In the early 2000s I continued my occasional research activities. I was enthusiastic and mistakenly convinced I was close to writing a first draft about Namarari’s life because I seemed to know so much. I had done important initial interviews with John Kean and Peter Fannin (by phone), and with Geoff Bardon and Dick Kimber (in person). (Extracts from these interviews, and other PTA staff 1972-1998, are in The master from Marnpi.)
In May 2002 I interviewed Hetti Perkins at the Art Gallery of NSW. She was a great admirer of Namarari and had curated a small but stunning selection of his late-career works at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Sydney) as part of the 2000 Biennale of Sydney. She told me:
When I was thinking of artists for the 2000 Biennale of Sydney it occurred to me, thinking about international and Australian artists, that he had a painting career of thirty years and didn’t have anywhere near the recognition that other artists with a similar career span had.
Hetti alerted me to notable aspects of Namarari’s career and acknowledged his seniority in Australia’s Aboriginal artist’s ranks:
I think he is one of the pillars of contemporary art practice, both Indigenous and contemporary Australian and international as well. I would equate him with artists such as Rover Thomas and Emily Kngwarreye in terms of his ability, influence and his enduring significance to Australian art.
Hetti alluded to many points of interest but I did not have the focus to follow them all after the interview. My research was haphazard and I was writing was in isolation. It was piecemeal because I was still limited by the time available – working part-time and family responsibilities. I transcribed interviews (very time-consuming!), read books and attended exhibitions. My files were disorderly too, but thankfully I started a file on each person I interviewed to give some sort of structure to my growing pile of data. One thing that really annoyed me was spending hours searching for scraps of paper… in my office… somewhere.
I also joined an art-buying investment group, based in Perth, the Tjukurrpa Collective. I was keen to learn more about art and investing and a dedicated group seemed a good way to go. I participated from a distance, which gradually became a limitation, though it meant I could look around Sydney for possible artworks to show the Collective for consideration. Over many years I realised I had my own ideas about art and investing. My early unsureness was replaced by a rising confidence about what to buy, and why, and from whom. Helen and I had long discussions at home about Aboriginal art in general and the Namarari project.
Gradually I found my own way, mostly with a clear and unstoppable focus on Papunya Tula art. I made my tenth trip to Alice Springs in December 2001 and met Dick Kimber (again) to talk about Pintupi men and their art. And the Todd river was flowing! Each time I went to Alice or to a PTA exhibition at Utopia Art Sydney, I came home with another painting. I particularly liked the small 61 x 55 centimetres size – enough space for the artist to show their skill, yet small enough to be inexpensive. Easy to collect too – it seemed all of PTA’s artists did 61 x 55’s. But I couldn’t find one by Namarari.
I began writing about Aboriginal art. (I view those efforts now more as an enthusiast’s opinion than a deeply informed perspective.) With Christopher’s support at Utopia Art Sydney I prepared brief essays to accompany three solo exhibitions by PTA artists in 2001 and 2002: Makinti Napanangka, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa and George Tjungurrayi. These exercises drove me to do preliminary research on the lives and art practice of those artists, which taught me a valuable lesson: it takes hours and hours just to write one page of thoughtful text. In 2002 I wrote a short essay for the ‘Two Thirds Sky’ exhibition catalogue too, which I titled ‘What kind of place do you imagine the desert to be?’ Held at the Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Arts centre in southern Sydney, the gallery also produced a wonderful documentary film that included one of my favourite artists, Gloria Petyarre.
In 2004 I joined a happy crowd at the launch in Sydney by James Bardon of the monumental ‘Papunya, A place made after the story’ (Geoff & James Bardon). James signed a copy for me and I set about slowly wading through the hundreds of art images and annotations (mostly 1971-72 works). I became increasingly aware of my knowledge deficiency around Aboriginal culture and art history. To push myself along I enrolled in a Graduate Certificate in Indigenous Studies (distance learning, Curtin University, 2005). This forced me to read, think and write. Most importantly, I got feedback from lecturers on my assignments, which definitely helped me improve my written expression.
In late 2007 I attended the ‘Papunya Painting: Out of the desert’ exhibition at the National Museum in Canberra. Among many artworks on display was a small Dingo story by Namarari (‘Flying dingoes’, The master from Marnpi, p173). And Philip Batty’s catalogue essay about Namarari was accompanied by a stunning Namarari painting from 1978 (‘Many Dreamings’, The master from Marnpi, pp176-7). I knew I had to see that painting one day.
The year 2007 was a turning point. Papunya Tula opened its new art studio at Kintore with a weekend of celebrations. Christopher Hodges drove our small group out from Alice Springs and we joined hundreds of others from near and far, including Fred Myers from New York. On March 16 Daphne Williams introduced me to Elizabeth Marks Nakamarra, letting Elizabeth know I wanted to write a book about her husband, Namarari.
We sat on a couch as I outlined my idea, asking if it was ‘ok’, and could she help me? Elizabeth was very supportive and began telling me stories about Namarari painting at Kintore’s art centre and at their house nearby. This proved to be the first of many interviews together. I confidently told her something like:
This was my promise to Elizabeth.
'I will write a book about your husband for all the world to see.'
I was jolted into action. In late March 2007 I scribbled a mind-map of the many topics I was grappling with: ‘joining the dots’. By December that year I produced my first working draft of Namarari’s life story, which still sits in a three-ring binder: ‘Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri Pintupi Man Papunya Tula Artist’. The Contents page shows: ‘Chapter One: Looking for Namarari; Chapter Two: Working and Travelling Time; Chapter Three: Returning Home – Art Career and Papunya Tula’; and several Appendices. I designated the whole as ‘Namarari’s Biography Draft v1 copyright A O’Halloran 2007’. It ran to over 100 typed pages.
With that milestone under my belt I made a greater commitment in 2008. I withdrew from my part-time training and consulting work to further develop the draft. Then, with a little pushing by family and friends, I decided to take myself off to university and complete my project as a doctoral thesis. I enrolled in the School of Humanities at the Australian National University (Canberra) with Professor Howard Morphy as my supervisor. I became a full-time student once again.