Walking around the Matisse exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW (Matisse: Life and Spirit Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou, Paris) last week reminded me of the beautiful work of Mitjili (Kumuntjai after her passing) Napurrula. Far from the first person to bring this comparison, I can’t help but bring her work to mind. Even if it is only the graphic simplicity in appearance to a viewer that are similar.

Matisse began to use cut outs following illness that confined him to a wheel chair. Always interested in the intersection between colour and form his cut out’s intentionally took out the extraneous background. His shapes, inspired by his travels, surrounding landscape and mythology were applied by assistants to larger installations and were seen as a culmination of a career that explored, in depth, the relationship between colour, form and line.

Mitjili Napurrula, a Luritja woman who painted in the Ikuntji (Haasts bluff) community developed her own style completely outside the backdrop of western art. Born in 1945 she began painting in the early 1990’s.

Mitjili Napurrula – Context

The landscape around Ikuntji includes two mountain ranges which turn deep orange and purple in the evening light with flat plains, stark white trunks of the gum trees and soft greens of the spinifex creating the picturesque scene so well captured in Namatjira’s (Albert Namitjira, 1902-1959) paintings.

In the early 1970’s through to the mid 1980’s the Papunya Tula community provided materials and mentors to the Ikuntji community when artists such as Timmy Tjungurrayi, Barney Raggat Tjapurrula and Limpy Tjapangarti were painting. The Ikuntji women’s centre took on the role of art centre along side it’s other functions in health and education in 1992. Mitjili Napurrula, Long Tom Tjampitjinpa, Narputta Nangala and Katarra Nampitjinpa among others explored the acrylic painting medium, and developed unique ways of translating stories explained to them with shapes in the sand and songlines into cohesive artworks.

Mitjili Napurrula painted with her husband, Long Tom Tjampitjinpa and was taught her father’s story, after she was married, by her mother. She is known for her paintings of Waita Tjuta (men’s wooden objects). The distinctive shapes belong to Uwalki, her father’s country, in particular the ground, the roots and trunks of the trees that men’s tools are made from. Her Brother, Turkey Toulson Tjapurrula, also painted subjects to do with men’s tools, albeit very differently in execution. They both inherited the right to paint the subjects associated with Ilyinguangua in the Gibson desert.

Napurrula’s Paintings

In some of her paintings she incorporated her husband’s abstracted hills and rock formations (tali and puli). These details are much more figurative representations than their Papunya Tula contemporaries and Napurrula’s earlier dot paintings.

Naparrula’s work uses the space between to highlight the shapes in her work.  Her designs are painted onto the canvas first, the paler paint added later to slightly obscure the edges of her shapes but also to enhance the vibrant colours she used.

After winning the Alice Springs Art prize in 1999 Mitjili’s paintings have been included in many of the large public collections in Australia and internationally. Her painting Uwalki: Watiya Tjuta was exhibited as a part of the “Spirit Country” exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in San Francisco.