The following essay was written to accompany the exhibition Mina Mina Jukurrpa: Kelly Napanangka Michaels & Alma Nangala Robertson at Mossenson Galleries, Perth, Western Australia, from June 1, till July 4, 2010
Far to the west of the remote Indigenous community of Yuendumu, in the distant reaches of the Tanami Desert, lies one of the most important ceremonial sites for the women of the Warlpiri. Mina Mina is a sacred landscape made up of two large clay-pans guarded by a feathery sentinel of desert oaks, where, in the Jukurrpa (Dreamtime) a series of karlangu (digging sticks) emerged from the ground. Taking up these sticks, a large group of ancestral women began a heroic journey north to Jayinki and then eastward through Alcoota country. Marching in joyous exultation, their paths shaped the landscape, permeating it with the spirit of their songs. According to the Warlpiri, the spindly desert oaks at Mina Mina are an embodiment of these first digging sticks and of the ancestral women who brandished them.
The story of Mina Mina is of profound spiritual sustenance to the Warlpiri. It helps explain the genesis of the landscape, and circumscribes their relationship to it. Despite being over 300 kilometres from Yuendumu, it remains an important site of ceremonial and custodial obligations. Not surprisingly, it has also been one of the great sources of artistic inspiration for Warlpiri women. At the hands of Yuendumu’s great chroniclers it has revealed itself in a myriad of ways: some artists have chosen to focus on the desert oaks (Kurrkara), others the hair-string skirts (Majarrdi) worn during ceremony, others still have focused on the edible fungus (Jinti-parnta) or vine (Ngalyipi) first collected by the ancestral travelers. Combined, these stories create a stunning vision of place, united by the indelible spiritual identification that is felt by the Warlpiri, and in particular those of the Napangardi/Japangardi and Napanangka/Japanangka sub-sections for whom this place resonates with personal significance.
In contrast to the other early epicentres of desert painting, such as Papunya and Lajamanu, the painting movement at Yuendumu did not coalesce around senior men, but began in 1983 through the efforts of a group of senior Warlpiri women. Encouraged by the anthropologist Françoise Dussart, the women helped forge the dynamic ‘Yuendumu style’, which, as Judith Ryan has noted, was “characterised by vibrant colour, large brush-strokes and an almost messy, gestural freedom.” In 1985, the artists formed Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Corporation, through which they have refined the style, adding a level of accomplishment and elegance, while retaining the intensity of colour and spontaneity of design that defined the early movement. Subsequent generations of Yuendumu women have gained international acclaim as artists, including Maggie and Judy Napangardi Watson, Bessie Nakamarra Sims and Betsy Napangardi Lewis. Despite generational change and aesthetic transformation, the presence of Mina Mina in Warlpiri art has remained an iconic constant.
It is this legacy that is taken up in the paintings of Kelly Napanangka Michaels and Alma Nangala Robertson. Born in the late 1960s, Michaels (b.1965) and Robertson (b.1969) heard the Jukurrpa stories from their elders, and saw them painted with passion and dedication by their artistic forebears. Now they pass these stories onto their children and grandchildren, retelling them in a kaleidoscopic explosion of colour. The influence of their elders runs through their work; the dominant iconographies of Warlpiri painting are clearly present, as is the characteristic Yuendumu palette of pink, mauve, purple and blue. However, this is not a slavish form of imitation. In the paintings of Michaels and Robertson, influence exists as an aesthetic undercurrent that bubbles to the surface like the spiritual residue of the ancestors that informs the landscape. The influence of their artistic precursors becomes a song that infuses the canvas, filling it with the authority of cultural continuity and uniting it with the performative actions of song and ceremony that connect the Warlpiri to the Jukurrpa.
In Michaels’ depictions of Mina Mina, two key elements of the story dominate: the ceremonial dancing skirts (Majarrdi) and the edible fungus (Jinti-parnta) collected by the women on their journey. Majarrdi and Jinti-parnta are painted with a jutting angular intensity, which makes them appear to quiver across the canvas. Using extremes of contrasting colours (including a distinctive use of black and white outlines), Michaels creates a fluttering tension between foreground and background that makes the Majarrdi appear to float above the canvas as though suspended by invisible dancers. This creates an ethereal sense of spiritual presence, while the thickly painted ground of the canvas anchors them to the temporal materiality of the landscape. Like her artistic precursors, Maggie and Judy Napangardi Watson, Robertson’s focus is the sacred Ngalyipi vine and the desert oaks (Kurrkara). Her paintings are swirling evocations of the landscape that shuttle between the narrative of travel and the fixed nature of place. Meandering lines sink into the landscape, evoking the residue of ancestral travels that simmer below the surface. Mina Mina pulsates in a spiral of colour that alludes to the constant spiritual undercurrents of ancestral travels, which shape and inform this place.
In drawing attention to this continuity of ancestral presence, both Michaels and Robertson testify to the continuing power of the Dreaming – a power that runs through all things, and unites all time and place. In their paintings, culture, aesthetics, history and place unite in a joyful continuum of colour and song. The Jukurrpa of Mina Mina is carried forward; its transformative power is expressed in an artistic evolution that pays homage to the past, while presenting a new vision for the future. On these fresh tongues, the exultant songs of the ancestral women are given new breath, proclaiming the creative power of Mina Mina for future generations.