Dorothy Napangardi was the daughter of Indigenous Australians Jeannie Lewis Napururrla and Paddy Lewis Japanangka, born around 1958 in a location referred to as Mina Mina, near Lake Mackay in the Tanami Desert. Napangardi (in Warlpiri) or 'Napangati' (in Western Desert dialects) is a skin name, one of sixteen used to denote the subsections or subgroups in the kinship system of central Australian Indigenous people. These names define kinship relationships that influence preferred marriage partners and may be associated with particular totems. Although they may be used as terms of address, they are not surnames in the sense used by Europeans. Thus 'Dorothy' is the element of the artist's name that is specifically hers.
She grew up in the settlement town of Yuendumu, and spent most of her life in Alice Springs, where she began painting in 1987. She had little formal schooling, but was instructed in the historic Dreaming of her people. 'Dreaming' is an imprecise English translation of the Warlpiri word 'Jukurrpa', which describes the origins and journeys of ancestral beings in the land, and identifies the sacred places where the spirits reside. The Jukurrpa theme, generally, is one of the inseparability of the self from the environment and usually includes travelling across the land. These are notions than can also be found in Napangardi's art, with its profusion of intersecting lines suggesting spiritual meaning and evocative depth. In the words of a Warlpiri speaker quoted in a catalogue of Napangardi’s work: "To me, Dorothy’s work is like Yapa (people) running through and across their country, moving across their pathways when they go travelling."
Napangardi was killed in a car accident on 1 June 2013.