Wirrimanu: Art from Balgo

It’s a small, single-room exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) pulsing with colour. But ‘Wirrimanu’ deserves more. Not just because I was bitten by a dog at Balgo and was treated by local maparn and art star, Eubena Namptijin with the most comforting of care – her sucking my wound – but because this community’s early adoption of brilliant hues for its art helped to save the whole Aboriginal art ‘business’ in the 1980s. For few people were buying the pioneering Papunya’s more restrained tones.

By 1986, the Balgo aesthetic was being taken seriously and being promoted as ‘avant-garde, eclectic and explosive’ by curator Michael O’Ferrell in his ground-breaking ‘Art from the Great Sandy Desert’ show at the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA).

Now there’s a fact that you won’t learn in the Sydney room – Wirrimanu/Balgo’s art comes from the desert. It’s often referred to as a Kimberley community – included in this year’s ‘Desert, River, Sea’ exhibition of pan-Kimberley art, AGWA. But the tribal mix of Kukatja (who’s Country Balgo sits on), Walmajarri, Ngardi, Pintupi, Wangkajunka and Warlpiri people are all desert nomads, cut off from progressing into the Kimberley by a Pallottine mission as they escaped drought and encroaching pastoralism after the War.

In fact, Balgo sits on the borders of the Great Sandy and Tanami Deserts, as it strides the Luurnpa white kingfisher songline and overlooks a key Wati Kutjarra (two Tingari Brothers) Dreaming site.

Counter-intuitively, Wirrimanu’s colours come from the deserts. In the 90s, the late writer, James Cowan was coordinator at Balgo’s community art centre, observing, ‘Colour becomes an addition to desert nomads’ perceptual field in order to make up for the lack of it in their physical environment. (For them) the desert is a metaphysical reality which conditions their mythology, their belief and their way of life.’

Perhaps no-one more so than my healer, Eubena – who died at the age of about 91 in 2013. Her later canvases in the boldest of reds, pinks, oranges and white were a signature of Balgo for more than decade and AGNSW has a fine example from 2007, ‘Kinyu’. We learn of the spirit dog of that name and the soak hole called Midjul – but not of the two years Eubena spent there, down on the Canning Stock Route, to recover from the death of her daughter Ena Gimme. While there, she frequently covered Midjul with leaves so Kinyu wouldn’t come out and left out goanna meat to pacify the dog. Her return to Balgo was accompanied by this radical new style of painting, which can be contrasted to her 1991 version with the same title.

Earlier, she and her second husband, Wimmitji Tjapangarti painted together, and his 1978 work in the Sydney show is both proof of the early spread of painting to Balgo from Papunya’s beginnings in 1971/72 and is typical of the detailed, jewel-like dotting in muted tones to match the complexity of the stories encapsulated, which both artists essayed in those early days.

Eubena Nampitjin, Kinyu, 2007, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 125 x 295cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales. Purchased with funds provided by the Patricia Bernard Bequest Fund and the Don Mitchell Bequest Fund 2007 © Estate of Eubena Nampitjin. Photograph: AGNSW, Diana Panuccio

It has to be born in mind that this is a collection show – not a serious analysis like RMIT’s ‘Warlayirti: The Art of Balgo’ in 2014. So, sadly, no Sunfly Tjampitjin, who progressed from Papunya-esque reflections on the Christianity that had halted their nomadic way of life and encouraged painting, to beautifully simplified works like his 1991 Pinki Dreaming, which James Cowan hailed as achieving ‘a primeval graphic quality which seems to reach back into the origins of humanity.’ Small wonder it was snapped up by the American Sam Barry’s substantial Balgo Collection.

But fine works by Boxer Milner, master of the ‘milkwater’ Country associated with Sturt Creek north of Balgo, and Tjumpo Tjapanangka, with his Pintupi-influenced work, Wati Kutjarra (2002) make up for such absences. The caption explaining the ‘Two Brothers’ story is also excellent – something of a rarity in Aboriginal art shows these days. Unexplained, on the other hand is the kinship between Helicopter Tjungarrayi and Lucy Yukenbarri – husband and wife team, painting individually but inspiring each other, have always been a feature in Balgo.

Prints can be a problem for Aboriginal artists, who often see them as inferior offerings when they’ve worked up to large and complex canvases. And great sensitivity is needed from the printers – uncredited in this AGNSW show, where perhaps half of the works are the more affordable prints. Some late-life Eubenas, for instance are, frankly, ordinary; but a useful source of income for her inheritors. And a group of Nora Wompi prints are unrecognisable as the work of the dusty, hazy mistress of Kunawarritji, Well 33 on the Canning, the birthplace of so many Kimberley painters. By comparison, Kathleen Padoon’s trio of prints succeeds as a dashing red suite of images, memories from childhood of Country reflected in her vibrant old age.

Jeremy Eccles is a specialist arts commentator who has been writing, broadcasting and filmmaking in Australia since 1983, with a special interest in Indigenous culture.

Art Gallery of New South Wales
Until 17 November 2019
Sydney