Though the East Kimberley art movement began in the late 1970's, Lena Nyadbi had ‘bin too busy workin‘ on the Old Lissadel Station, where she grew up in the 1930’s, to join Paddy Jaminji and Rover Thomas, as a painter (Kimberley 2000: 62). While she learnt the techniques of grinding ochre and charcoal from these and other contemporaries she did not become an artist until 1998 when she sold her first two works to Kevin Kelly of Red Rock Art in Kununurra. Only months later the works were spotted by Neriba Gallasch, the Director of Tineriba Gallery, who purchased them and began promoting Lena as an artist of merit. Despite initial skepticism, once Lena’s work had been acquired by the Kerry Stokes collection and exhibited in the 2000 Adelaide Biennale ‘people had to accept he fact that the Warmun community had another artist with talent and power’ (Gallasch 2000). That same year Gallasch exhibited the seventy year old’s work alongside that of renowned Balgo matriarch Eubena Nampitjin accompanied by a handsome catalogue. As has so often been the case, with the opening of the ‘official’ art centre at Warmun in 1998, Gallasch’s relationship with the artist became untenable. However the movement had already discovered a new ‘art star’ whose work has shone amongst the growing number of younger developing artists now painting in the community. She has since had two solo exhibitions with Bill Nutall at Niagara Galleries in Melbourne, and these have undoubtedly contributed greatly to her recognition and success. Along with Paddy Bedford, who painted for Jirrawan Arts, Lena Nyadbi was the most exciting of the East Kimberley artists during the first five years of the new millennium. The gritty surfaces of her paintings skillfully combined figurative motifs alongside semi naturalistic outlines of the mountainous landscape. At their busiest, her compositions included unusual dotted in-fill and far fewer glimpses of empty expanse than in the works of other Warmun painters. This penchant was a precursor to the repetitious patterns that came to dominate her later work. While the transition from identifiable landscape features to seeming abstraction was not clearly defined, her work, prestigiously shown in the Biennale of Adelaide exhibition Beyond the Pale in 2000, comprised solely of a panel of white on which linear Jimbala spearhead formations were depicted as long black brushstrokes that filled the canvass, like an aerial perspective of slightly askew dominoes set in lateral lines. Nyadbi’s motifs are derived from the sharp rocky landscape her father’s country at Jimbala. Her repetitive long isolated brushstrokes represent the Kumerra or cicatrices (body scars) made by spearheads during initiation ceremonies. Nyadbi explains ‘we used jimbala to cut em la chest, la arms’ (cited in Kimberley 2000: 62). Her other prominent motif, crescent in shape, represents the scales of the Barramundi fish, an important creator of this country. Together these motifs have gained significant importance in her work, operating as the means to her abstraction, whilst maintaining cultural significance. In simplifying her canvases Nyadbi has undoubtedly been able to refine her use of colour, carefully playing with tonal shifts across a single ochre colour. The contrasts creating both a resonance, and tension, with compelling visual finesse. As testament to her growing brilliance, Nyadbi’s powerful Jimbala motifs now adorn the exterior of the new Musee de Quay Branly in Paris. Nyadbi, who lives in Warmun with her partner Glancy Patrick and sister Goody Barrett was pleased to have he Jimbala imagery used as wall treatments in the new Paris building but was reluctant to visit France to see it. With typical humour she exclaimed ‘Goody has been to Paris and its too cold!‘ (Buckley 2005).
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