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Aboriginal Art: Naata Nungurrayi

Updated on March 1, 2017

Untitled, 2006, Synthetic Polymer paint on canvas, 48 x 48 in

The Painter

The Proper Treatment of Aboriginal Art in a Contemporary Art Context

Western treatment of non-Western art has long been fraught with misunderstanding, especially when the non-Western culture in question has been subject to the brutalities of colonization. Historically, the colonizer treats the colonized people’s culture and art as primitive compared to their own, and thus only values it for its ethnographic or anthropological value. This pattern of problematic cultural relations held true for the Aboriginal communities of Australia up until the 1980s. Only then did Aboriginal art begin to gain prestige and respect as a legitimate artistic movement. One artist to emerge from the Modern Aboriginal art movement was Naata Nungurrayi. Nungurrayi was born in 1932 in Kumil Rockhole, west of Pollock Hills in Western Australia to a group of Pintupi speaking people.[1] She began painting in her 60s as a part of a prolific Aboriginal Art group which helped to pull Aboriginal art out of the stereotypes of ethnography and into the contemporary art world. Locating Naata Nungurrayi’s work, Untitled, within both a contemporary and Aboriginal context requires the viewer to navigate the treacherous line between dismissing her cultural heritage, and ironically limiting her to it. Her work, Untiled, completed in 2006 is an excellent example of the kind of art created during the Modern Aboriginal Art movement, and as such carries with it the controversies which have pervaded Aboriginal Art, since its sudden rise in popularity. Problems navigating and reconciling the Eurocentric view of contemporary art and the traditional values of Aboriginal artmaking have long plagued Aboriginal artistic communities. In considering these two issues, it is important to realize that art is never created in a vacuum, and thus is always influenced by the artists’ cultural heritage and personal experiences. However, we cannot allow this information to blind us to the work’s value independent of its cultural origins. To do so would be to severely limit the artist’s voice and creative freedom.

Naata Nungurrayi’s piece, Untitled is a traditional dot and circle painting measuring roughly 48 x 48 inches, done with a palate of synthetic polymer paint on canvas.[2] The overlying pattern rests upon a warm, rust colored background. Overtop of this background, Nungurrayi has created a structure of interconnected black lines and circles, each about a half-an-inch thick. These black lines have then been further decorated with dots of varying colors including orange, red, pink, and white, which obscure and blend the line work. A single black line follows the contour of the canvas’s edge, encircling the composition. Beginning in the bottom of the canvas a series of black lines run vertically about two-thirds the way up the canvas before they converge in a rounded apex suggestive of a mountain or rocky outcropping. To the right of this structure, the black lines run vertically up the canvas until they meet the encircling border. In the upper left, clusters of hollow circles about two inches in diameter are connected to one another by lines, creating a web-like pattern. Along both the upper right edge of the canvas and along the left edge, some of the circles seem to have floated away from the interlocking structure found in the upper left. Three of these circles have even found their way to the bottom edge of the canvas. All of this underlying black line work is overlaid and filled in with an intricate pattern of dots which are loosely applied to the surface. The white dots generally follow the contours of the black lines while the other colors fill in the negative spaces. Through the warm tones and textured surface of the painting, the viewer is given a strong sense of Australia’s desert landscape.

Nungurrayi’s piece conforms to the traditional iconography found in some of the earliest known examples of Aboriginal art. The earliest of which are located in the Arhem Land and Kimberley, and date to roughly 30,000 years ago, a date which is “contemporaneous with or predate[s] the famous Paleolithic rock art sites at Lascaux and Altamira.”[3] Despite the long and rich history of art implied by the existence of these rock paintings, the British, who first “began settling the continent some 230 years ago” regarded the Aboriginal people they encountered “as among the most miserable societies possessing little in the way of culture” or art.[4] In reality the Aboriginal people represent an indigenous group rich in cultural practices, spiritual depth, and linguistic diversity, which continues to inform their artistic practices to this day. For many more traditionally-minded artists like Nungurrayi the spiritual and the artistic realms are intimately intertwined through the concept of ‘Dreaming’ stories or ‘Tjukurrpa.’[5] “The spiritual focus of Aboriginal life is the Ancestral Realm, commonly referred to today as the ‘Dreaming.’ Aboriginal groups trace their descent from named ancestors with wide-ranging creative and supernatural powers” who they believe “created human beings and gave them the civilizing attributes of language law, and culture.”[6] Despite the expectation that all members of the Aboriginal community will grow up with a certain degree of visual literacy for traditional ‘Dreaming’ iconography, up until recently only certain senior members of the community were allowed to portray specific aspects of the ‘Dreaming’. Naata Nungurrayi’s position “as an elder from her language group… is one of the few women to have permission to paint aspects of these Dreamings.”[7] Even so, her identity as a woman narrows her authority over these ‘Dreamings’ to include only “sacred women’s sites and women’s ceremonies,” which offer “a gendered understanding of place.”[8] Thus it is important to keep in mind that her paintings, conform to the traditional subject matter and iconography delegated to her by the community due to her standing.

