top of page

Lena Nyadbi

Lena Nyadbi


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).   

Lena Nyadbi’s works only appeared on the secondary market for the first time in 2004 and from then until 2010 only 17 works had been offered. Due to this lower number of works offered, Lena’s AIAM rank was effected for having less then 20 sales putter her at 178th place. However, there were three works offered in 2010 jumping her to 151st place in the overall ranking and 23rd for 2010 market rank, though dropping slightly to 159th in 2011.  With this artist one must take in to account the significant impact her works have made since they first appeared for sale in the primary market in 1998 and their debut at auction in 2004. Though an upward trajectory in sales can be clearly discerned, with a neat correlation of lower prices to smaller works, it is Nyadbi’s sale rate that is most impressive, with not a single work unsold until 2007. Her perfect record was only blemished when two works failed to sell in that year one of which was a minor work of little value. The other was offered with perhaps an overambitious estimate of $20,000-30,000 at Lawson~Menzies in May, given her record stood at just  $9,000 at the time. The work was created in 1999 and was owned by Neriba Gallasch who perhaps, for understandably sentimental reasons, valued it over-ambitiously. However, the following example should underline the phenomenal growth in interest in her work. When Lawson~Menzies offered Daiwul & Jimbala 2003 in November 2005, it carried a presale estimate of $6,000-8,000 (Lot 37) and sold for $6,000. Measuring 100 x 80 cm, it was a work with comparable black and white optical effects to that of her Adelaide Biennale painting. Just two years later, Jimbala Country 2005 (Lot 121), a slightly smaller work on the same theme was estimated at $18,000-20,000 and sold for $16,800 setting her new record price. While the same work reappeared at auction in 2009 fetching a more humble $13,200, this was an insignificant anomaly, considering other impressive sales such as Jimbala Country 2001 sold for $10,200 at Deutscher and Hackett in the same year. Her earlier style was warmly welcomed as the first major work by the artist to be offered in the secondary arena when it appeared in 2004. Goondarrin (Pitt Range), Lissadell Station, North of Warmun 1999 (Lot 26) achieved $8,400, more than twice its gallery price of $3,200 in Gallasch’s exhibition at Tineriba Gallery in 2000. Joori Joordji 2001, Lena’s record prior to 2007, featured two bold mountain motifs against a simmering black background and sat comfortably between her earlier style and her gradual move to more abstracted imagery. However no ‘major’ works by Nyadbi have yet appeared on the secondary market. This is not because she lacks the capacity to produce masterworks. They do appear sporadically, for instance in the Adelaide Biennale and in her solo exhibition at Niagara Galleries in 2005. However the fact that they are yet to appear at auction has meant that her sales records, as good as they are for an artist that has only appeared since 2004, are misleading and underestimate her ability and indeed her collectability. After her selection to participate in the Musee de Quay Branly project auction houses did everything they could to coax works of quality out of collectors yet had little success. Sotheby’s have yet to offer a major work by the artist.  When a very special work comparable in size and execution to the grand works of the great Kimberley masters does appear at auction, expect it to match their lofty prices.   

Explore our artworks

See some of our featured artworks below

bottom of page