Kitty Napanagka Simon, Lily Nungurrayi Hargraves, Lorna Fencer, Myra Nungarrayi Herbert

Cooee Art is delighted to present Kitty Simon and the Ladies of Lajamanu. From the 6-28 March 2020.

The Continuing Gift – Out of the Past and Into the Future. Warlpiri Women’s Art.

We received the news that Kitty Napanangka Simon has been unable to complete the body of works required for her solo exhibition planned to open on the 6 March 2020. A health setback (requiring renal dialysis outside of her community) and continual ‘sorry business’ have played havoc with long range plans and the best of intentions.

After 40 years negotiating the divide between remote community and big city expectations, it is a disappointingly familiar story – and not entirely unexpected.

Kitty Simon is a dedicated artist with a distinctive, singular aesthetic. Her paintings – at first denounced by senior men for straying too far from the traditional idiom – have excited discriminating curators and collectors since her first solo exhibition at Cooee Art in 2013, winning admirers both inside and outside her tight knit Warlpiri community. This was to have been her third solo exhibition with Cooee Gallery, which has been her exclusive international agent since the beginning of her career – in partnership with the Warnayaka Art Centre, a haven for the artists in Lajamanu.

Lajamanu is about as isolated a township as you will find on the vast Australian continent: ten hour’s drive south of Darwin; eight hours north-west of Alice Springs; and eight hours south-east of Derby. About 1000 Warlpiri people were moved to this tiny, very isolated point in the north of the Warlpiri estate just after WWII.

A number of extraordinary paintings were created here once the old men, deeply steeped in tradition, finally relented and recorded their ancient Warlpiri stories on canvas for the very first time in the mid 1980s. Sublime, meditative, zen-like rain Dreamings by Abie Jangala; action paintings by Lorna Fencer, drawn from the epic battle between Yurmupa and Wapertali, the mythological Big and Little Bush Potato men; large ceremonial works full of life, colour and movement by Lilly Hargreaves – these are just a taste of the free-wheeling Warlpiri aesthetic that has emerged here over the past 35 years.

In Lajamanu, artistic expression is associated intimately with ceremonial life, celebrating birth, fertility, regeneration, and loss. Of these, loss is ever-present and especially poignant. Here, the ‘sorry camp’ can at times grow almost as big as the actual township itself. Especially in times when cultural custodians and revered elders pass away. The number of makeshift dwellings at the eastern most extreme of the Lajamanu township continually swell and shrink on tides of misfortune.

In the sorry camp, people live as they did for time immemorial: as desert nomads sleeping simply under the stars. The long nights are spent keening for those who have died. This is not a time or place to paint. Outside visitors are not welcome where the spirits run free. More than just personal loss, a culture and way of life is being mourned for, a nomadic life of which outsiders are largely unaware.

The success of an artist will often be felt throughout the whole community. Conversely, in these times of sorry business community will come together and bolster its struggling parts. In this exhibition, the women painters of Lajamanu, past and present, lift each other up. Painting in remote Aboriginal communities is part of a rich communal cultural life. The work of individual artists can never be considered in isolation. So we will wait a year for a solo exhibition by Kitty Napanangka Simon. And, for now, we give expression to the continuing legacy of Warlpiri culture that is easing the path through continual sorry business.

We will pay tribute to two of Lajamanu’s defining artistic forces and tribal elders, exhibiting their work alongside two of the women carrying and nurturing Warlpiri culture and community into the future. After an intimate association with the women of Lajamanu that is now more than 30 years old, Cooee Art will exhibit works by Kitty Simon Napanangka and Myra Herbert Nungurrayi, alongside a selection works from the gallery archives by Lilly Hargraves Nungurrayi and Lorna Fencer Napurrula.

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Kitty Napanangka Simon (b 1948) is a Warlpiri woman from Lajamanu on the northern edge of the Tanami Desert and is one of Mina Mina’s senior custodians and a keeper of women’s law for this remote and isolated desert landscape.

Kitty painted her first works in the late 1980s before hanging up her paint brushes to focus on raising her family. She began painting again in 2008 experimenting with various styles before adopting a looser, more immediate approach for her first solo exhibition in 2013 at Coo-ee Gallery Sydney. Her unique paintings have created a sense of excitement and enthusiasm earning her great admiration within the art world after her recent Solo in New York.

In this new body of work Kitty uses a combination of line work, coming from body art and ceremony, and intricate dot work. She embraces her own individual style and works in bright large merges of colour. This style represents yawulyu (women’s ritual design or art) a tradition of Warlpiri women to depict the story of Mina Mina (near Lake Mackay). With fluidity and resolve, Kitty employs optic whites and an array of pastels to capture the feeling and colour of the desert flowers and the natural features of the surrounding salt plains of Mina Mina, 600 kilometres to the south of Lajamanu.

Mina Mina is a sacred place to Warlpiri women. It was created by the Karntakurlangu, a large group of ancestral women who danced across the vast salt plain feeding on its wild fruit - bush bananas and native plums. The rhythm of their dancing vibrated through the landscape creating the undulating sandhills, water courses and clay pans.

Napanangka paints rapidly and without draft, the composition is built new every time. The act of painting is metaphysical. The brush moves accompanied by rhythmic chanting. Ancient song recalls and brings to life the songline and story that she is depicting. The very act of painting is a means by which she can revise and vivify knowledge of Country and the creation story which brought Mina Mina into existence.

Each painting is carefully considered and deliberated over, changed and discussed with the other artists. This sometimes provokes laughter and sometimes debate as each artist gives their thoughts and reaction to the work. Kitty’s paintings are very different to Lajamanu style, but Warnayaka Art Centre has always had one or two controversial artist in its ranks.