5 Fast Facts: Janet Forrester Ngala

Impress your friends with five fast facts about artist Janet Forrester Ngala (b. 1936), whose work is on view in NMWA’s collection galleries.

Janet Forrester Ngala, Milky Way Dreaming, 1998; Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 34 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Ann Shumelda Okerson and James J. O’Donnell; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

1. Australia Dreamin’

Janet Forrester Ngala, like many other Australian Aboriginal artists, depicts Dreamings, or creation stories. As these tales are inherited and considered sacred, artists protect specifics by working in an abstract style.

2. Humble Beginnings

Australian Indigenous art dates back more than 30,000 years. Early forms of expression included rock, bark, and body painting and ephemeral ground drawing. In the 1970s, Aboriginal men started using modern art materials to record ancient stories in tangible, saleable forms. Many women, including Ngala, began painting in the 1980s.

3. In the Stars

Ngala frequently represents the Milky Way in her paintings. Australian Aboriginal people believe that the galaxy is home to ancestral spirits and that each star within it represents a deceased person or animal.

Detail image of the center of Janet Forrester Ngala’s Milky Way Dreaming (1998) in NMWA’s galleries

4. Perspective Shifts

Ngala’s Milky Way Dreaming (1998) invites viewers to imagine gazing up at the stars. In Yam Story ’96 (1996), Emily Kame Kngwarreye (ca. 1910–1996) leads viewers deep underground, where we see intertwined, infinite, root bundles. Pansy Napangati (b. ca. 1948) provides audiences with aerial views of the land.

5. Methods to Motifs

In addition to the Milky Way, Ngala’s repeating symbols include serpents, honey ants, bush bananas, goannas (carnivorous lizards that are close relatives of Komodo Dragons), and witchetty-mades (large white larvae of moths historically consumed by Indigenous Australians due to their high protein content).

—Adrienne L. Gayoso is the senior educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Aboriginal Women’s Dreamings at NMWA

Eunice Napanangka, born 1940; Language Group: Pintupi; "Tjukurla - other side of Docker River", 2001 Acrylic on linen 48 x 66 in. Collection of Ann Shumelda Okerson and James J. O'Donnell; Ikuntji Artists Aboriginal Corporation, Copyright remains with the artist

Eunice Napanangka, born 1940; Language Group: Pintupi; “Tjukurla – other side of Docker River”, 2001 Acrylic on linen 48 x 66 in. Collection of Ann Shumelda Okerson and James J. O’Donnell; Ikuntji Artists Aboriginal Corporation, Copyright remains with the artist

Like many visitors who enjoyed NMWA’s first exhibition of Aboriginal art, Dreaming Their Way: Australian Aboriginal Painters, I am eagerly anticipating the arrival of NMWA’s upcoming show Lands of Enchantment: Australian Aboriginal Painting, which opens on October 9th. This exhibition will display Aboriginal paintings from the collection of scholars Ann Shumelda Okerson and James J. O’Donnell of Yale University and Georgetown University. Their collection boasts several celebrity artists from the Northern and Central Desert, including Emily Kngwarreye, Dorothy Napangardi, and my favorite, Gloria Petyarre (Emily Kngwarreye’s niece). Several painters in the show are related to each other as cousins, sisters, mothers, daughters, aunts and nieces. This ongoing family tradition of painting reveals much about the structure of Aboriginal society and how “Dreamings”—sacred stories about Aboriginal land and ancestors—are passed down from older to younger generations and continually reinvented and expressed through art.

After viewing the Aboriginal paintings at NMWA in 2006 and having seen representations of Dreamings in galleries and museums throughout Alice Springs, Australia, it is hard to imagine that these paintings were once overlooked in the 1970s. During this decade many anthropologists perceived Aboriginal women’s Dreamings as less meaningful, less sacred, and ultimately inferior to men’s Dreamings. However, in the 1980s Australian scholars such as Francoise Dussart and Diane Bell insisted through their anthropological research that women’s Dreamings are the artistic and cultural equivalents of Dreamings held by men. This movement to bolster the social standing of art by Aboriginal women echoed the protests by art historians in the United States like Linda Nochlin, who famously asked in her 1971 article, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”

Eventually in the 1980s and 1990s, more scholars acknowledged the creativity of women Aboriginal artists. Some even declared women’s representations of Dreamings as a radical aesthetic departure from men’s, primarily for their use of bold colors like pink, purple and orange instead of men’s traditional reds, browns, and blacks. Women artists do not usually render traditional iconography such as parallel lines or grid-like forms commonly seen in men’s Dreamings. Furthermore, Aboriginal women are known to apply paint more thickly and liberally onto the canvas than men. Often, women’s broad brushstrokes and thick application of paint is inspired by body painting, which they execute for ceremonies and celebrations of their country.

The artistic characteristics just mentioned are large generalizations that fuel the debate over whether or not there are truly distinct differences between Aboriginal men and women’s paintings. Though this debate has not been resolved, one thing remains clear: both men’s and women’s Dreamings are intended to extend knowledge of Aboriginal places, designs, and stories. We have a unique opportunity to see the artistic expression of this knowledge at NMWA this fall.

Lands of Enchantment: Australian Aboriginal Painting opens October 9, 2009 and runs through January 10, 2010.

About the Author: Shana Klein is currently a PhD student at the University of Maryland, College Park. She recently received her Masters degree in Art History at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where she wrote her Masters Thesis on contemporary art by Aboriginal women.

This post was revised on September 22, 2009.