Dorothy Napangardi, an Australian indigenous artist, was a prolific painter whose style of intricate network of lines and patterns, mostly seen from an aerial perspective, suggests the vast expanse of her country and her knowledge of its traditional stories and cultural lore. She elaborates on traditional designs and evokes a sense of movement in her canvases when she paints the origins and journeys of her people’s ancestral beings. Their movement can be seen in her ‘Dreaming’ paintings, which identify the sacred places where these ancestral spirits reside.
A member of the Warlpiri people, she was born in Mina Mina in the salt lake crystalline of the Tanami Desert region of the Northern Territory. Mina Mina played an important role in her life and was the subject matter for her painting. She had unconditional happiness and freedom when she walked hundreds of miles across her homeland and slept besides her family outdoors.
In 1987, Napangardi painted a bush banana, which winds around shrubs or small trees like a vine. The first flower of the bush banana vine is known as Big Sister, while the second flower is Little Sister or the Follower. Her 1993 “Yuparii (Bush Banana)” shows this in a variety of softened colors, shaped by hundreds of dots.
In 1997, Napangardi began painting understated, ethereal canvases, evoking memories of her early life at Mina Mina prior to her contact with white colonizers. Her narrative-based paintings contradict the modernist technique of the grid, revealing cultural differences between native Australian art and western art. She switched from the bright colors and naturalistic designs to a more restrained, subdued palette with interlocking patterns.
It was her 1998 “Women’s Dreaming” painting which gave her recognition nationally and internationally. Her 2000 “Karntakuringu Jukurrpa (Women’s Dreaming)” continued the motif of the long journeys taken by her Women Ancestors from Mina Mina as they walked and carried their digging sticks. The Dreaming paintings evoked this narrative with the dance and movement of the ancestors as they traveled across the land.
Several of her paintings, done between 2006 and 2008, are entitled “Sandhills.” There is rarely a single focus in these works. A path leads directly back to her early days at Mina Mina where the viewer walks through the vast expanse in a spatial aesthetic similar to op-art. These works are narratives, tracing the movements of the Women Ancestors as they dance their way through native grasses and over sandhills.
Napangardi died tragically in a car accident while visiting her country in 2013. Her work is found in the collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; National Gallery of Australia in Canberra; Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide,and the Linden Museum Stuttgart in Germany. Recently her work was exhibited at the Seattle Art Museum.