Locality Rules

Dorothy Napangardi, 2009, Sandhills, acrylic on linen, 91 x 91 cm, Private Collection Adelaide

Locality Rules

Dr Christine Nicholls


1 October 2013

Academic Viewpoint

CULTURAL WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are warned that this article may contain images and names of Aboriginal people who have passed away.

Spatial Relationships in Indigenous Australian Visual Art and Mathematics, with specific reference to the work of  Dorothy Napangardi.

following article, about the relationships between the game of AFL 1 and Indigenous mathematics, which is largely founded on spatial relationships rather than number, as is the case in the dominant culture, is in a sense only nominally about AFL, at which Indigenous Australian players frequently excel. Success in AFL is highly dependent on the ability to negotiate 360 degrees of space, and accurate judgement of one’s own location and the locations of others, within that space. Here’s a link to the article, where you are free to comment 2 theconversation.com/its-time-we-draft-aussie-rules-to-tackle-indigenous-mathematics-15032

This facility with spatial relationships also plays itself out in the spatial aesthetic of many Aboriginal artists, particularly desert-dwellers, and particularly those whose early lives were spent living outdoors. The artist Dorothy Napangardi, who passed away earlier this year, but whose family have given me permission to use her name and work, exemplifies this spatial aesthetic par excellence.

Born in the late 1940s or early 1950s in the bush in the Mina Mina area, west of Mt Doreen and Yuendumu, 400 kilometres or more north west of Alice Springs, Dorothy Napangardi was the child of Jeannie Lewis Napururrla and Paddy Lewis Japanangka. Dorothy Napangardi remembered her early childhood days in the bush, surrounded by her closely-knit extended family, as a time of unconditional happiness and freedom. Napangardi’s mother, Napurrurla, had been married previously, and already had a daughter by her first marriage, an older sister for Dorothy. Later, a younger sister and two younger brothers were to come along. As a young child, until Dorothy reached the age of about seven or eight, the extended family travelled around the Mina Mina area, living on the plentiful bush tucker that grew there, and drinking from its soakages and claypans.

This, her salt lake country, is the principal subject matter to which Napangardi always returned in her magnificent, often huge, artworks, through which she conveyed a unique spatial aesthetic. Napangardi had the ability to organise space so that colours danced rhythmically across the entire canvas.

Napangardi’s compositional skill and her ability to evoke a sense of undulating movement across a large expanse of canvas particularly characterise her more accomplished later works. The optical effects produced in her remarkable works were achieved by Napangardi’s use of patterns that set up a field of movement, not unlike Op-art (indeed, her work has been compared to that of Bridget Riley), so that the eye moves – or dances – around the chequered, radiating area of the canvas rather than focussing on any single point of the canvas. These effects mirror the immense shimmering vista of Dorothy Napangardi’s beloved homeland, Mina Mina, and the nearby salt lake also on her family’s estate.

Dorothy Napangardi’s success as an artist lies in this ability to evoke a strong sense of movement across her canvases, an effect that she achieved as a result of her remarkable spatial sense and compositional ability. In all of Dorothy’s works this sense of oscillating movement is evident, although in her earlier works it was not developed to the level of refinement that she achieved in her later Mina Mina canvases.

Napangardi’s grid-like, apparently three dimensional patterns, also evince mathematical giftedness in the area of spatial relationships, and her ability to negotiate the cardinal directions with ease. This area of mathematics is emphasised in traditional Warlpiri socialisation and educational practices, and Dorothy’s mastery of this was second to none.

[1] AFL is an Australian football code and stands for the words Australian Football League (AFL) is the highest-level professional competition in the sport of Australian Rules football, see wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_Football_League

[2] Please note that there is no charge to join The Conversation, and no payment is required at any point (it is the all-Australian Universities website, aimed at disseminating contemporary university research to a much wider audience than usual). The Conversation does insist, however, that people who leave comments must join prior to doing so, in order to prevent inappropriate comments or spam.

Dr Christine Nicholls holds the position of Senior Lecturer, Australian Studies, specialising in Indigenous Australian languages and visual art at Flinders University; she is also one of two Humanities post-graduate coordinators.

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