International superstar Beyoncé took to her Instagram this month to show off the artwork of world-renowned Pintupi artist, Yukultji Napangati. As passionate art collectors, Beyoncé and her rapper husband Jay-Z acquired two of Yukultji's paintings from her first United States solo exhibition in 2019 to go on display at their home in New York City. To have celebrities purchase your work and feature it on their social media, let alone a solo exhibition in New York City is a major achievement for any artist. Yukultji's standalone show exhibited from January to early March in 2019 at this chic gallery on Manhattan’s lower-east side, called Salon 94 (Sydney Morning Herald, 2019).
Installation view, ‘Yukultji Napangati,’ Salon 94, New York, 2019. Courtesy Salon 94, New York, 2021.
Beyoncé’s Instagram post is being shared across social media and online press like wildfire! Even political figures, such as the NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner and Chansey Paech, Member for Gwoja and Minister at NT Government, are posting about this. Full of pride and excitement, Paech (2021) took to his Facebook, saying (as seen below):
All of this exposure not only promotes the individual artist, but assists in the providing of economic development for Yukultji’s community, and the maintenance of cultural heritage - all part of Papunya Tula Artists’ ongoing mission. Papunya Tula Artists is an art collective that represents Yukultji, as well as over 120 First Nations artists from the Northern Territory and Western Australia. The company is owned and directed by First Nations people from the Western Desert, predominantly of the Pintupi/Luritja language groups (Papunya Tula Artists, 2021).
Paul Sweeney, the manager of Papunya Tula Artists, travelled with Yukultji to New York to attend the opening of the exhibition. Sweeney explained to the Sydney Morning Herald (2019) that, although she speaks little English and has lived a slow paced life in Kiwirrkurra, (a community of only around 200 people) she knows she has achieved something significant:
"Yukultji has been soaking it up,” Sweeney says, “Quietly inside, she is very proud."
Yukultji Napangati’s Story:
If you want to know how the Pintupi peoples lived for the past 40,000 years plus, just ask Yukultji, as she stepped into ‘modern-civilization’ only 30 years ago. Yukultji is the youngest member of the ‘Pintupi Nine,’ referred to as the ‘lost tribe’ and the ‘last family of nomads’ to come into ‘first contact’ with the Western world on international media headlines in 1984. The ‘Pintupi Nine’ “consisted of two sisters and their seven teenage children - four brothers and three sisters, who shared one father” (BBC, 2014). These headlines annoyed the family as they insisted that they weren’t ‘lost,’ just separated from other members of the Pintupi clan. So, how did this separation occur? Well, in the 1950s, the Australian government ‘rounded up’ the desert nomads and moved them into settlements because of the dangers imposed by the British conducting Blue Streak Missile tests over the Western Desert region. As a result, all of the Pintupi peoples had to leave their ancestral lands, apart from this one family (BBC, 2014).
The Pintupi Nine in 1984. Courtesy of the BBC, 2014.
Until the age of 14, Yukultji was raised nomadically on the territory around Wilkinkarra (Lake Mackay), which is between the Gibson Desert and the Great Sandy deserts of Western Australia. In an interview with the BBC (2014), Yukultji described her previous lifestyle:
"When I was young I would play on the sand dune and when we saw the old people returning to camp we would go back and see what food they had brought with them. After we ate we'd go to sleep. No blanket, we would sleep on the ground. Then we would go to another waterhole and make another camp."
Warlimpirrnga, the eldest brother and head of the family of the Pintupi Nine, remembers the day his family came across other relatives from the Pintupi clan (BBC, 2014) Soon after making contact, he decided for his family to leave the bush for community life in Kiwirrkurra Community:
"As we came into Kiwirrkurra, I saw my nephew and niece and all the people in the community started crying when they saw us, because they knew we were family. They looked after us, they kept us, and they taught us. I got used to them. Over time I felt that I was with family together in Kiwirrkurra community and we were the same. I was happy to be with them now."
Kiwirrkurra is the most remote community in Australia, located in Western Australia in the Gibson Desert. It is a two-day (700km) drive from Alice Springs along rich, red sand tracks that are lined by Spinifex grasses, with an occasional cluster of Mulga trees. Yukultji and a few of her siblings (Warlimpirrnga, Takariya and Yalti) still live in the Kiwirrkurra community (BBC, 2014).
Kiwirrkurra Country. Courtesy of the BBC, Alana Mahony, 2014.
Yukultji Napangati’s Artistic Journey:
Yukultji first started painting in 1996 when a group of women painters in her community began creating work independent from their male counterparts. The women painted as individuals and in collaboration with one another. All of her siblings (apart from Payirti) are artists, and not long after joining the Papunya Tula Artists art collective they became renowned leaders in the contemporary Aboriginal Art Movement. Yukultji’s brothers Walala, Thomas and Warlimpirrnga have gained international recognition in the art world as the Tjapaltjarri Brothers and some of the greatest Desert Art painters (Artasiapacific, 2019).
Since Yukultji’s first Australian solo exhibition in 2014 at Utopia Art Sydney, she quickly rose to become one of the most celebrated Aboriginal Australian artists, both nationally and internationally. Her exhibition in New York followed her triumph in 2018 when she won the Wynne Prize, which is awarded to an artist with the best Australian figure sculpture or landscape painting (Sydney Morning Herald, 2019).
Yukultji Napangati at her first US solo exhibition in New York. Courtesy of The Sydney Morning Herald, 2019.
Similarly to other Pintupi artists, Yukultji’s works “...are very rigorous, well-composed abstract paintings with a strong sense of colour” (Friedman, 2019). They depict shimmering aerial landscapes, informed by Dreaming, specific lived experiences and landscapes. Yukultji paints her mother and grandmother’s country Marrapinti (located to the west of Kiwirrkurra), a site where ancestral women camped at a rock hole and performed ceremonial activities before they continued their travels east. In her most recent works, Yukultji painted the desert landscapes and the Marrapinti rock hole (central features from her childhood) in the form of yellow, orange and golden grain-like dots, connected by undulating lines that are occasionally interrupted by mushroom-shaped forms. These interruptions altering the rhythmic totality of the composition represent the hypnotic, shimmer of the hot, hazy air between the horizon and the shifting sand dunes (The Brooklyn Rail, 2019).