Jorna Newberry is a Pitjantjatjara woman who was born c.1959 at Angus Downs. At the time, the more than 3000 square kilometre pastoral lease was owned by the Liddle family whose pioneering ancestor, William Liddle, arrived in the area in the early 1920s to breed sheep and later cattle. Jorna was a bush baby and spent her childhood living the traditional lifestyle of hunting and gathering. Angus Downs is in the south of the Northern Territory, 135 kms east of Uluru-Kuta Tjuta and 100 kms south-east of Kings Canyon.
She initially started to paint in the mid 1990s at Warakurna, a remote community located at the western end of the Rawlinson Ranges in Western Australia. Later she joined the painters at the Irrunytju Art Centre in Wingellina near the tri-state borders of Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory. Her paintings refer to her country and are associated with significant traditional places of spiritual knowledge and the ancestral stories, which are imbedded in the land.
The vastness of the country that was her home provided many obstacles to effective communication. Information was passed down through the generations and around the country via the stories and the songs of the old people. Song lines were the paths by which the people travelled through the landscape. They provided essential information about the interior of the country. Many of the stories were allegorical and included the instructions that governed the intrinsic kinship laws of the desert. These laws instructed how and where to find food and water and to whom the land actually belonged. Much of this information was kept secret for thousands of years, and much has died with the last of the traditionally nomadic people.
Since the development and subsequent fame of the desert painting movement, many words such as the ‘Dreaming’ and ‘Sacred’ have been bandied about, usually without due reverence, or indeed a real understanding of the importance of these stories or the tribal laws. For tribal people from the desert, their Tjukurrpa is sacrosanct. Tjukurrpa is a paradigm like art or law or science. Tjukurrpa gives order and meaning to Aboriginal society: it explains how Aboriginal people came to be and details the spirit ancestors responsible for the creation of everything. For them Tjukurrpa is not a metaphor, it exists.
Jorna paints several of these creation stories. The paintings in this exhibition are drawn from the Perentie story where the great Perentie lizard is portrayed in exquisite detail. The reptile is the fourth largest lizard on earth and important in Aboriginal culture in both a totemic way and as an important food source. These paintings depict the circular patterning and intricate dotting on the back of the lizard. The swirling designs also represent the tracks of the animals and the contours of the landscape.
Tommy Watson, one of the country’s greatest Indigenous artists, was Jorna Newberry’s uncle and he was instrumental in teaching Jorna how to paint and, most importantly, how to maintain the secrecy of cultural matters. Jorna Newberry, like Watson, will not disclose some information about her paintings. The artist and former politician, Alison Anderson, gives us an explanation why: … ‘the old painters wanted to show you the beauty of their culture not its inner depths. It is as if a Western religion had a beautiful temple, and you were free to go inside it, but not to look into the secret holy books. That’s what the artists wanted.’
Jorna occasionally visits the community in Warakurna for ceremonial reasons but spends most of her time with family in Alice Springs where she has a studio.
Her subtle colour palette of whites and creams on a black ground has created an uniquely sophisticated contemporary style which is instantly recognizable.
- Ken McGregor 2021
Jorna Newberry is a respected indigenous artist from the Northern Territory, living and working in Alice Springs. She is Pitjantjatjara, whose ancestral lands span the Central Desert and cross the borders of South Australia, Western Australia, and the Northern Territory. The Central Desert is renowned as the birthplace of contemporary indigenous art tradition. It can be said that the artistic impulse runs in Newberry’s veins: she was taught and encouraged in painting by her uncle, the famous indigenous artist Tommy Watson, who is well-known for his large-scale, vibrantly coloured canvasses, which were an inspiration for one of the murals at the Museé du Quai Branly in Paris.
By contrast to Tommy Watson, Jorna’s palette is by far more sensitive and subdued. It is partly owing not only to her own aesthetic choices but also to her particular subject matter. Jorna’s paintings utilise traditional iconography of the region to tell the story of Perentie, a lizard of ancestral and local significance. Perentie is the fourth largest lizard in the world, and the intricate patterns and mark-making on Jorna’s canvasses convey the patterns on the scales of the lizard. The lizard, traditionally, is an important source of nourishment for the local indigenous population: the undulating lines within the paintings convey the tracks that the lizard leaves with its tale in the sand. Local indigenous communities follow the lizard’s tracks to the sources of water and edible seeds, plants, and roots. The secret language of Jorna’s paintings conceptualises time and space as it narrates the journey of the lizard across the desert through the changing seasons of the year.
A distinguishing quality of Jorna’s paintings is the subtle palette of white with accents of yellow, honey, and caramel tones contrasted most effectively against the stark black background. The paintings are also remarkable for their meticulous execution. By attaching a fine nib to the bottle with pigments, she produces works which are almost calligraphic in quality. Given Jorna’s attention to detail and the meticulous patterning and mark-making, it is no surprise that each work (depending on the size) may take up to six to eight (or more) weeks to produce. Painting for Jorna is a meditative experience, as it is through the language of art that she communicates sacred legends and ancestral dreamtime stories of the Pitjantjatjara peoples. Though Jorna has begun exhibiting comparatively recently, she is attaining an ever greater recognition, with sell-out exhibitions in Melbourne, Sydney, and various galleries across Queensland and the Northern Territory, and the exponentially growing collectors’ following and intuitional recognition across Australia and abroad.