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In 1979 Mick Namarari was described by Geoff Bardon as ‘a man with, a genial, happy nature who often made presents to his friends.’ Bardon also claimed that Mick was the sort of man who would not tell you about himself easily: he was a man of slight and purposeful conversation ... he was a man unto himself. He was also one of the greatest painters Australia has produced.
Mick Namarari was born at Marnpie (Bronzewing Pigeon) Rockhole in the sandhills country west-south-west of Alice Springs about 1926. His name is a corruption of MacNamara. During the 1930’s he worked for a man known as ‘Billy the Bunyip MacNamara’ on Tempe Downs and the Aboriginal pronunciation of the boss’s name led to ‘Mick ... Namarari’. Following a tragedy when both his parents were killed, Mick’s remaining family group camped near Putari Springs, south-west of Mt Leibig. They were encountered there by the anthropologist Norman B Tindale (1900-1995) in 1932.
Around this time, when Mick was only five or six years old the family led a traditional, nomadic existence. One consequence was that prior to 1932 he had never seen a white man. During the decade of the ‘40’s, the family stayed around the Haasts Bluff/Hermannsburg area. Through this period as Mick grew to manhood he was initiated at Areyonga and, like so many others of his generation, worked as a stockman on various stations, including Tempe Downs. He learned his dreamings, songs and ceremonies from his Pitubi elders throughout this period and came to a close and mature relationship with his own country.
By the time that Geoffrey Bardon arrived in Papunya, in 1971, Mick was serving on the Papunya Council. One of his fellow councillors at that time was the now equally famous Johnny Warangkula Tjupurulla and it was Bardon who enticed both of these men to begin painting. Mick had displayed a keen interest in painting and accepted the unexpected oppotunity to follow that path at Papunya.
He remembered painting on anything that became available and like other members of the growing ‘painting mob’ he painted on masonite, pulp board, paper ... indeed anything at all. It was not until Peter Fannin took over as advisor from Geoff Bardon that canvas was introduced. The earliest painters at Papunya had used ochres which were soon to be replaced by acrylic paints.
During these early years, Mick traveled to Sydney with Geoffrey Bardon for the making of Geoffrey's film, ‘Mick and The Moon’ (1979) which is specifically about the artist and his work.
Aiming to avoid the fearful conditions which had developed in the government settlement proper he moved his family, during the decade after 1972, into the foothills of the Papunya Mountains at a place named Blackwater. The family was one of the few which stayed on in Papunya years after so many other Pintubi groups had moved back to Kintore and their homelands near the Western Australia border. Nevertheless the family moved a number of times between Papunya, Blackwater, Kungjatunti and finally to his traditional lands, Wulungurru, near Kintore.
He painted prolifically during the first half of the 1980’s and travelled to Sydney in August 1981 for an important early exhibition of Central Desert Paintings, staged at Syd's, in Taylor Square, Sydney. This was a new venue set up by cultural philanthropist, Elaine Townsend, with a view to staging art exhibitions, poetry and musical recitals and theatrical performances. Mick travelled to Sydney with noted painters Nosepeg Tjupurrula and Tutama. It was noted at the time that Mick Namarari had been to Sydney twice before and had also travelled to New Guinea and New Zealand to promote his painting. Tutama on the other hand, had never been to Sydney before and remembers that he was amused by the ‘cheeky bugger’ elevator doors which closed before him in a city building. He felt he was being ‘eaten up’. The exhibition, titled ‘Honey Ant Dreaming’ opened on the 3rd of September and ran for only three days. It was, nevertheless, an historic moment in the marketing and exposure of desert art in Sydney. This was the first time that work by Nosepeg Tjupurrula and Tutama had been exhibited in Sydney although audiences in France, Germany, England and New Zealand had seen their paintings by this time!
Mick Namarari and his fellow painters, looked much more relaxed and self-assured in our city environment than one imagines a white man would be if transplanted to their rugged outback existence. They were gentle and cheerful in manner and distinctly individual in dress, sporting collectively, two scarves, a French beret, a stockman’s hat and two pairs of modern running shoes. None of the trio was overwhelmed by the ‘big city’.
Mick later joined his countrymen and women at Kintore. Here, it was claimed that, ‘the Pintubi created a community where they could control the balance between white values and traditional culture.’ He set up an outstation at Nyunmanu to the south-east of the settlement towards Marnpi. Later Mick lived at Njutulnya outstation with his second wife Elizabeth and their children, Angelina, Peter and Farran. Mick's Dreamings, and therefore his paintings, were many and various but the main stories were Kangaroo, Dingo, Water, Mingatjurra (Wild Bandicoot) and Moon dreamings. He also had the right to paint about Dancing Women, Tingari Travelling Men, Naughty Boys, Mallee-fowl, Wren and Crow. Like so many other men of his race Mick believed that it was a man’s duty to paint his dreamings. It has been said of Mick that, ‘his ability to focus on a particular incident of association with these key stories gave him innumerable, striking variations on any one myth’.
Indeed in 1994 Mick was described as, ‘certainly one of Australia’s most important living painters. That was four years before his death and it was appropriate, timely and very pleasing to see such recognition come to him. At the time of his death, Wally Caruana, curator of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Art at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra claimed about Mick that, He was a wonderful exponent of making art based on ancient traditions respond with a contemporary edge. He was not just a great Aboriginal artist, but a great Australian artist.
Caruana was not the only commentator to respond with accolades of that type. Chris Hodges, proprietor of the Utopia Gallery in Sydney noted the pioneering work of the Papunya Tula artists, such as Mick, and suggested that they had ‘forged the way for many other Aboriginal artists across Australia’. Hodges added that, ‘His art touched a chord with the wider community and his influence reached well beyond his remote desert home.’ Furthermore it was noted that Mick’s, ‘charm lay in the quiet unassuming ease with which he carried himself, and his paintings came with that same ease.’
The notion of Mick Namarai’s art reaching well beyond the desert where he lived and into a much wider world is complimentary to and supportive of the main theme of this book. His death in fact was a major reason why this research and work is being undertaken right now. As an historian it would be innapropriate for me to sit by and watch such a significant generation of artists pass away. Mick, and especially those central desert artists who live with us into the next century must have their work recorded and evaluated now.
A number fine examples of Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri’s work may be seen in the collections of Jinta Desert Art in Sydney and the Aboriginal Desert Art Gallery Alice Springs. The National Gallery of Australia holds nine of his paintings.