On Common Ground

Sometime during Sydney’s horrendous 2021 COVID-19 lockdown, I receive a phone call from Edwina Corlette, who, like all dealers at this time of year, is busy sorting out her calendar for the following year, locking in exhibitions for each and every month. Edwina asks me what I want to do. “I don’t know, something special,” I reply.

In my studio in the Hawkesbury, I work in almost total solitude and I love it, so I’m sure these feelings were exacerbated by the lengthy lockdown, but I felt really disconnected from people, especially other artists.

We keep chatting away, all things art, and we start absolutely gahh-ing over the new paintings that Candy Nelson Nakamarra is showing in Alice Springs at RAFT artspace. We start dreaming up an “imagine if” kind of group show: devoid of race, gender, and background. It would purely be based on the coming together of three artists who share ways of exploring experience and storytelling through a similar visual language. We contact Papunya Tjupi Art Centre to see if Candy would consider showing in Brisbane, and she says yes. Edwina calls me at 6:00 a.m. one morning to tell me the good news; we’re both ecstatic.

I was first introduced to Candy’s work by Vivien Johnson’s book Streets of Papunya: The re-invention of Papunya painting (NewSouth Books, 2015). The very first image in the book is a beautiful full page of Candy in the early stages of making a painting. I’ve been following her for years now, so the trip into the desert to meet her that I am about to go into is a dream come true. 

I phone up Melbourne artist Miranda Skoczek, whose work I seriously admire, to ask if she would like to join and she jumps at the chance. Miranda is a wise and energetic thinker, who is as obsessed with Candy as Edwina and I are. She notes that she has learned a lot from First Nations artists. “Since I was a little girl,” she says, “I’ve been drawn to Indigenous art and culture. The deep connection to Country and the way it governs and informs their spiritual and artistic practices speaks so profoundly to me. Yes, Dan, YES!” 

About 120 minutes into our three-hour drive to From Alice Springs to Papunya, we hit the very corrugated Kintore Road. We laugh to each other about whether or not the car will fall apart leaving us stranded in the hot midday desert sun. I recall a story about a couple dying of thirst next to their vehicle in the outback; their windscreen-washer tank was full of drinkable water. 

The car is shaking violently, and it’s hard to hear each other talk over the rattling. That’s fine though, we’re all pretty happy to sit in silence. It’s a vast landscape, but there is so much to see: the West Macdonnell Ranges in the distance to the southwest, majestic and strangely violet just like Namatjira had painted them. I’ve been out on desert country multiple times before painting and exploring, much further south and further to the west. You don’t really forget it – it stays with you and it all feels so familiar again. There’s no sound more beautiful than the high-pitched chirping of a flock of zebra finches darting around in the bushes. 

It’s not long before we roll into Papunya. We’re bursting with excitement. It’s been almost twelve months of planning this trip made especially to meet Candy, who actually may or may not be in town, it’s even odds. We hear from the art centre that she could still be in Darwin for Bible study. 

The door to the Papunya Tjupi Arts flings open and we can feel the cool air escaping out. We’ve all been regularly commenting on the heat, which I’m sure probably sounds a lot like complaining. 

We are greeted by Charlie and Alinta, two of the art centre coordinators, and they herd us inside. Edwina, Miranda, and I are frantically looking around the room for Candy.

Doris Bush Nungarrayi is sitting at a canvas on the floor; it’s glowing the most brilliant cobalt blue. Renita Brown Nungarrayi is seated at a table, and is quietly and meticulously working on a large monochromatic canvas, meditatively painting line after line with creamy white paint, each vibrating against the other on a dark ground. I let out a few deep breaths. What a privilege to see these artists at work. 

I hear joyful commotion outside. I hadn’t realised but the group had wandered out the back. “Oh my god,” I whisper to myself, as I start hurtling toward the gallery doorway. Candy must be here!

My mouth drops as I spot her sitting at an enormous canvas stretched out on the floor, her smile beaming. The painting is incredible: creamy white blooming flowers, leaves and branches of bush fruits stretching and exploding out from the centre of the work. It’s the best Candy Nelson Nakamarra I have ever seen, but it’s not finished yet. “Ill maybe finish this one by next week,” Candy tells the group. I’m desperate to know what else she has planned for the painting. 

The work is so intuitive and rich in narrative. Candy, like Miranda and I, makes typically “decorative” paintings – but they are no lesser in meaning. 

Candy’s style is completely unique within her community of artists in Papunya. You can see links with her fellow artists and definitely some direct influence from her father, the renowned Papunya Tula artist Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, but she has created her own visual language. She’s doing something I haven’t seen before, and everyone in the group acknowledges it. “No one is painting like this!” we say, like five times each. 

If you look closely at the work, through the layers of intricate motifs, you can see the initial process that Candy uses to start each painting. This is actually what excited me about her in the first place, as this part of her process really sets her apart. Candy starts each work by splashing and pouring watered-down paint over the canvases. She turns them around and around, forcing the drips to run freely. They crisscross and intersect each other over the surface. It’s the landscape from above: watercourses, waterholes, sand dunes.

Another painting that Candy has been working on is brought out of the studio and laid on the ground next to the first. The pools of colour are much more subtle: washed-out greens and magentas. Over that, a Dreaming story in that same luscious creamy white again. The detail is incredible. 

I can now see what direction she will take with the first painting.

Candy is painting Kapi Tjukurrpa (Water Dreaming) at Kalipinypa, just like her brothers, her sisters, and her father did. She tells me a story about flying in a helicopter. I let out another lengthy sigh. It all makes so much sense.   

Miranda Skoczek, Dan Kyle, Candy Nelson Nakamarra: Common Ground
28 June – 16 July 2022
Edwina Corlette, Brisbane

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