Eubena Nampitjin, the doyenne of Aboriginal artists at Balgo Hills (Wirrimanu), the former mission established by the Palatines to cut off Desert peoples heading north into the pastoral lands of The Kimberley, has died at the age of about 91. Born on the Canning Stock Route at Yalantjiri in 1921, she and her first husband Gimme moved into the mission “ than on Lake Gregory “ happily enough in 1948 to escape drought and tribal fighting in the Great Sandy Desert. But she returned frequently to the Canning’s Well 35, named Kinyu “ the Spirit Dingo “ where she’d been brought up and trained as a maparn or healer by her uncle.
As the AGNSW website says: To outsiders, Nampitjin’s homeland in the heart of the Great Sandy Desert may appear desolate on a map; but for the artist, it provided her impetus to paint and is full of life and significance. The surface of her painting ‘Kinyu‘ (1991) is a metaphor for the surface of her country. She represents its sacred rocks, which are associated with Kinyu, the Dingo from the Tjukurrpa/Dreamtime. She also depicts a number of waterholes that the artist and her family used when she was younger, and the women’s dancing tracks.
Eubena spoke four languages as well as limited English. But her first language was Kukatja, and at the mission, Eubena and Gimme helped Father Piele produce a Kukatja dictionary. Until her death, Eubena was one of the few people to maintain a full vocabulary of the Kukatja language.
But it was with her second husband Wimmitji Tjapangati “ or Xavier Wimindji as he was called in Balgo’s first art outing, ‘Art from the Great Sandy Desert’ at the Art Gallery of WA in 1986/7 “ that Eubena started painting in 1986. She only had one work “ Women at the Dancing Ground “ in the show to his three; but these were days when wives and daughters might be expected to help their menfolk paint, but they rarely got any credit for it.
Eubena certainly did help Wimmitji with the myriad dotting in paintings that came to define the Balgo School of Art, as Ronald and Catherine Berndt described it in that debut catalogue. But she was always her own woman as well, going on to win the Open Painting prize in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards in 1998, as well as being selected for the finals of awards up to the AGNSW’s Wynne Prize in 2008.
According to the Berndts, remote Balgo was sufficiently connected to the Desert art movement down south at Papunya and Yuendemu to begin to paint on boards in the mid to late 70s. But their interest was primarily anthropological; and both Wimmitji and Eubena were major informants for the Berndts on ancestral narratives and ceremonial matters.
Eubena retired to the desert for two years in the early 90s after her daughter Ena Gimme died. According to her Short Street Gallery in Broome, she spent time at a tjurrnu (soakwater) named Midjul. This is the country where Kinyu the spirit dog lives. Eubena would often cover Midjul with leaves so Kinyu wouldn’t come out or would leave gifts of goanna for Kinyu. She was wooed back to the Warlayirti Art Centre at Balgo by a new co-ordinator, James Cowan “ author and nomadist. And a new style of painting emerged from the artist “ flaming oranges, yellows and purples arching out from a backbone which could be that of Kinyu. For Kinyu, in the form of a man, was attacked by intruders at Midjul and defended himself by hurling scared objects made of hair at them.
This vibrant mode of painting won Eubena great favour in the market “ with a series of solo shows at Alcaston Gallery in Melbourne, and selection for such important institutional exhibitions as ‘Images of Power’ at the NGV, ‘One Sun, One Moon’ at AGNSW and the recent Canning Stock Route re-interpretation at the National Museum. Her works can be found in all State collections, all the great American collections, especially Sam Barry’s Balgo Collection, major Australian collections and in Europe.
However, it can be argued that she did get stuck defiantly in this style, such that all three of Eubena’s solo works offered at the recent Laverty art sale failed to find a buyer. Very late works in hazy blues and greens brought back memories of the last of Emily Kngwarreye’s works which had caused such amazement in Japan.
Alcaston’s Beverley Knight summed up Eubena’s art as, A fusion of country, story, song and the act of painting itself. The paintings are a radiant revisiting and re-animating of country, brush mark by brush mark, empowering the ancestors, keeping the country strong, making herself strong because she is one with country. In the monograph that Warlayriti produced about her, Eubena herself intimated, I like painting from my heart. I like to do paintings, big ones, to keep my spirit strong. I don’t get tired doing big ones.
I would add that I was filming in Balgo in the 90s when bitten by a local mutt. After she’d done her best to kick the dog, Eubena instinctively turned on the maparn and got down to suck the wound on my ankle. Amazement turned to comfort and relief as her ‘medicine’ quickly took effect.
Wimmitji died in 2000 and Eubena is survived by her artist daughter Jane Gimme.