Eubena’s Signature

I want to return to Henry’s remarks, quoted in the previous post, about the difference between how artists paint with the encouragement of art advisors–seeking new forms and expression–versus how backyarders encourage the production of “autograph paintings” that repeat a recognizable and hence salable iconography, one that the artist can churn out quickly and perhaps thoughtlessly. Clifford Possum’s Men’s Love Story is the composition that stands out in my mind in this genre. Having seen the early versions of it reproduced in several monographs, I was shocked the first time I suddenly recognized the hair-string spindle and footprints peeking out from under a stack of bargain canvases strewn across large table in a gallery that was more than adequately stocked with generic dot-and-snake paintings and kangaroo pelts. It was the first of many encounters with this image in similar circumstances.

Of course, many artists have signature styles or images, and some are prolific producers of them. Napanangka Yukenbarri’s black waterholes in the central, anchoring positions of her canvases are certainly a signature motif, but one that never seems to exhaust itself. Where does the difference lie? The more I thought about these issues, the more the example of Eubena Nampitjin came to mind.

For the past five years or so, Eubena has been one of the most celebrated painters of the Western Desert. Her work has been in constant demand, her one-woman shows are sellouts, and the price of her works has easily doubled in that time. She also has taken to producing significantly larger canvases, which has pushed the top prices for her work into the range of A$30,000. At the same time, she has produced a large body of work, including many small paintings in the 40×30 cm or 80×30 cm formats, that remain “affordable” purchases for collectors of modest means. I suspect that these smaller works can be produced quickly and sell quickly, and certainly they are easier for a small, elderly artist to paint. 

So again I ask, where does the difference lie?

One obvious answer comes straight from Henry’s first observations: the quality of the materials is consistently high. Equally obvious is the fact that the Art Centre at Balgo provides a comfortable and sustaining environment in which to paint. At Balgo, Eubena is well looked after; she does not paint in a shed without air-conditioning.

What I’m about to say next may sound dumb, but it’s a point that I’ve never seen explicitly stated in any of the news stories about backyarding: this problem is one that mostly afflicts artists from communities in the orbit of Alice Springs. Sure, you read from time to time about artists from the Kimberley being flown to Melbourne to paint in granny flats. And that Darwin is a center of problems for the far north, with people from Arnhem Land communities or from down the track migrating there and getting caught up in the violent, alcoholic fringe communities. But you rarely if ever hear an outcry about backyarding in Darwin (or am I missing something?) perhaps because the cheap canvas and acrylic of the carpetbaggers’ trade in Alice in unsuitable for the production of art from the northern communities.

So it seems that artists from communities like Balgo are protected by their very isolation, by a native-born tyranny of distance, from the corruption of the carpetbaggers.

I raise this point because I think that it helps explain a facet of art production at Balgo that shares at least some characteristics of “signature paintings.” To some extent, Eubena and other Balgo artists whose work is in high demand can indeed produce small, affordable paintings in some quantity, and thus satisfy a segment of the marketplace that might be filled by backyard works among artists centered on Alice Springs. And I don’t doubt that there is a conscious marketing strategy on the part of the Art Centre in doing this, or at least that has been to some degree part of the marketing plan for Warlayirti Artists in the past few years. 

During his tenure as the arts advisor at Balgo, Stephen Williamson was unceasingly concerned with marketing and with good reason. Many of the great painters of the first generation of Balgo artists have passed away since the start of the new century; others, like David Hall Jangala, have stopped painting, and others have had spells of ill-health or, like Elizabeth Nyumi, had their careers interrupted by the death of a spouse. In 2003 Eubena’s work accounted for approximately 60 per cent of the income of the community. It’s no wonder that Stephen spent so much time working the financials, encouraging younger artists, and developing innovative programs to help the artists understand the flow of money through the Art Centre.

While painters like Eubena have been able to keep up sales in part through the production of small signature pieces, they have also prospered from the guidance of the advisors. It’s always difficult to say where genius leaves off and intelligent and constructive criticism enters, but it isn’t difficult to see a continuing experimentation–call it growth if you like–in Eubena’s work. Fifteen years ago she had a style that was recognizably her own, or at least one she shared closely with her husband, Wimmitji Tjapangarti. In those paintings from the early 90s, the characteristic palette is dominated by yellow, orange, and red, the brushwork tends to the traditional fine dotting, and the compositions preserve the circle-and-line motifs. (For examples, see plates 33 and 34 in James Cowan’s Wirrimanu: Aboriginal art from the Balgo Hills (Gordon and Breach, 1994), or even moreso,Warntatarri, near Canning Stock Route, from 1990, reproduced in Art of the Place: Aboriginal paintings from Balgo Hills, a book of postcards, pubilshed in 1998 by Pomegranate Press.)

Starting in the mid-90s, the compositional structure of Eubena’s paintings began to change. A central waterhole (sometimes more than one) became the organizing element of the canvas. The rest of the space was filled out with larger, longer shapes suggesting sandhills and claypans. (Have a look at Millagudoo, Great Sandy desert, WA, 1995, plate 4 in Cowan’s Balgo: new directions, published in 1999 by Craftsman House, for a good example.) The dotting took on the looser, more heavily impastoed feel that in itself became a signature of Balgo painting at the time. By the late 90s, she was painting works in which, from a distance, the dots almost completely disappeared, overlapping one another to create large fields of color, heavy with surface incident. A few years later, her style loosened up again; individual dots re-emerged, relatively large now and often combining two contrasting colors, delineating the large, sweeping compositional elements. Examples can be seen in the catalog from the Balgo 4-04 show (Warlayirti Aboriginal Artists Corporation, 2004). In the past couple of years, Eubena has experimented with different palettes, adding more red, subtracting orange sometimes, and has also produced large paintings clearly aimed at the high end of the market, the “museum quality” works exhibited at Alcaston Gallery in 2004 and 2005. Notably, each of these shows also contained a strong selection of the small 40 x 30 cm works as well as a few mid-sized paintings in the 90 x 60 range.

Through all these changes Eubena has expanded her painting vocabulary, experimented, and created works that have led demand strongly. She has also managed to produce a body of work that provides significant financial support to members of her community. The encouragement of the Art Centre at Balgo has helped make this possible. Being protected from carpetbaggers hasn’t hurt. She has shown that extraordinary talent and community support can combine to great benefit. One wishes the same were true of many of the artists who’ve found themselves in dire straits in Alice Springs like Clifford Possum.

Henry’s point about the importance of the art centres in nurturing the creativity of the artists and in helping to build “a lifetime’s worth of paintings” is dead on. A smartly managed art centre can also create wealth for its community, and I think Balgo has been smartly managed for at least a decade now. But Balgo has the advantage of remoteness to help protect it–it’s hard both to get in and get out. And it certainly has its problems, chief among the poverty that income from the art can only partially ameliorate. Communities in the orbit of Alice Springs can have all their efforts to nurture artists and support their communities undone by the unscrupulous mob that preys on the Central Desert. For the good of the art, as well as the artists, I hope that a solution can be found.

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