Blog #9: A - Z of The master from Marnpi

A is for Author

I, Alec O’Halloran, am the author of The master from Marnpi, though countless people contributed through interviews, advice, encouragement, records in the archives and their own publications. Without them there would be no book. It is usual in biographies for the author to explain why or how they decided to embark on their project (pages 15-17). The author’s challenge in non-fiction writing is to turn ‘facts’ and ‘records’ into an enticing narrative.

B is for Biography

Essentially a biography is the life story of one individual, told by another. Autobiography is the telling of one’s own life story. The book’s title should make the subject appealing or intriguing. The cover of my book shows ‘Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri’ as the subject, with his photograph, and a title ‘The master from Marnpi’, connecting him to a place. The title asserts he is a master… thus the book must explain the significance of ‘Marnpi’ and ‘master’. I introduce my subject, Namarari, to the reader through a succinct profile (pages 18-19).

 

C is for Culture

The master from Marnpi is readily categorised as a cross-cultural biography. This suggests the subject and the author are from differing cultures (ways of life). But there is a third party to subject and author: the reader. Since this book is mostly written for readers in the author’s culture (mine), there are aspects of the subject’s (Namarari’s) culture that need explanation to help the reader understand the subject’s character, career and circumstances (pages 21-28 in particular).

 

D is for Design

A book is a composite of so many inputs including text, photographs, headings, tables, diagrams, archival images and appendices. A reader expects a book to conform to certain principles, that it is easy to follow and its structure ‘makes sense’. A book designer’s job is to pull all those inputs together to assemble a comprehensible whole, to make the book both look good (intellectually) and feel good (physically). This is especially the case for books that are lavishly illustrated. The various people involved in The master from Marnpi’s production (author, editor, designer, printer etc) are listed in the Credits (page 244).

E is for Exhibition

Namarari’s art has been exhibited in Australia and internationally since the early 1970s. Exhibition catalogues and essays help build an outline of his career and provide insights into the reception of his art. Papunya Tula maintains a list of his solo and group exhibitions, including awards, which is the basis for their inclusion in the book (pages 210-211). Additionally, the selection of significant Namarari works as ‘Painting Stories’ showcases his art in the manner of an exhibition (pages 161-203).

 

F is for Fieldwork

As the author, I needed to educate myself about where Namarari lived, travelled and painted. This took me to parts of Australia I had never visited, Central Australia and the Western Desert, using Alice Springs as a base. These fieldwork trips were learning adventures, a chance to meet Namarari’s relatives, visit sites that featured in his art, and get some appreciation of the country he walked as a child. The fieldwork was my introduction to four communities where Namarari had resided: Haasts Bluff, Papunya, Mount Liebig and Kintore. I included numerous photographs from my field trips in the book, and in my Blog

 

G is for Government

The Commonwealth Government had an ongoing influence over Namarari’s life and circumstances. Its policies regarding Aboriginal peoples included segregation in the early decades of the twentieth century, to assimilation in the middle decades and self-determination from the 1970s. Issues around citizenship, civil rights and the provision of local services all affected Namarari, and so government policies needed some explanation. In one sense, the book seeks to describe Namarari’s relationship to the nation state of Australia, as one Pintupi person among many affected by the Commonwealth Government’s policies (see Index entry, page 239, for assimilation, segregation, self-determination, citizenship etc.).

 

H is for History

Biographies are often presented as ‘the life and times of’ the subject, illuminating the content of the subject’s life within the context of his/her historical setting. The issue for the author is: how much context is necessary and how is the subject kept ‘front and centre’ so the reader doesn’t look away? The historical aspects of biographical research require a biographer to spend time (days, weeks, years) ‘in the archive’, endlessly hunting for clues, snippets that others have missed, intriguing snapshots… the list goes on. For an artist’s biography, such as The master from Marnpi, the art archive is essential so that art history may be integrated with social and family history to ‘make the whole story’.

