Eubena Nampitjin from Wirrimuna (Balgo): John Carty

SYDNEY- 8 March 2015

Eubena Nampitjin (1920 – 2013) lived many lives. From defiant desert girl to drover on the colonial frontier, from matriarch to internationally renowned artist, her life was epic in its scope and mythic in its trajectory. Born at Nyirla in the Great Sandy Desert in the early 1920s, she spent her childhood and adolescence moving through, camping in and living off the ancestral country of her family. Between 1906 and 1910, those desert lands had become the middle stretches of the overland stock route pioneered by Alfred Canning, and in the decade before Eubena was born her country became host to strange beasts and new men. The Canning Stock Route was little used in Eubena’s early years, but as droving traffic intensified in the 1930s, so too did the intercultural exchanges that would come to characterise her life and art.

As a young woman she travelled the length of the stock route with her first husband Gimme and the drover Wally Dowling, working cattle from Kunawarritji south to Wiluna, and travelling back up to Billiluna Station. They stayed and worked again with Kartiya (white people) on the cattle station before moving their young family to nearby Balgo Mission. Here, while raising her children and the children of others, Eubena, with her husband, helped the local priest to compile material for the Kukatja Dictionary. Despite this profound capacity for creative intercultural engagement, Eubena continued to communicate entirely in her own language. Her life, like her art, was somehow always lived on her terms. When she named a painting – Kunawarrawarra, Tjintalpa, Witji – it was in Kukatja. But sometimes she said simply, in the handful of English words she speaks, ‘Canning Stock Route’ – a verbal evocation of the intersecting personal and colonial narratives, past and present, played out visually in her
other language of paint.

Eubena’s exuberant, elegant visual language was pioneered in collaboration with her second husband, Wimmitji. The two painted together in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and these incandescent works remain a high-water mark in contemporary Australian painting. With Wimmitji’s passing in the mid-1990s, Eubena’s engagement with art intensified and her painting explored new trajectories. At first she merged the dots, then the colours, that defined her early work. Later, the forms of her distinct visual grammar began to fade into feeling. These luminous sunlit abstractions of her late career are deceptively, perhaps paradoxically, beautiful. The places she painted are unwritten histories of colonial encounter on a harsh and often violent frontier. In painting the country of her experience, Eubena painted the sites of these encounters; the places where people, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, sought to negotiate a new existence in the 20th century. These people, these events, this history became places – country – and this country is the memorial geography of Eubena’s art. Moving between these sites – Ikarra, Kunawarritji, Kinyu – on canvas as she did for so many years on foot, Eubena maintained her country through the personal itineraries of her painting. The reverie Eubena captured in the warm and looping forms of her later paintings is not without shadow. The drovers, the missionaries and now the bureaucrats: Eubena was witness to worlds passing. For the last twenty years of her life, that witness manifested in an unparalleled program of sustained artistic conviction.

The legacy of Eubena’s commitment to ceaselessly working through the formal possibilities of her country is a singular body of work in Australian painting yet to be reckoned with on its own terms. Not that she minded.

Eubena’s abiding concern was with her family. She painted her country with one eye on her grandchildren and great grandchildren as they made their way in an Australia unimaginable to her at their age. They, in turn, sat with her as she painted. Her true audience, they watched and learned as country spilled and sang from the rhythms of her wrist, as these desert colours created new meanings, new possibilities for them and their culture. Surrounded by her family, Eubena continued to paint, to tell and retell her story; to show today’s generations, Kartiya included, how such a life is lived.