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Faith, Culture, Country: The art of Susannah Nakamarra Nelson

Published On: June 6th, 2022Categories: Visual arts

Faith, Culture, Country is a survey of later works by Warlmanpa woman Nakamarra Nelson. Made in her last decade these works are the culmination of a lifetime of painting. Nakamarra’s joyful art often centres around the themes of faith, culture and country and are largely autobiographical, reflecting life as she knew it.

Nakamarra’s Christian faith and art practice are inextricably linked. Faith was the catalyst for her work and remained a fundamental influence throughout her career. Her singular artistic style was shaped by her religious education and a great deal of Nakamarra’s religious paintings were made for the purpose of sharing with the congregation at Tennant Creek’s Australian Indigenous Ministry which she attended for church and bible group three times a week. During her school days at the Bungalow in Alice Springs Nakamarra was taught stories with a pictorial bible and was encouraged to colour outlined illustrations from Christian colouring-in books. These illustrations were significant to Nakamarra’s early exposure to art making and she would later develop a practice which involved building compositions by tracing her homemade stencils onto canvas. These stencilled figures would then be painted in Nakamarra’s typically bright but limited palette. Throughout her life Nakamarra created thousands of stencils which appear in recurring motifs across her oeuvre. Those acquainted with Nakamarra’s work will immediately recognise familiar characters; the three arches of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, marching people, guitarists, and murtika (cars) were among the many figures which Nakamarra depicted repeatedly. Nakamarra’s stencils were so central to her creative practice that they remain as significant to her legacy as the paintings themselves.

Ceremony at night time by Nakamarra Nelson

Nakamarra’s lived experience of traditional and contemporary cultures was, after Christianity, her most significant influence. Nakamarra walked between two worlds: she remained dedicated to both her Christian faith and the spirituality that originated on her Country. She was engaged in cultural traditions as well as everyday life in modern Australia. Amid the great loss Aboriginal people have suffered with the onset of colonisation, Nakamarra’s work celebrates a way of living influenced by both Warlmanpa tradition and contemporary Western life. She returned to scenes from Indigenous ceremony throughout her career, depicting men’s corroboree, women’s dancing and stories from the Old Times. Storytelling itself was a central part of her practice and she would share the stories she was depicting with great theatrics as she painted. Scenes of marching and voting, discos, musicians and murtika appear alongside her depictions of traditional stories and ceremonies, serving as snapshots of life between two worlds as she knew it day-to-day.

Faith, Culture, Country at Nyinkka Nyunyu

Much of Nakamarra’s work can be understood as an ode to Country. Looking across her oeuvre one will note the enduring presence of a yellow sun hung in a brilliant blue sky. Consistent depictions of parra (sun) and less often, martayi (clouds) reflect Nakamarra’s interest in weather cycles and ngapa (water). Her landscape paintings almost invariably include depictions of soakages or ephemeral rivers, often with animals swimming or gathered around. Caring for Country was important to Nakamarra and she continued to travel to Ngapagunpa Homeland with family until the end of her life. These trips were a significant source of inspiration and Nakamarra would regularly return from time spent on Country particularly energised.

Faith, Culture, Country is a small sample of the hundreds of works Nakamarra made. The exhibition celebrates a lifetime of painting and Nakamarra’s momentous contribution to Tennant Creek’s art scene.

Faith, Culture, Country is showing at Nyinkka Nyunyu, May 28th – June 22nd 2022.

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