Nicholas Rothwell from the Australian on Lydia Balbal, an emerging star in the Aboriginal art world:

It was just a year ago that the most mesmerising new star of western desert art, Lydia Balbal, walked into Broome’s Short Street Gallery and announced, in brisk, determined fashion, that the time had come for her to paint.

Over the weeks that followed, with an air of utmost confidence, Balbal launched herself into a fast-paced artistic evolution.

Her first canvases depicted the remote northwestern reaches of the Great Sandy Desert, the home domain of her own Mangala language group, close to the dazzling, salt-encrusted Perceval Lakes. Dark-bodied creator serpents writhed across the roughly painted background of these earliest works; the sandhill contours were sketchily filled in.

But soon a softer, more sensuous style began emerging, and a tendency towards abstraction. The creator beings vanished and strong, sombre colours appeared: deep tawny reds and purples, counterpoised against vibrant mossy greens and blues, with loose, scattered overdotting in an incandescent whitish shade.

Watching as these hectic canvases poured out was Short Street’s studio manager, Abi Temby. “It didn’t take long at all before we realised that with Lydia we were dealing with a natural,” she says.

A solo exhibition of Balbal’s first works was staged in Broome in March: in their bold use of colour masses, in their almost architectural sense of structure within the desert landscape, in their quality of attack, above all, these paintings had an immediate appeal.

Word spread fast; leading collectors and public galleries pounced. In August, a large canvas of Balbal’s, displaying her trademark interlinking swaths of red and ochre, was selected for the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award in Darwin. It was hung in a room full of pieces by established desert artists: it was, by an almost embarrassing margin, the most poised and potent work on view.

Balbal is a strong, extreme personality. The new course her life has taken is only the latest in a series of startling twists and turns. “I know I’m the best,” she says, disarmingly, “because I’m a bush woman! Born in the bush: I grew up there.”


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