumu sometime in 2005. She was tiny–perhaps all of five feet tall, with stove-pipe legs and arms and an elfin face–but you took her on at your peril.
Napangardi was born around 1925 at Yarungkanji on Mount Doreen Station, west of Yuendumu in the Tanami Desert. Her ancestral country was far to the west at Mina Mina, the subject of and inspiration for many of her paintings. Not long after she started painting in the mid-1980s she developed her distinctive style of painting using contrasting bands of colour with heavily textured surfaces worked in an vigorous “dragged dotting” style.
Napangardi was a colourist almost without match. The best of her canvases are exemplars of the vivid and explosive use of colour adopted by many artists working at Warlukurlangu–a Warlpiri word for a “place of fire”just west of Yuendumu.
In 2004 Gloria Morales–trained as a curator at the National Gallery in Canberra–joined Warlukurlangu and helped to refine Napangardi’s use of colour beyond what had been a (relatively) limited palette. Soon Napangardi was mixing her own colours and helping to explode the myth that, as curator Judith Ryan put it, “indigenous art is concerned only with colours of earth and desert.”
Christine Nicholls says of the use of colour by three Napangardi at Yuendumu (Judy Napangardi Watson, her sister Maggie–who passed away in 2004– and the younger Dorothy) that the availability of new colours:
… afforded Warlpiri a means of innovation, enabling them to expand their repertoire in their contemporary visual re-creations of country. Many Warlpiri, like Judy and Maggie Napangardi, elected to use the wildest, most inventive of palettes to represent their country and as a means of re-affirming their relationship with it … [A]rtists like Judy and Maggie Napangardi have therefore frequently made use of bands of bright colour as a means of activating the surface of their canvases to create an illusion of motion, so important as a means of simulating body painting and depicting Warlpiri narratives of travel through large tracts of country, and particularly necessary to portray the Women’s Dreaming with accuracy.*
Success–however it is measured–always comes with a price. For Napangardi support for her very extended family meant that on occasion she was–literally–hit upon. She was also pressured to participate in the sweat-shop art trade in Alice Springs.
Cecilia Alfonso, manager of Warlukurlangu Artists reckons that many if not most of Napangardi’s works for sale online–particularly on websites like Ebay–are fakes that Napangardi had minimal involvement in making. Often she was posed for a photo holding a painting made by someone else “in her style”.
Alfonso warns potential buyers to carefully check the provenance of any paintings attributed to Napangardi–and indeed many central Australian artists–that are offered online.
Napangardi was more than just an artist and an impressively supportive champion of family and clan. She was also a formidable hunter–as Alfonso told me yesterday evening in Alice Springs “When we would go hunting the other ladies would come back with one goanna. Judy would come back with six fat ones and a cheeky grin.”
Napangardi–and the rest of the women who paint through Warlukurlangu–are part of a movement that author Judith Ryan described in her 2004 book “Colour Power” as an awakening of the hitherto sleeping giants of the Aboriginal art world–women artists who were both creators and inventors working with new materials.
This movement did not happen overnight and Napangardi and her kin stood on the artistic shoulders of those who had gone before.
Underlying and authorising their work in any medium is their autonomy in ritual matters and knowledge of country, sanctioned by their totemic ancestors.
Napangardi was a keen supporter of Warlukurlangu’s bush trips that take artists back to country usually accompanied by kids from the local school, including a trip far to the west of Yuendumu to Mina Mina, a dreaming place the subject of many of her most valued paintings.
After many years away she’d finally returned to her country.
Vale Judy Napangardi Watson, 1925 to 2016.
Photos used with permission.