Indigenous artists very often paint country for which they are custodians and have a degree of care for and historical connection to. The country at Noonkanbah, whilst ancient in terms of Indigenous occupation, was a site of relatively recent political contestation, a place which Sonia Kurarra is intimately associated with. One of the most intensely fought battles of cultural conservation versus mineral exploration took place in 1976 at Noonkanbah when the Federal Government purchased a pastoral lease covering Noonkanbah Station on behalf of the traditional owners.
The pre-existing mining leases could not be overturned in court and despite the Indigenous communities’ opposition to drilling in sacred areas, work on excavation took place in 1980 – ironically yielding no oil.1 This particular part of the country, and its associated flora and fauna, are Kurarra’s main subject matter for her artistic practice and which she is obsessed with representing over and over. Sonia Kurarra was born in 1952 on river country at Yungngora (Noonkanbah). She began painting in the 1990’s on paper with Mangkaja Arts, based at Fitzroy Crossing, but since 2008 has predominantly worked on canvas. She had her first solo show as recently as 2009. Kurarra won the Western Australian Indigenous Artist Award at the Western Australian Indigenous Arts Award at the Art Gallery of WA in 2010. She went on to win the 2013 Headland Awards for best artist also, and her work is found in state gallery, corporate and private collections across the country.
Kurarra is truly a sculptor in paint. She paints the sandy billabong country along the stretch of the Fitzroy River that runs directly behind the Noonkanbah community.3 There is a particular snake that lives in the billabongs which is called Nangurra, however, Kurarra mostly depicts the rich food sources that become abundant after the flooding of the river produces waterholes fecund with life. When Kurarra paints, she builds layer upon layer swiftly, with little planning. Her practice is compulsively expressionistic, and her choice of colour palette is diverse, with works painted in either restrained and similarly toned shades, or resplendent in tonal colours that sit opposite each other on the colour wheel, such as vibrant lime greens jammed right next to bright oranges and yellows.
All of the elements in Kurarra’s paintings are made larger or smaller according to their cultural importance.4 Kurarra recounts the story of what happens when floodwaters from the Fitzroy River recede, and billabongs are left teeming with a plentiful supply of parlka (barramundi), kurlumajarti (catfish) and bream. Kurarra paints the parrmarr (rocks) where the caught (gapi) fish are cooked, the ngurti (coolamon) in which food is collected and the ngangku (sharks) and wirritunany (water snakes). The artist also sometimes adds karli (the boomerang) and wakiri (pandanus) into her work, creating textural highlights and lush scenes of life experienced by her people along the river. The heat, the water, food cooking, sustenance and a joyful sense of community are all evoked in the artist’s rich and atmospheric work. Kurarra is an intuitive colourist and her intensely graphic motifs are immediately recognizable as hers. Her work features many oval and rounded shapes over-painted with a flurry of linear marks. These marks can signify a multitude of things; barramundi bones, the ribs of the shark, the lines on the leaves of the pandanus sitting at the edge of a flooded billabong, striations in the rocks at the rivers edge. Her compositions are often dense and concentrated with strong colour, although earlier works were simplified with more space between each motif.
Unlike many other Indigenous artists, Kurarra’s work cannot necessarily be read as a topographical map, but more as a stratified landscape. The perspective within and across the work shifts as less and more important forms, according to the artist’s worldview, emerge. Kurarra’s works are brimming with vitality and life, and their sheer exuberant confidence and generosity of narrative are startling. As an adult Kurarra helped the local kindergarten teacher at Noonkanbah, and took children out to Sandy Billabong to teach them how to dance and paint. Perhaps this connection with young people spoke to the artist in Kurarra and helped to fuel her immensely joyful work with a sense of immediacy and delight. It is this that viewers have responded to so strongly during Kurarra’s relatively short artistic practice.
1 Gilchrist, S. in the Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards catalogue, (G. Pilkington, Ed) 2010, pp 12 2 www.mangkaja.com/content/sonia-kurarra accessed 11th October 2016 3 ibid 4 Gilchrist, S. in the Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards catalogue, (G. Pilkington, Ed) 2010, pp 12