 

I is for Interviews

Oral history is a fascinating method and a revealing means of discovering very valuable information that is not in the archive… it is in people’s heads, waiting for the interviewer to arrive, armed with questions and a tape recorder. The master from Marnpi is founded on two such interviews of Namarari, by John Kean (1989) and Philip Batty (1992), which together provide a solid foundation for chronicling Namarari’s life story (page 7). I conducted numerous interviews with Namarari’s relatives and Papunya Tula’s art advisers to ‘fill in the gaps’, add nuance to otherwise superficial accounts, and to help me to build a picture of Namarari’s life through the eyes of others. Without the contributions of those interviewees, the book would be considerably diminished (page 6).

 

J is for ‘Just missed him’

On my first trip to Alice Springs in April 1997 I called in to the Papunya Tula gallery. Namarari had been there, to see Daphne Williams, but unfortunately, he left just before I arrived. ‘You missed him by ten minutes’, Daphne told me. That was the closest I ever came to meeting him (pages 15-16).

 

K is for Kintore and Kiwirrkura

Kintore and Kiwirrkura re two contemporary Pintupi communities, established in 1981 and 1984 respectively in the Northern Territory and Western Australia. These regions are where Namarari walked as a child with his family, and where he returned to as an adult in the 1980s. He played a role in choosing a location for Kintore, nearby the site Walungurru (page 113). Papunya Tula now has substantial painting facilities at both locations, after constructing a humble shed at Kintore in the late 1980s. It was Kintore to which he longed to return in 1998 while confined to his death-bed in Alice Springs (page 158).

 

L is for Language

The United Nations has designated 2019 ‘The Year of Indigenous Languages’. Importantly, I wanted the book to open in the Pintupi language, and Elizabeth Marks Nakamarra kindly agreed to write a formal Welcome (page 13). The master from Marnpi includes a basic Glossary (page 243), and tables of Pintupi words for Namarari’s Dreaming stories in his paintings, and the Aboriginal names of places and sites (pages 208-209). My research and analysis was therefore dependent on people who were bilingual ((Fred Myers, Ken Hansen, John Heffernan), who could translate from Pintupi into English, and who had learned directly from Pintupi people in their language.

  

M is for Marnpi

Marnpi is Namarari’s birthplace. He proudly spoke about it often with people who were interested to learn more about his childhood and culture. Many of his Tjukurrpa, or Dreaming stories, are associated with Marnpi (page 25). As an adult when he returned to Kintore to live with his family he often took ‘whitefellas’ to see this important place: ‘my country’, he would tell them, ‘ngurra walytja’. It is an important Kangaroo Dreaming site too (page 25).

 

N is for Nyunmanu

Nyunmanu is an important Dingo Dreaming site (page 115). Unsurprisingly, Namarari chose that area to locate his outstation dwelling in the 1980s (page 116-118). Papunya Tula field workers sometimes visited Namarari at the outstation, to supply him with canvases and to collect finished works.

 

O is for Output

Unsurprisingly, an artist’s reputation and career is founded on their output: what did they produce and in what quantity and quality. The master from Marnpi identifies Namarari’s artistic output for the first time, both in quantity (annual output table, page 207) and subject matter (pages 208-9 in particular). Namarari’s popular subjects are identified, such as his Dingo Dreaming and Kangaroo Dreaming works (page 120). Namarari’s consistently brilliant work earned him three awards and four solo exhibitions in the early 1990s (pages 130-1).

 

P is for People’s Permission

The master from Marnpi is an authorised biography (I can’t imagine how it could be written as an ‘unauthorised’ biography.) I sought and was given Papunya Tula’s approval to research Namarari’s life and art through its archive. Namarari’s widow, Elizabeth Marks Nakamarra, gave me permission to write Namarari’s story and publish a book. The people I interviewed gave permission to use their accounts. And, Elizabeth and Papunya Tula often provided the necessary authorisation for me at access archives in state institutions. The people who assisted me are named in the book’s Acknowledgments (page 6).

 

Q is for Questions

Research is built on questions. Questions drive the search for information and sources of information, and eventually come to colonise a biographer’s brain, such that upon waking in the morning, the first thought emerging from the fog of sleep is ‘what question do I need to tackle today?’ Apart from contemplating particular questions day to day, I articulated two overarching questions at the beginning of my search, and therefore placed them at the beginning of the book: how are we to understand Namarari, and, what can we learn from him? (Welcome, page 13).

