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Inyuwa Nampitjin

Inyuwa Nampitjin

1922 - 1999


Inyuwa Nampitjinpa was born near Punkilpirri, a large permanent water site deep in Pintupi country west of the Kintore ranges. With her family, she arrived in Haasts Bluff in 1956, seeking food and water, and was later moved to the new government settlement at Papunya. Following the death of her first husband, she married Tutuma Tjapangati, one of the senior members of Geoff Bardon’s original painting group, in 1971. It was not until almost a decade after his death that she began painting herself, encouraged in part by the women’s painting project of the new Haasts Bluff and Kintore communities in 1994. By then a senior law woman, Inyuwa took on an instructive role in the representation of women’s ceremonial subject matter, much as the elder men had during the early days of Papunya. After an eye operation to remove cataracts in 1997, she began a prolific burst of painting and although she died only two years later, she had produced a steady stream of culturally important and aesthetically innovative works between 1997 and 1999, which proved to be formative in establishing the ‘meteoric rise’ of the Desert women artists post 2000. Inyuwa’s artistic output focused on the sacred water holes of her traditional country and creation stories relating the travels of groups of women who gathered for ceremony and sustenance at these sites. They included the old woman Kutungka Napanangka, who traveled from Papunga and passed through a number of important sites along the way to the large permanent water site of Muruntji, south-west of the current community of Mount Liebig. Other stories pertain to the travels of large groups of women who gathered the edible berries and seeds growing in the area through which they passed. In the majority of her works, paint is applied in a thick impasto background upon which roundels or U shapes, of graduating density, are embedded. The generous viscosity of the painting surface is said to mimic the manner in which body paint is applied during women’s ceremonies. References to the rock holes, food collected, and tools used are depicted; such as the edible seeds that were roasted and ground into a paste, then cooked in the coals like damper bread and the oblong shaped nulla nullas which each woman carried. In her loose and energetic compositions, Inyuwa abstracts the basic symbolic elements of her cultural iconography, leaving her free to experiment with simple colour and uncomplicated forms in the evocation of a tactile, experiential event. Like others among this group of senior women painters, Inyuwa’s paintings were startlingly different from the increasingly formal, line and circle compositions of her male peers of that time (late 1990’s). The exuberance and freedom expressed in the women’s work defied the public's expectations of desert painting, opening up the possibilities of its artistic horizons in many ways. Inyuwa painted for Papunya Tula Artists for just five years prior to her death, playing a vital role in the emergence of contemporary women's art amongst the Pintupi. From the late 1990’s onward, women became an increasingly significant presence in the art movement, outnumbering male artists in some communities and injecting new energy into the fickle art market. Alongside the excitement generated by the work itself, the advanced age of many of the female painters and often the consequent brevity of their painting careers highlighted the power of the ancient practices and beliefs that form the bedrock of their indefatigable creativity. Inyuwa was a ceremonial and community leader in Kintore, where she was also the gentle and unassuming matriarch of a large extended family. She guided her daughter Walangkura and adopted daughter Pirrmangka Napanangka in their own artistic careers and painted until her death from ill health in June 1999, at which time her first solo show was on the walls of the Gabrielle Pizzi Gallery in Melbourne, a legacy left, as she wished, to inspire and inform future generations.

While Inyuwa Nampitjin reputedly painted for five years, no works are recorded as having been offered for sale through auction other than those created between 1997 and 1999 and all were produced for Papunya Tula. No less than eight of the artists top 20 results have been for works exhibited originally through Gabrielle Pizzi Gallery in Melbourne, where her only solo exhibition was in progress at the time for her death. Surprisingly, the artist’s two highest results and at least four of her top ten were recorded by Lawson~Menzies. This is unusual for a Pintupi artist given Sotheby’s interest in Papunya Tula provenance and the rarity of Inyuwa’s works. Her $43,200 record set in November 2007 justified its $45,000-60,000 presale estimate (Lot 14). The work, Rockhole at Pukunya 1998, achieved well over twice that of her next highest result. Women’s Site at Pukunya 1998 was exactly the same size and an equally pleasing work yet saddled with a far more conservative estimate of $15,000-20,000. It had sold for just $16,800 when offered three years earlier in Lawson~Menzies November 2004 sale (Lot 81). Perhaps the specialists had been influenced by the fact that the very same painting, under the title Pukunya 1998, had been offered at auction with sister company Deutscher~Menzies in June 2000 (Lot 35) and had sold for just $7,637 when carrying an estimate of just $7,000-8,500. Presale estimates can be vitally important in achieving a successful sale and heightened expectations often result in failure. When the small 91 x 61 cm work Pukunya 1999 first appeared for sale at Sotheby’s in June 2002 it was valued at $5,000-8,000 and failed to attract a buyer (Lot 195). More realistically estimated at $2,500-3,500 three years later in Sotheby’s November 2005 sale the painting went for $3,120 (Lot 181). The earliest work by the artist to appear at auction has shared a similar fate, albeit in reverse. The collector who purchased the 91.5 x 61 cm Pukunya 1997 for just $1,762 at Deutscher~Menzies in June 2000 (Lot 139) must have felt they had got a real bargain, especially as they watched the artist’s prices rising over the following seven years. The work was consigned to Sotheby’s for sale in October 2008 with a new title, Women's Dreaming at Punkilpirri, and the estimate increased from $1,500-1,800 to $6,000-8,000. This unremarkable work failed to attract a buyer. The most recent addition to her top ten highest results was in 2017, when Water Site at Punkilpirri sold for $13,420 through Deutscher & Hackett. Sotheby’ s have sold eight works for a total of $43,920 while all four of those offered by Lawson~Menzies are recorded in her top 10 results with a combined value of $77,400. Only Christie's, Deutsher~Menzies and Joel Fine art are included amongst the other houses that have offered her works for sale. It is unlikely that Inyuwa Nampitjinpa produced any more than 100 works during the short period she painted. This explains the complete absence of works for auction in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Yet her influence on those women who followed in her footsteps was profound. Her paintings are both rare and undervalued. More than any others, Inyuwa’s paintings, along with those of her daughter Pirrmangka, can be seen as a lively precursor to the paintings of the desert artists further to the west that would emerge shortly after their deaths. Their paintings have a raw painterly quality that is hard to overlook and entirely satisfying to live with.  

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