Marrapinti by Doreen Reid Nakamarra

Doreen Reid Nakamarra

Marrapinti, 2008, Acrylic on canvas, 122 x 153 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Gift of Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, 2017, 2017.251.2, © Estate of Doreen Reid Nakamarra, licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd; Photography: Spike Mafford

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Embodied Wisdom

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In Australian Aboriginal culture, to explore and know the land and its history is also to know oneself, one’s community, and its resources (Morphy & Carty 2015: 45–6). Purposeful movement is an important element in this active relationship, requiring both expertise and care for the pluriform layers of historical, natural, and spiritual meaning in walked landscapes. This embodied approach to knowledge of oneself and one’s surroundings is passed on from one generation to the next.

Such an approach is also reflected in the final verses of Proverbs 4.

Although the text’s fatherly advice is not addressed to daughters, women feature at various moments in Proverbs. Chapter 4 mentions the father’s mother (v.3) and includes the metaphorical figure of Wisdom as a woman (vv.6–9).

And this painting by Doreen Reid Nakamarra evokes the paths taken by ancestral women to a significant sacred site (Marrapinti Rock Hole), where they would camp. Its visual texture and the delicacy of its shading give it a radiant quality. In this way it reinforces the experiential and spiritual aspects of the women’s journey, which only emerge as experience and wisdom grow.

Wisdom ultimately resides in the heart, as Proverbs 4 states several times (vv.4, 21, 23). For the ancient communities who compiled Proverbs, the heart was regarded as the seat of intelligence and will, rather than of emotion (Whybray 1972: 33; Hunter 2006: 87–8). But (I would argue) for those who travel in the spirit of Reid Nakamarra’s women, the heart is an effective compass because it is a site of both intelligence and intuition.

Reid Nakamarra’s painting not only reflects the travels of the ancestral women, but also their remembrance and thus the significance of oral traditions and rites of passage through which knowledge (wisdom) is gained. The story of the painting belongs to Reid Nakamarra’s husband’s people, which Reid Nakamarra was only allowed to paint after she had been part of the community for a certain length of time (Cirigliano 2017). Wisdom requires growth over time. It is only with age and embodied experience that one is able to follow in ancestral footsteps (Morphy 2013: 100). The instruction ‘Look out for the path that your feet must take, and your ways will be secure’ (Proverbs 4:26) resonates here.

This artwork, like the book of Proverbs, illuminates our place on the bridge between ancestral pasts and spiritual presents.



Cirigliano II, Michael. 2017. ‘Curator Conversations: Exploring Contemporary Aboriginal Art with Maia Nuku’, 25 October 2017’, [accessed 25 January 2020]

Hunter, Alastair. 2006. Wisdom Literature (London: SCM Press)

Morphy, Howard. 2013 [1998]. Aboriginal Art (London: Phaidon)

Morphy, Howard, and John Carty. 2015. ‘Understanding Country’, in Indigenous Australia, Enduring Civilisation (London: The British Museum), pp. 20–119.

Whybray, Roger Norman. 1972. The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible: The Book of Proverbs (London: Cambridge University Press)

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