Artist Spotlight : Karen Napaljarri Barnes

Karen Napaljarri Barnes paintings are joyous, brave and intuitive and, while are far from realist, convey the essence and personality of the budgerigars she knows so well. Taught to paint in the traditional way by her grandmother, Judy Napangardi Watson, Karen has developed her painting style further, telling the same traditional stories but in an expression that has become uniquely hers. 



I was born in Darwin Hospital. My mum is from Yuendumu and my father is from Lajamanu. My mother, Susie Nangala Watson, went to live in Lajamanu after she fell in love with my dad.

The closest hospital to Lajamanu is in Darwin and that is where my mother travelled to have me, ‘her little one’. Women were made to go to hospital to have their babies, not like in the old days – my mother was born in the bush. I was baby number three. I have two older sisters. Albarra is the oldest. She still lives in Lajamanu. My sister Lisa lives with me in Yuendumu. I also have a younger brother Aston.



My family moved between Lajamanu and Yuendumu all the time to visit their relatives. I went to school in both places. I finished school when I was 11 years old. I painted my first painting for the art centre in 2001. My grandmother is Judy Napangardi Watson and I went to the Warlukurlangu Art Centre to watch her painting. The art centre gave me some canvas and paint and I was able to sit and paint together with my grandmother. The art centre is a very busy place. Lots of people come every day to paint. Sometimes we have as many as 80 people painting and working there.



My grandmother Judy was famous for using very bright colours. She was a natural colourist and learnt to paint from her older sister, Maggie Napangardi Watson. Her paintings were also a little different from most of the other painters working at Warlukurlangu. She had a way of putting her dots very close together so that they looked like a straight line.



I was very close to my grandmother. We were best friends and I went everywhere she went. We always painted at the art centre together. I miss her very much. She taught me the traditional stories. At first I started to paint traditional way using dots but later I was encouraged to experiment and try new things and to play with the paint and I started to paint in a more realistic way. I still painted the same stories but more in white-man style. My grandmother was very happy that so many people liked my paintings. I painted a really large Budgerigar painting for the outside of the new shop in Yuendumu. Everyone talks about my painting and they tell me how much they like it. This also makes me very happy.



I paint local birds and also other animals. I sometimes paint the dogs at the art centre, too. I really like to draw animals. My paintings are also on cups and plates which the art centre gets made. I like giving them to my friends as presents. Last year I went to Alice Springs with my aunty and I painted my birds on a dress for the Wearable Arts Award. My dress won. I went shopping for clothes and blankets with my prize money.

I want to paint more birds, big ones and little ones with a bush. I want to tell my story.



Thank you Karen! It has been an absolute pleasure collaborating with you. 

For more of Karen's work visit the Warlukurlangu Art Centre

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