Menzies Art Brands



A Warlpiri artist Maggie Watson Napangardi (formerly Napangardi Ross) was born at Yuendumu in the Tanami Desert, 300 kilometres northwest of Alice Springs. Within her community Maggie was one of the pioneers in painting the traditional designs of her people using western painting materials on canvas. In October 1985 her work was included in the inaugural exhibition of Yuendumu paintings at the Araluen Arts Centre in Alice Springs. In the same year the Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Association was founded by elders of the Yuendumu community to represent the paintings of their artists and act as a bastion of the traditional Warlpiri and Anmatyerre cultures of its members.1 Although strictly adhering to traditional ritual designs (Kurruwarri) the paintings at Warlukurlangu, of which Maggies work is a part, are characterised by the artists ability to creatively draw upon tradition to produce innovative works. These paintings are distinct for their varied arrangement of Kurruwarri, their showy use of colour and their handling of paint, particularly that related to dot work.    

Maggie was brought up in a time when the Warlpiri, Indigenous peoples of the Tanami Desert, were following a traditional nomadic life travelling on foot throughout their country, hunting and collecting bush tucker. Whilst moving about their country, the Warlpiri, were able to stay on their ancestral homes at Mina Mina and Yingipurlangu in the area between the Tanami and Gibson deserts. Mina Mina, near Lake McKay in the Tanami Desert is a major women's ceremonial site where, according to Womens Dreaming, Warlpiri ancestors collected ceremonial digging sticks (kana or karlangu) that materialised from the ground and then, as they proceeded on their epic journey, performed ritual songs and dances. The significance of Mina Mina was such that much of the Walpiri artists subject matter elaborates Dreamings associated with it.

As a senior Warlpiri woman, artist Maggie influenced the development of other artists, including her younger sister Judy Watson Napangardi (c1925-2016). Along with her sister she developed a unique style of painting that was characterised by coloured sinuous lines created using a dragged dotting style said to mimic the ancestral dance of her female ancestors as they moved across the desert in long lines. By hatching all areas of the canvas with these fine lines, as she does in Mina Mina Dreaming, these paintings take on the appearance of a splendidly textured surface that evokes both the movement of her ancestors and the land through which they danced, the complexity of the design elucidating parts of a long narrative that would have also been told in oral stories, songs and dances. 

Mina Mina Dreaming is a representative example of the more abstract rendering of Womens Dreaming (Karnta-kurlangu Jukurrpa) that was drawn from womens body paint designs and characterised Warlpiri women artists work. It also relates to Digging Sticks Dreaming (Karna-kurlangu Jukurrpa) because the sticks enabled the ancestral women to complete their journey. Like diving-rods leading them to sacred sites the women carried these sticks in their outstretched hands as they danced across the desert on their way encountering other important Dreaming sites and at certain points being possessed by special powers. Karna-kurlangu had special significance to Maggie as her country of Janyinki was closely associated with this Dreaming. Along with typography and the ancestral women, vegetation played an important part in this story as during their journey the women collected food for both ceremonial and medicinal use. Thus, other important Dreamings painted by Maggie included Purlurntari (Edible Fungus), Yarla (Big Yam) and Wanakiji  (Bush Plum).

In Mina Mina Dreaming key elements are represented symbolically by abstract forms that refer to sacred sites where ancestors reside. The positioning of these elements indicates where the women stopped at significant sites and where ceremonies and dances were performed. In Mina Mina Dreaming the symbols used can have multiple meanings but we can read the circles and concentric circles as representing campsites or waterholes whilst the straight lines seen between these points to the right of the work illustrate the route taken by the women between these sites. The wavy snake lines usually represent water or rain. Importantly the juxtaposition of such forms and patterns, intimates the motion of ritual dance through sacred country. Such complex readings of place are indicative of a sophisticated spiritual narrative.

In this work this spiritual significance related to Maggies country is further emphasised by her choice of coloration to indicate both her celebration of the land itself as well as the womens movement across it. As elaborated by Christine Nicholls what to the western eye may seem like a desert of undifferentiated color was to Maggie and her people perceive[d] as a large and colourful garden, bursting with energy and vitality.2 In contrast to artists of the Papunya art community who mainly chose to use the ochre colours of reds, yellows, white and black access to synthetic paints enabled Walpiri artists to celebrate the fecundity of desert life in a burst of colour. In Mina Mina Dreaming Maggie eschews her usual bright colours in favor of more subtle tones for the background field of bands of coloured lines, against which the black forms of circles and straight and wavy lines are given added vibrancy. The use of acrylic paint gives this expression a crispness that could not have been achieved with traditional ochres. What makes Warlpiri canvases exciting is the ability of artists like Maggie to embrace such new technology as a means of enhancing and expanding a centuries old spiritual connection to their country.

Maggie painted between 1985 and 1998 when she created her last work. As part of Warlukurlangu artists works her paintings have been included in numerous exhibitions around Australia, most significant being the 1988 Yuendumu: Paintings out of the Desert at the South Australia Museum and the 1994 Power of the Land - Masterpieces of Aboriginal Art and the 2004 Colour Power-Aboriginal Art Post 1984, both at the National Gallery of Victoria.


1. Meaning place of fire Warlukurlangu is the name of an important Dreaming. 

2. Christine Nicholls, The Three Napangardi's, To the memory of Maggie Napangardi Watson in Judith Ryan, ed., Colour Power-Aboriginal Art Post 1984 in the Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2004, p.124


Nicholls, C., The Three Napangardi's, To the memory of Maggie Napangardi Watson. In Ryan, J., (ed.) Colour Power-Aboriginal Art Post 1984 in the Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2004, pp.123-25

Kleinert ,S.,& Neale, M., eds. The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2000, pp.733-34


Dr Gary Hickey Grad Dip SUT; Fellowship RMIT, MA Melb.; PhD UQ


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