Rivers of Consciousness: Sonia Kurarra’s Martuwarra

Sonia Kurarra has a detachment from outcomes that allows her work to be truly about process; death, worry, sorrow and stress flow and gush into her depictions of the Martuwarra, the Fitzroy River

By Museum of Freedom and Tolerance

Sonia Kurarra & Emilia Galatis

About Sonia Kurarra

Sonia Kurarra was born by a billlabong at Noonkanbah community. Her parents were Walmajarri whose movements led them to live by the Fitzroy River. Sonia has lived most her life at Noonkanbah.

A compulsive artist, Sonia was a teacher's aid at the local school for a long time, where she facilitated art-making with the children.

Illustrative of her attachment to the country where she grew up, and an intimate life with the river, Sonia's art is a saturation of river country motifs, be those parlka (barramundi), brim, tortoise, stingray, pandanus trees or the water itself.

Martuwarra (2020) by Sonia KurarraMuseum of Freedom and Tolerance

Martuwarra (2020)

"Martuwarra is my river country; these paintings are all about the Fitzroy River which flows down through Noonkanbah where I live. All kinds of fish live in the water, we catch big mob of fish here."

"I like Parlka (barrumundi). We catch catfish and brim here too. Nganku (shark), Wirritunany (swordfish) and stingray also live here. These fish live in these waters long after the flood has gone."

Rivers of Consciousness: Sonia Kurarra’s Martuwarra by Emilia Galatis

These are reflections, feelings and sentiments on the aesthetic practice of Sonia Kurarra, a Walmajarri woman who now resides within Guwardi Aged Care in Fitzroy Crossing.

I have been trying to write this for over three years
I am not sure I have really written it
To fully pay homage to an artist like Sonia is a lifetime’s work.

Martuwarra (2020) by Sonia KurarraMuseum of Freedom and Tolerance

Martuwarra (2020)

"Also these paintings are about Parlka swimming on the surface of the water, you can also see the Wakiri (pandanus tree) and rocks all around. When the Parlka get red they go back into the rock holes."

"These rock holes hold all the Parlka that live in the river. Kalpurtu (creator serpent-type being) also live in these rock holes and swim all around the Palma (creeks) and all around the Wakiri that grows in the river."

Our cognition disrupts the ability to make sense
Of the markings that pour from the core of her being
Martuwarra, the mighty Fitzroy River
Painted by a Walmajarri desert woman
The watery life-breath of a vast expanse of the Kimberley
Under threat, again from fracking, mining and agriculture.

The brush is more an extension of her hand than a tool
Her hand is the extension of her thoughts and feelings
Regaining structure in indescribable ways
No matter the form: angry or sad.

Martuwarra (2019) by Sonia KurarraMuseum of Freedom and Tolerance

Martuwarra (2019)

"I feel happy and I sing. Sometimes, I feel upset, I sing when I paint.I paint fish swimming, one old lady drowned she was big and we dragged her out with rope."

"I paint the pandanus trees…my daughter was sitting I told her to go. I sat with white paint my granddaughter. Water Snake told me my daughters swim away."

Sonia constantly makes noise, talking to this world and the next
Talking to worlds we can’t see or feel
Detached from the outcome, every work she creates is a process
Death, worry, sorrow and stress flow and gush into her depictions of the Martuwarra.

Emotions embedded in fish, rocks and trees
Her heart mourning onto surfaces that become the most beautiful things I have ever seen
An innate ability to make magic in moments of sadness
A mediation, meditation, medicine
Much like the Martuwarra is, for the Traditional Owners of the Fitzroy Valley region.

Martuwarra (2019) by Sonia KurarraMuseum of Freedom and Tolerance

Martuwarra (2019)

"Then I went east, I use to sit and fish down the creek. Mashing crocodile eggs, I didn’t eat crocodile. Piyirn piyirn is a bird, water snake was looking at me. Seen my jaja was sitting."

"Miss my uncle. This is Martuwarra…when I paint I sing at the same time. I don’t paint crocodile or sawfish, I feel sorry for the sawfish and crocodile.”

Most mornings when I arrive at Guwardi Aged Care Sonia will hand me a massive pile of crumpled drawings seemingly done overnight.
It’s hard to say if she ever sleeps.
Obsessive, compulsive and at times irritated
Embedded in her personality is a longing to return.

Competition flows through the careers of the Mangkaja artists
A few times a week, the Aged Care residents are brought down the road to Mangkaja to paint with the others
Sonia is usually instructed to sit out the front due to her constant loud disruptions.

Martuwarra (2020) by Sonia KurarraMuseum of Freedom and Tolerance

Martuwarra (2020)

We all experience a sense of home in different ways, our identity often linked to place. 

For many senior artists across what is now Australia, painting is the only way to emulate the feeling of Country. Diaspora, dislocation and age prevent many from experiencing those deep feelings of connection. 

One on one, she is a completely different woman.

“Can you just relax”

I say as I put my hand on her head firmly
“Can you just stop talking for a while?”

“I’m talking my language me, Walmajarri, I’m talking self, I’m not talking to you.”

I sigh.

Martuwarra (2019) by Sonia KurarraMuseum of Freedom and Tolerance

Martuwarra (2019)

After many consecutive decades Sonia continues to operate at the cutting edge of contemporary Australian art making.

Sonia is one of the most senior artists at Mangkaja Arts and one of the most productive working Australian artists of her time.

Once she tried to mock fight me
She stands shakily up and puts her fists in front of her face: “Puttem up Nagala”
The rest of the artists and staff roar with laughter at me
Tears roll down their faces.

She tells the foreign tourists as they arrive at the art centre that I have been starving her, robbing her, stealing her money, making her paint
They look at me horrified, bamboozled
Little do they know she is one of the most successful living artists in the country Supporting scores of people purely from income derived from her artwork.

Martuwarra (2020) by Sonia KurarraMuseum of Freedom and Tolerance

Martuwarra (2020)

Sonia’s art making is described as "sublime". It contains her longing, her desire to replicate, to trace familiar shapes, her compulsion for the distant places of home. 

In her quiet moments, she will tell you she loves you, share her beloved chicken, sing you songs in Walmajarri, tell you intimate stories and make sure that you are ok, that you have eaten, that you are happy.

“you right manga (woman)? You want my feed?”

She talks with such gentle sincerity and honest interest in my wellbeing.

To most people she is an intimidating, unpredictable woman, even with a walker She will probably chase you down if you have something she wants
Her closet at Guwardi is packed full of goods thrifted from Mangkaja
Often a dried mango in her hat.

Detail of Lukuri (lillies) (2019) by Sonia KurarraMuseum of Freedom and Tolerance

Lukuri (2019)

Detail of Lukuri (lillies)

Sonia Kurarra is a cornerstone artist of Mangkaja Arts and of contemporary art-making in the Fitzroy Valley region.
Not just because she makes lovely things
Not just because she is good at it
Because of the emotion that goes into her code-like markings
Every brush-stroke is loaded with the desire to make another
Seamless, stream-of-consciousness-like mark-making
Her lines are deliberate and intentional
She feels it.

Repetitive brush-strokes hold echoes of energetic vibrations.
Sonia might have a job, but her aesthetic is divine
The watery depths of her river banks and billabongs are multilayered with microcosms of contemporary life within Guwardi aged care
All at once, her work speaks to the past, present and future
Equal part personal and universal

Explore more from remote Western Australia's Aboriginal artists.

In the Museum of Freedom & Tolerance collection.

Credits: Story

All artworks by Sonia Kurarra. Images courtesy of Mangkaja Arts.

Words by curator Emilia Galatis.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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