Kutungka Napanangka and the sticky question of aesthetics

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Kutungka Napanangka, Brown Snake Dreaming, 2004

I don’t have a lot of time to blog today, so I thought I would just offer a little case study that I have been thinking about this week. There has been a lot of debate lately over the short-comings of Aboriginal art history. I have many opinions on this – and I don’t have time to share them all now – but what I would say, is that rather than a symptomatic failure, I tend to think the problems with the field are more representative of the enormous epistemic challenges that Aboriginal art poses to western intellectual frameworks.

Kutungka Napanangka, Morning Sickness Dreaming 2005

 

Kutungka Napanangka is an artist that I have always found intriguing. Not only does she produce beautiful paintings, but her career encapsulates many of the peculiar challenges that Aboriginal art poses. Paintings of the western desert are created at a complex intersection of Indigenous cosmology and market forces. They reveal numerous influences: cultural, familial, more recent influences from the market and from art centre facilitators and art-coordinators. Kutungka was born at Kintore around 1950, and began painting in 1999 through Ikuntji Arts Women’s Centre (Haast Bluff). In 2005, she moved to Alice Springs, where she commenced painting with Papunya Tula Artists.

 

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Kutungka Napanangka, Claypan Site of Yulkarpa, 2007

Kutungka’s career is interesting because, it has exhibited several seemingly disjointed periods in which her art has entirely changed aesthetic direction. These changes can be clearly aligned to changing external circumstances in Kutungka’s life – such as the arrival of new art-coordinators or her move between different art centres. However, they also reflect her changing personal circumstances – such as her geographic location and proximity to different family members and artistic influences. These changes resulted in major shifts in her art practice.

 

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Kutungka Napanangka, Brown Snake Dreaming, 2000

If we are serious about discussing the role of aesthetics in Indigenous art, then I suspect a case study like Kutungka’s could be extremely useful. Perhaps, underneath the superficial aesthetic shifts, we can begin to uncover the underlying conceptual /visual concerns that shape her paintings, and by examining both the continuities and discontinuities, we might come to a better understanding of how aesthetics are contribute to these conceptual/cultural concerns? Doing so might not only shed light upon how western assumptions are brought to bear on our reading of Aboriginal art, while offering alternative ways of viewing and valuing desert painting.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Kutungka Napanangka and the sticky question of aesthetics

  1. Will

    Absolutely! Great example.

  2. Greg

    Yes – her work is breathtaking in its scope and could reveal much about the transformation of artists’ output as they move between different art center communities. Gabrielle Pizzi Gallery has some amazing examples of the white ‘saltpan’ period of her work. There are a few last examples of her Papunya Tula work at the Alice Springs storefront, at least as of July.

  3. Greg, your comment suggests that the artist has passed away? Is that correct? I had not heard that, or else I would have been more sensitive to cultural protocols.

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