Remarkable People, Bai Bai Sunfly Napangardi

Sizing up each of us newly arrived Kartiya (white-fella, or non Aboriginal person), Bai Bai Sunfly Napangardi takes a deep breath and starts talking.

'Bai Bai Sunfly Napangardi' © Bai Bai Sunfly Napangardi, Warlayirti Artists and Palya Art 2014, Photo: Helen Read .Bai Bai, self appointed and generous, took on the job of ‘learning us up’ once it was established, back in the early 90’s, that Palya Art Tour visitors had come to listen, learn about the beautiful art being produced, and meet the artists.

Standing on Balgo’s bluff by the airstrip after landing, deep into Western Australia, we look toward Lamanparnta, Mangkayi and Yaka Yaka. It is here Bai Bai spent her first twelve years – never setting eyes on a Kartiya. The near silence and visual expanse is breathtaking. The shush of wind through the spinifex, a far off bird call and ones own breathing is all there is to hear.

Taking in the curved horizon where the Great Sandy and Tanami Deserts mesh, the sky doesn’t even seem to touch the vast expanse of earth at all.

Equally engaged in community Council business or working as an artist herself in Warlayirti Artists painting space, Bai Bai, a natural Ngarti speaker, tells us about her country south of Wirrimanu, (meaning windy place). Wirrimanu, also known as Balgo Hills (and now Balgo), community, rests 1,440 feet above sea level; up from the plains where the original Balgo Hills flooded; mission bakery and all.

Bai Bai, not a prolific painter but enjoying a strong following, titles her work with place names like Mulupuku, Pilpiyka and Yunpu. I love hearing Bai Bai’s soft, firm voice, the way her words sound like a lullaby sung by a warm Mother. Her lips pout pointing directions and move rhythmically as she speaks her country, names her names and tells us what we must know. All the time Bai Bai’s eyes are bright with intelligence, knowledge and humour whilst we Kartiya drink her words in.

Bai Bai’s paintings are immediately recognisable for their strength of bright colour, often in streams of electric clarity running from one end of the canvas to the other.

Her brush strokes, long and definite, are always about her country. Equally descriptive, Bai Bai creates meaningful circles to tell us of places and deeds, and these revel beside her streams.

As custodian for the Seven Sisters Dreaming Tracks (Seven Sisters are a significant star cluster in the Southern Hemisphere), and the Two Nangala’s (Nangala being one of the eight ‘Skin’ names in Ngarti and other desert language groups here, like Kukatja and Pintupi), Bai Bai expands on her tutorial with free yet concise hand gestures.

After explaining her protagonists travels and related places of importance, Bai Bai sums us up again. There’s a lifetime of learning yet to give, but it’s a start. The next thing we see is black smoke billowing from a new fire, far out to where the sun will set over her land. Bai Bai has caught her dinner and will be cooking it soon, another days work done.

View Bai Bai’s painting ‘Pilpiyka’

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