CHAPMAN, Nancy Nyanjilpayi; Mukurtu
By Diane Moon
Lake Dora, a short walk,
no more than a minute or two,
down the track from Punmu,
stays silent and white
all through the day and night,
the red roads having given way to
the soft soak ground
and the salt rises
in a smooth shimmer of crystal dust —
and its whiteness you notice,
it’s the whiteness that strikes you.(1)
This extract from ‘Painting Lake Dora’ by Sydney-based writer and performer Adam Gibson, describes the stark environment of white land and sky in the white heat of Lake Dora (Ngayarta Kujarra), a vast salt lake 1300 kms north-east of Perth. Four sisters, Nancy Nyanjilpayi Chapman, May Maywokka Chapman, Mulyatingki Marney and Marjorie Malatu Yates live close to the lake’s shores and their painting Mukurtu 2010, was inspired by the spring at its heart. As Nancy Chapman explains: ‘Mukurtu is spring water, it is good water to drink’. The lake is central to the womens’ lives and their art and the songs and dances of this important site have pervaded their lives. They gathered to share its collective narratives and to bring them to new life in painted images.
Mukurtu reflects the artists’ profound respect for the salt lake and the fresh water sources that have sustained them and their families for generations. It is intensively worked in a closely-dotted style, taking several weeks to complete. The paint is applied thickly, layered in places, suggesting the textured surface of the dry salt pan, in a restrained palette that mirrors the luminous pearly-white of its salted surface; the varied local plants which grow along the lake’s edge appear as a scattering of colourful pockets of pink, orange and purple. Central to the work is the brilliant form in Yves Klein blue depicting the life-giving fresh water spring, surrounded by green water weeds. A closely-dotted, pale border covers a prior layer of bolder colours, now feathering away towards the painting’s edges.
The artists speak fondly of the time they painted together, sharing stories and singing. Through the process they explored palettes, developed techniques and shared skills as they worked on the canvas surface, negotiating territory with both intensity and good humour. For the three older women it became a way of inducting their younger sister, Marjorie, into what country she could paint and how to paint it as well as teaching the young people of their physical and spiritual connections to country.
The four sisters have lived through the convergence of the tribal and modern worlds. They were among the last Aboriginal people to come into contact with white people; the last who remember the ‘Pujiman Days’, the times of living nomadically and independently. They tell of seeing kartiya (white men) on horses for the first time, alternately hiding in caves until nightfall then running from them, and seeing a plane flying overhead; frightened, they took cover under spinifex bushes. With a short history of painting on which to draw the artists are at the beginning of discovering how to tell their stories and share them with fresh and appreciative audiences. Though the four have worked collaboratively in painting Mukurtu it is a remarkably cohesive work, reflecting the siblings’ spiritual connection and their shared histories.
Diane Moon, Artlines 1-2011, p.37.
1 Adam Gibson, ‘Painting Lake Dora’, Before and After Science: 2010 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2010, pp.60–61.