Home is often hard to define, and even harder to depict. It can be a place where our childhood myths and memories reside, a more present-tense sense of community, or, perhaps, a place linked to a specific person. In Swamps West of Nyrripi (My Father’s Country) by Australian artist Ngoia Pollard Napaltjarri, the concept of home is represented through a language of symbolic abstraction.
Beautifully irregular red ovals punctuate the variegated surface of the canvas. From afar, the undulating patches of light and dark gray appear as cross hatching, but closer inspection reveals that this is an optical effect—the background is in fact black, with meticulously placed white dots inside and around the red contours. These imperfect and lopsided ovals, stacked precariously one on top of the other, can also be read from an aerial perspective, and thus take on a more topographical or map-like quality.
For Napaltjarri, these ovals signify abundant areas of water—such as swamps and lakes—that are found throughout the region of her father’s homeland, a sacred Warlpiri territory. The white dots, too, carry symbolic meaning: they represent the dry earth cracking as water evaporates. On a more spiritual level, the artist’s act of painting honors the sacred power of the watersnake who resides in the region, and acts as the custodian of the area’s lakes and swampland. The presence and absence of water are environmental conditions constantly in tension, but Napaltjarri manages to find the harmony in such oppositional forces.
Swamps West of Nyrripi (My Father’s Country) is featured in the new exhibition Walkabout: The Art of Dorothy Napangardi, in conversation with work by another Australian artist, Dorothy Napangardi, whose meticulous paintings are similarly connected to her homeland, the Tanami Desert region, and the specificity of that place. With their intricate dotting and abstract patterns, these large-scale paintings are even more awe-inspiring in person.
– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator