Essay on Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri for Klein Gallery 2019

Papa Tjukurrpa (Dingo Dreaming), 1988, by Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri.

Collection: Kuntswerk Sammlung Klein, Germany. Provenance: Papunya Tula Artists Pty. Ltd.


Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri (c1923-1998), a Pintupi man, was born at Marnpi in the Northern Territory, Australia[1]. He spoke several Aboriginal languages and some English. Namarari was a traditional land owner, a husband and father, a stockman and a labourer long before he began making paintings at Papunya in 1971.[2] In late 1972, with Geoffrey Bardon’s support, a group of senior Aboriginal men established ‘Papunya Tula Artists Pty. Ltd.’ (PTA), which remains the longest-running Aboriginal-owned art business in the nation. Namarari was a founding shareholder. Then, as now, the paintings affirmed and celebrated people’s affiliations to land and ceremony, demonstrating the persistence and strength of Aboriginal culture and traditions.


Namarari’s reputation soared when PTA mounted four successful solo exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne between 1991 and 1994. He won two major art awards: the 8th National Aboriginal Art Award (1991) and the Alice Prize (1994, co-winner). He was also awarded the inaugural national Red Ochre Award (1994) in recognition of his exemplary contribution to Australian Aboriginal art. His success contributed significantly to Papunya Tula Artists’ reputation and expansion, and today he is rightfully regarded as one of their exceptional artists. His paintings are in significant public and private collections in Australia, America and Europe. He produced over 700 paintings across his career from early 1971 until his passing in late 1998.[3]


This exhibition’s Namarari painting from 1988, Papa Tjukurrpa, or Dingo Dreaming, is significant for three reasons. First, the subject is one of his most important – he painted this story (or Dreaming) across his long career.[4] Second, the site in the painting, Nyunmanu, is part of his traditional country. It is within walking distance of his birthplace Marnpi. Nyunmanu was of such significance that Namarari established his outstation home there in the 1980s when many Pintupi people returned to their homelands from Papunya. Third, this painting illustrates the stylistic change in Western Desert art that Namarari was pioneering in the late 1980s.


One of Namarari’s strategies for producing large canvases was the repetition of a single motif. In this painting we see the recurring lines of careful dotting, representing sandhills. These alternating dark-light dotted bands cover the painted surface, extending to the edges, suggestive of sandhills that can indeed stretch beyond the horizon. The white dotting shines against the black basecoat. White is a colour in ceremonial activity often associated with spiritual connotations and he frequently used white to add a glow to his work. The alternating dotted bands also invoke the sandhills themselves and the intervening open flat spaces between those undulations, where the vegetation varies – sunlight, prevailing winds, rain fall and water retention are factors that cause variations in the desert topography of grasses, shrubs and trees. Namarari was keenly aware of such variations and he sought to bring his view of the desert landscape into his artistic vision.


Another compositional technique employed by Namarari was to give his design a central focus. Here it is the bold dark stripe, highlighted with orange perimeters, running through the central long axis of the canvas. In his Papa Tjukurrpa works for Nyunmanu such bold singular stripes may be associated with a sacred tree or cave at the site.[5] Thus Namarari’s composition is not simply an abstract rendition, for it is imbued with cultural meanings and personal experiences that the artist valued.


Namarari constantly affirmed the value of his culture and painted with quiet determination for almost three decades. His working relationship with Papunya Tula created a comprehensive body of work and a rich legacy. As an artist living in a remote community, his cooperative manner earned him the encouragement and respect he needed to introduce his art to the Australian nation and the world.


Dr Alec O’Halloran, author, ‘The master from Marnpi’ (2018), Sydney, Australia.

This essay prepared for Kuntswerk Sammlung Klein, Germany, 6 July, 2019.



[1] The master from Marnpi, map, pages 8-9.

[2] The master from Marnpi, pages 18-19.

[3] The master from Marnpi, pages 207-209

[4] The master from Marnpi, pages 173-175 and 194 (illustrations) and pages 115, 120 (text summary).

[5] The master from Marnpi, page 172, a story from Namarari’s brother, Cameron Tjapaltjarri.

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