Caution: This website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Nora Nungabar. Copyright Tobias Titz
I am convinced I was meant to become the owner, or maybe more correctly, the custodian, of a fantastic artwork by Martumilli Artist, Nora Nungabar a Martu woman from Western Australia. Nora's country is in the Pilbara Region of Western Australia within the transition from the Great Sandy Desert to the Gibson desert. The painting depicts the living water (represented by the blue circles), the parallel sand-dunes which includes a ceremonial site, in and around the area with the burgundy line. A fire has recently passed through the lower section of the sand-dunes, and through the rest of the landscape at various times.
I assume the yellow circles depict spinifex grass circles which are very characteristic of the vegetation of the Pilbara Region.
Spinifex Circles, courtesy Andrew Matthews, Flickr
I've always had a deep interest in the fire ecology of the Australian bush and how fire can be used as a tool to manage biodiversity. The way the paintings of Nora Nungabar, and her fellow artists, depict their traditional homelands provides a link between culture, art and the environment is truly remarkable. Nora was an elder in her community that practiced traditional land management, including burning, when she was in her early nineties. The land management of the Martu people has been studied by researchers from Stanford University who found that hunting with fire appears to benefit Australia's small-mammal populations, and hunting and burning increase Australia's desert biodiversity. The researchers were also able to quantify the benefits of Aboriginal Land Management to the Western Australian economy.
Nora Nungabar – ‘Pirrdari’
According to Martumili.com; "The Martu are the traditional owners of a vast area of the Great Sandy, Little Sandy and Gibson Deserts. Their country stretches from the Percival Lakes in the north, to Lake Disappointment in the south, and runs east, across the Canning Stock Route to the WA/NT border. Many Martu people ceased living a Pujiman (entirely traditional, desert) life only in the 1950s and 1960s. After spending some years on missions and stations, most Martu are now based in remote desert communities and regularly visit regional centres such as Newman and Port Hedland. The Martu are one people, encompassing Manyjilyjarra, Kartujarra, Putijarra and Warnman language speakers."
Approximate location of the Martu Lands in the Pilbara Region of Western Australia
Nora Nungabar was born in c1920 near Lipuru, which is near Well 37 along the Canning Stock Route. Her language was Manyjilyjarra, (part of the Nyangumarta language group) and she did not have contact with Europeans until the 1960's. Nora's skin group was Karimarra, and she could only marry a man whose skin group was Panaka, and their children's skin group are Milangka.
Nora Nungabar was of the Manyjilyjarra language. Image courtesy Wangka Maya Pilbara Aboriginal Language Centre
Taking a look at satellite images of the Pilbara landscape, it is not hard to see where these artists got their inspiration, the images show parallel lines of sand dunes covered in spinifex grass.
Satellite image of parallel sand dunes covered in spinifex grass in the Pilbara. Note the scale bar.
Martu artworks typically show landscapes as shown from above. Very different to traditional European landscape paintings that typically show landscapes from the side rather than above, such as "A Field of Poppies" by Claude Monet.
A Field of Poppies - Claude Monet
Although Nora did individual artworks, she also collaborated with other artists to create fantastic paintings. I'd love to visit the area and do some paintings with some of these artists. What a thrill that would be!
Martumili Ngurra (2013) - Nora Wompi, Nora Nungabar and Bugai Whoyoulter.
Martumili Ngurra (2013), a work by Nora Wompi, Nora Nungabar and Bugai Whoyoulter, purchased by the Art Gallery of Western Australia, has been transformed into a Headsox design, a wonderful way to celebrate Australian artworks.
Martumili Ngurra (2013) used as a basis for a headsock.
Bugai Whyoulter, Nora Nungabar, Nora Wompi. Image Copyright Tobias Titz
Nora's collaborationwith Nora Wompi, another wonderful artist and land manager was very special. They were best friends and painted together, sometimes collaboratively and sometimes sitting next to each other. They sang songs and told stories as they painted together.
Nora Nungabar and close friend Nora Wompi
Nora Nungabar passed away in September 2016, and I'm sure will be sadly missed by her community and the global art community as well. Vale Nora Nungabar.