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Born: c.1925 – 2006
Region: Lajamanu, Katherine – Northern Territory
Language group: Warlpiri/Ngaliya
Senior Warlpiri Law custodian Lorna Fencer Napurrula began painting in 1986 with a small group of women who produced collectively, the first women’s paintings from Lajamanu for the Warnayaka art centre. Having collected from the male artists of this community in that year, Judith Ryan acquired a collection of works from these authoritative older women for the National Gallery of Victoria’s ‘Paint Up Big’ exhibition and published a catalogue which documents this collection.
Lorna was born near the Granites Mine area of the Tanami Desert around 1925 but grew up in Yuendumu. In 1949 many Warlpiri, including Lorna, were forcibly transported to the government settlement of Lajamanu situated in Gurindji country 250 miles to the north. Her mother’s country was Yumurrpa, near the Granites in the Tanami Desert. This is where the Yarla (Yam or Big Bush Potato) Dreaming track begins on its travels north toward Lajamanu. Her father’s country was Wapurtali, home of the little bush potato. Her Dreamings included Wapirti and Marlujarra entitling her to paint the sweet potato, little white flower, bush potato, bush yam, caterpillar, wallaby tucker, and certain men’s stories including boomerang.
Lorna was an exuberant, larger than life character, a trickster during important women’s ceremonies. Her artworks are celebrations in pure painting. Exuberant in gesture, they feature spontaneous impulsive designs. She preferred to create explosive linear works rather than the more familiar Warlpiri symmetrical dotted designs. Yet at her best, her painting, though expressed randomly, contains a symmetrical logic with design elements emanating lyrically from a central core design. She adored colour especially yellow and bright reds. ‘Orangy Ornagy’ she would demand of any paint assistant nearby, as she worked furiously with utter self-assuredness. Employing bright yellows, lime greens, pink and purple, her paintings resemble instantaneous floral bursts and impress in terms of what Judith Ryan has referred to as ‘essays in pure colour’. While the market tended to favour the ‘Op Art’ aesthetics seen in much Aboriginal art of the late 1990’s, Lorna Fencers work invited a ‘Pop Art’ comparison with its spontaneous vitality and freshness characterizing the dominant aesthetic.
Lorna was an artist ‘driven to paint’ and it was indeed unfortunate that Lajamanu was so badly served by the art establishment during her most productive period as a painter. The art centre lapsed in to decline for want of funding and Lorna painted increasingly in Katherine.
The passing of Lorna Napurrula Fencer in 2006 marked the end of a breathtaking flourish of artistic output in the seventh and eighth decades of her life. Represented in the Australian National Gallery, National Gallery of Victoria, other State Galleries and major private collections, Napurrula’s work has always been in strong demand. But in her later years she seemed to find a new freedom and joy of expression that radiated from her colour-rich canvases.
1988 Hilton International Hotel, Adelaide; 1990 Robert Holmes a Court Collection, touring U.S.A.; 1990 S.H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney; 1991 High Court, Canberra; 1991 Australian Embassy, Washington, U.S.A.; “Yapakurlangu Wirrkardu” Batchelor College, Tennant Creek, N.T.; 1997 Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne; 1998 National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; 1999 Embassy of Australia, Washington; 1999 Fireworks Gallery, Brisbane; 1999 Coo-ee Aboriginal Art Gallery, Sydney; 1999, 2000 Aboriginal Art Galleries of Australia, Melbourne; 2001 Tandanya, Adelaide; ‘Icons of Australian Aboriginal Art’ Singapore.
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Aboriginal Galleries of Australia; Artbank; Australian Heritage Commission Collection, Canberra; Museum and Art Gallery of Northern Territory, Darwin, the Gantner Myer, Holmes A Court, Kerry Stokes, Margaret Carnegie, Laverty, and Leewuin Estate collections.
Gold Coast City Art Award; Included in triennial John McCaughey Memorial Art Prize in 1998.