Artists, such as Nungurrayi, working within this traditional visual language found great success both in the academic/museum world and also with high art collectors only very recently. Prior to the 1980s-art produced by the Aboriginal people of Australia had been treated as purely ethnographic and anthropological. However, beginning with the efforts of Andrew Crocker, “the newly-appointed manager of Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd” an artists’ group located in the Western Desert formed in 1972.[9] He began to market the indigenous art “on purely aesthetic grounds without reference to its Aboriginality.”[10] This method proved to be extremely profitable and popular among collectors and spurred an exponential increase in art centers throughout indigenous communities. “In 1980 there were 16 Aboriginal art centres throughout Australia,” however “by the end of the decade there were about 100 serving an estimated 5000 artists.”[11] One of the many Aboriginal artists to emerge in this time period was Naata Nungurrayi.

With this newfound appreciation and cultivation of Aboriginal art came conflict due to the negative history of ethnography and the Eurocentric modes of thought practiced by collectors and curators.[12] In many ways, the success of the Aboriginal art movement is contradictorily hinged upon Aboriginal art’s status as both contemporary—and therefore understandable through purely formal and aesthetic grounds—and upon its status as “authentically indigenous.”[13] These two ideas are fundamentally incompatible because attempting to view Aboriginal art through a purely formal aesthetic lens assumes that all art can be understood through the Eurocentric “lingua franca” of contemporary art which allows “us to float seamlessly from one cultural context to another,” but also “makes it easy not to speak other languages—literally and metaphorically.”[14] In other words, the cultural context of a work cannot be ignored, however, by the opposite token, too strongly adhering to categorization and strict labeling can make one fall into the classic problem of viewing artists and their art in an ethnographic light, therefore limiting their individual creativity to one set iconography found in their community. Simply labeling something as ‘indigenous’ “automatically posits artists as non-Western, and therefore outside dominant contemporary canons” and makes their art static and unchangeable.[15] Navigating these two extremes can be very difficult for curators and collectors looking to buy or feature Aboriginal art. In viewing an artist like Naata Nungurrayi, to forsake her Aboriginal identity for the sake of attaining a purely contemporary viewpoint based only on formal aesthetic qualities, would be to lose the rich cultural and spiritual depth of her work. Meanwhile, to exclude her from the contemporary art world by heavily labeling her work as ‘indigenous’ would reduce her work to ethnography and deny her access to a contemporary artistic dialogue. Therefore, since cultural context cannot and should not be fully divorced from an artist or their work, one should approach Nungurrayi’s work in a way that acknowledges her Aboriginal origins, while not limiting her to it. In this way we can allow the artist to be modern by “being able to challenge [her] positioning in history” by “adopting politics of self-determination.”[16]


[1] "Naata Nungurrayi." UTS ART. 2010. Accessed April 28, 2016. http://art.uts.edu.au/index.php/naata-nungurrayi/.

[2] Harvard Art Museum. Museum label for artist, Untitled, Boston, 26 April 2016.

[3] McClusky, Pamela. Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.

[4] McClusky, Pamela. Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.

[5] Raffan, Jane. "Burning Issues: Value and Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art." Art Monthly Australia, no. 254 (October 2012): 34-37.

[6] McClusky, Pamela. Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.

[7] "Naata Nungurrayi." UTS ART. 2010. Accessed April 28, 2016. http://art.uts.edu.au/index.php/naata-nungurrayi/.

[8] Harvard Art Museum. Museum label for artist, Untitled, Boston, 26 April 2016.

[9] Ian McLean. "Aboriginal Australian contemporary art, 1990–2010." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed April 28, 2016, http://0-www.oxfordartonline.com.luna.wellesley.edu/subscriber/article/grove/art/T2084466.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Raffan, Jane. "Burning Issues: Value and Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art." Art Monthly Australia, no. 254 (October 2012): 34-37.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

Other Work by Naata Nungurrayi

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