 

R is for Research

The gradual accumulation of enough ‘data’ to assemble a non-fiction book requires research. Research is about looking, listening, observing and thinking. It is about finding pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, about piecing together oddments that might make some sense, and about continuing to seek out the ‘bits’ that seem to be missing. Research is about having a plan and taking opportunities as they arise. It is formal and deliberate, and at times feels chaotic and unrewarded. Research, and the writing that accompanies it, aims to build a convincing picture that appeals to and makes sense to the reader.

 

S is for Subject

Namarari is the subject of my biography, The master from Marnpi. Sadly, we never met, so I could not learn directly from him, or ask him myriad questions that arose during my research and writing phases. Numerous contemporary Aboriginal artist’s biographies are collaborative ventures where the subject and author engage deeply with each other to create the story. My simplest description of Namarari is that he was a Pintupi man who became an award-winning Papunya Tula artist. For the published biography, that simplicity opens out to a 240+ page book. And, some questions remain unanswered.

 

T is for Travel

Travel is a persistent theme is Namarari’s oral history interviews with Kean and Batty (page 7), and his translated stories and observations appear throughout the life story chapters (2-11) of the book. In order to get an appreciation of the places he spoke of, I needed to travel to at least some of those places. These included the modern Western Desert settlements of Kintore, Mt Liebig, Haasts Bluff, Papunya and Hermannsburg; outstations at Nyunmanu, Yuwalki and Ngutjul; and, local sites at/nearby Marnpi, Putja, Muruntji, Browns Bore, Iranytji, Putarti and Ngankarritji (see Map, pages 8-9).

 

U is for Understanding

The biographer sets out to understand their subject and their circumstances. For me this included Namarari’s life journey, his character, his cultural and family life, his art practice and career, and broadly, why he did what he did. I came to understand some of this, but not all. I was very dependent on others to teach me and explain aspects of Namarari’s life, to help me understand (make sense of), and then to write to share that with my readers. In Australia, the challenge for non-Indigenous Australians to understand our fellow Indigenous Australians is on-going.

 

V is for Visibility 

It is a rather obvious thing to say: if you can’t see something, how do you write about it? Since I never met Namarari, the question arises ‘how can I see him’? Firstly, individual people leave records in all sorts of ways. Secondly, others have memories of those individuals. And, of course, individuals make deliberate attempts to make themselves visible to others. Consider Namarari. He appears in Kean’s and Batty’s recorded interviews (quoted throughout the book), in films including ‘Benny and the Dreamers’ (pages 129-130) and ‘Mick and the Moon’ (pages 102-103). He produced a body of art and offered brief descriptions of its contents – another means by which he sought to make himself (or aspects of his life) visible.

 

W is for Writing

Writing is both challenging and fulfilling. It is challenging to sit with pen in hand or a blank silent screen. It is challenging to try to ‘get things right’, or to write and re-write over and over, and still not be satisfied. It is fulfilling to be happy with a sentence. It is fulfilling to finally find the word that fits perfectly. It is fulfilling to have someone read your writing and say ‘I get it’, or ‘that’s clear to me’, or ‘I really enjoyed that story’. When I wrote some of the Painting Stories (pages 161-203) I felt invigorated, seeing parts of a bigger picture becoming clearer. When I typed out the transcription of Namarari’s story of the death of his father and grandmother I had tears running down my cheeks. Writing is physical, intellectual, emotional and unpredictable.

 

X is for the Unknown

Setting out on a quest, such as writing someone’s biography, is a step into the unknown. And in some instances, the unknowable. At the outset I did not know that I would meet many of Namarari’s relatives, that I would visit places in Namarari’s country, that I would delve into his storehouse of paintings, or that I would come to realise just how little I knew about Aboriginal culture.

 

Y is for Yuwa, and Wiya

Here are two simple Pintupi words: yuwa (yes) and wiya (no). I developed a beginner’s awareness of Pintupi language, learning only a few hundred words. When I asked for support from Pintupi people for my research project their reply was invariably yuwa. It is part of the first phrase I learned: How are you? Nyuntu palya? and its response Yes I am good. Yuwa palya.

 

Z is for nothing I-can-think-of.

So, maybe Z is the mystery. Palya.

 

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