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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Storied portrait

by Emily Casey, 27 May 2020

‘It’s good to learn from old people. They keep saying when you paint you can remember that Country, just like to take a photo, but there’s the Ngarranggarni (Dreaming) and everything. Good to put it in a painting, your Country, so kids can know and understand. When the old people die, young people can read the stories from the paintings. They can learn from the paintings and maybe they want to start painting too.’

Shirley Purdie

Prior to the COVID-19-enforced closure of the National Portrait Gallery’s doors, its first gallery – the lead-in to the institution’s permanent collection – featured an expansive self-portrait by senior Gija woman Shirley Purdie. With the Gallery opening again on 6 June, the large, striking work will take pride of place once more. Occupying an entire wall, it comprises 36 panels in a 4 by 9 grid, painted in natural pigments in soft browns, blue-greys, yellows, pinks, greens and white. Using ochre collected on Gija Country in Western Australia’s East Kimberley, the surface is tactile and evocative. Each panel contains a story, creating a portrait that is a complex kaleidoscope of personal history, identity and connection to Country.

In this prominent location, Ngaalim-Ngalimboorro Ngagenybe (From my women) frames the National Portrait Gallery’s collection through a lens of contemporary portraiture, inviting the viewer to consider the underlying ideologies of the genre. Portraiture comes from a western tradition of representation and expression, and its conventions are historically informed by western notions of identity and personhood. While some artists actively challenge the conventions of portraiture and stereotypes through their practice, Purdie’s approach to portrait-making quietly expands the genre.

Ngaalim-Ngalimboorro Ngagenybe was created for the 2018 exhibition So Fine: Contemporary women artists make Australian history, in which curators Sarah Engledow and Christine Clark invited ten artists to reflect on and reinterpret Australian history through contemporary portraiture. In September 2019 the self-portrait was acquired for the Portrait Gallery’s collection, an acknowledgment of Purdie’s personal history as a crucial part of the Australian experience, and one that will become increasingly important in the national conversation around cultural life and national identity. This landmark addition to the collection enhances the Gallery’s capacity to engage with Aboriginal ways of seeing and understanding the world, as well as making an important contribution to the genre of portraiture more broadly.

Interrogating portraiture and supporting artists to challenge its boundaries is one of the responsibilities of a national portrait gallery. Inaugural National Portrait Gallery Director Andrew Sayers described the unique position in relation to Australian identity, stating, ‘National portrait galleries have been traditionally predicated on the idea that identity can be equated with individuality. In Australia, however, we have Indigenous traditions in which identity is actually lodged somewhere else – in relationships and in people’s relationships to land.’

In Ngalim-Ngalimbooroo Ngagenybe, Shirley Purdie pays homage to the women in her family, representing herself through their collective knowledge, culture and values. Her self-portrait depicts someone who has lived a storied life, shaped by land, family, law, ceremony and language. Unlike a traditional western portrait, these significant women are represented through their relationships and their stories rather than their physical appearance.

1 Nyawurru (emu), 2018. 2 Skin group from my father’s mother’s side, 2018. Both by Shirley Purdie.

In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, the concept of kinship is complex, and shapes social organisation and interactions. Kinship, including moiety, totems and skin names, determines how everyone relates to one another, as well as their roles, responsibilities and obligations to others, the environment and ceremony. Describing the painting Nyawurru (emu), Purdie refers to the ways culture, law, ceremony and family interrelate: ‘This emu is special for me because I was an emu when that old man (my uncle) killed me and they (my aunty and him) cooked it (the emu) and my mum and dad ate it, and that’s when my mum felt sick and was vomiting. That’s when she knew she was pregnant with me. Also, in Gija way, I can’t eat an emu, because that’s my mother’s skin. And my Jarrin (my reincarnation).’

Shirley Purdie has lived on Gija Country – around Violet Valley north of Moola Bulla – all her life. She is a prominent leader in Warmun Community and an incisive cross-cultural communicator. Inspired by more senior Warmun artists, including her late mother, the great Madigan Thomas, as well as Rover Thomas and Queenie McKenzie, Purdie began to paint her Country in the early 1990s. Her cultural knowledge and artistic skill complement each other to produce a practice that holds great strength. Working at the Warmun Art Centre that was established in 1998, Purdie is dedicated to perpetuating Gija stories and language for young people.

1 Dayiwool Ngarranggarni (Arygle dreaming), 2018. 2 Poison Tree for Fish, 2018. Both by Shirley Purdie.

When she paints, Purdie is deeply engaged in cultural practice. Self-portraiture by its very nature is reflective, recalling memories and considering how experiences have shaped one’s values and sense of self. Enmeshed with self-reflection in this portrait is the activity of retelling for the purpose of passing on Gija knowledge, culture and values. Dayiwool Ngarranggarni (Argyle Dreaming), Poison tree for fish, and Goonjal (bush yam tree), depict farming practices connected to specific seasons and places. The stories intertwine Ngarranggarni and personal memories. In Poison tree for fish, Purdie recounts a fishing technique historically employed by Aboriginal people in the Kimberley. Prior to nets and lines, women used the soapy lather from the crushed bark of the Mangoonji tree to harvest fish from the river, poisoning the fish in a way that allowed for safe human consumption.

1 Goonjal (bush yam tree), 2018. 2 This one, when I was growing up with my grandmother, 2018. Both by Shirley Purdie.

Social histories of the region also figure in Purdie’s work, in which she relates accounts of early contact, massacre, warfare and indentured labour since the incursion of pastoralists into Gija land in the late 1800s. Significant places that appear in this portrait, such as Jilloorlban and Gilbun, lie on Country now taken in by Violet Valley and Mabel Downs cattle stations. As a teenager, Purdie followed her mother and started working as a maid for the station owners at Mabel Downs, and in Mabel Downs Station she recalls the long days and arduous physical labour involved. This one, when I was growing up with my grandmother captures a happy memory from the same time, of a day hunting with her grandmother near Yallanji River at Mabel Downs. Conveying the breadth of experience is one of the strengths of this approach to narrative portraiture.

Portraits can represent people in many different ways. Beyond a genre defined by stylistic or aesthetic conventions, its foundational concerns lie in identity. Portraiture is therefore fundamentally linked to culture, framed by world views, and engaged with representation and reflection. It is natural that its renderings should be infinitely varied, because, of course, that is the nature of identity, and of subjectivity. Shirley Purdie’s self-portrait Ngaalim-Ngalimboorro Ngagenybe emphasises the rich possibilities of the genre, embodying and exploring the diversity of human experience.

Related people

Shirley Purdie

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

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