Ena Gimme Nungurrayi
Ena Gimme was born ‘in the bush’, near the Cannning stock route, c.1953 the daughter of Eubena Nampitjin and her first husband, Burugnu Tjakudu Tjapaltjarri Gimme. Her early years were spent tracing the travels of Wally Darly, who paid Burungu Gimme in rations in return for help droving cattle. The family moved north from her traditional country of Kalliyangku to Halls Creek, settling briefly then moving on to Billiluna Cattle Station, 200 km further south. In the 1930's German Pallotine monks had established four missions in the Balgo area in an attempt to help the increasing number of Aboriginal people being forced from their lands to make way for cattle. Eubena and her family moved to these missions, finally staying at the mission station at Balgo Hills. Though the frenetic movement of her early years was difficult, integrating in to the new culture at Balgo presented an even greater challenge.
By the time Ena Gimme began painting for Warlayirti Artists in 1989, she was married to David Hall and her art became the medium through which she could re-inhabit her ancestral lands and attempt to straddle the gap between two distinctly different worlds. Her artistic expression more closely followed the developments of the older Warlyirti painters, because of the strong influence of her mother and her difficulty in acclimatizing to this new environment. The importance of the role her mother played is evident in her early paintings. The circular motifs centered upon two waterholes from her mother country, surrounded by a grove of trees. Her preoccupation with the abundance of food and protection the desert provides was depicted in informal and open compositions with ‘variegated patches of vibrant particles' (Ryan 1993: 86). While her own paintings were immediately identifiable from those of others, they were characteristic of the Balgo female painters in that they contrasted to the more linear, grid-like compositions of the Kukatja men. However, Ena Gimme’s primary focus remained her father’s country, Kalliyangku, where she spent her earliest years. In her very brief painting career she forged a unique artistic style. In her best works the texture resembles impasto, with tessellated sections of canvas featuring unpredictable gestural sweeps and a bold use of raw colour.
It is fortunate that Michael Rae, the art coordinator at that time, introduced a wide palette of primary colours just as Ena Gimme was at the peak of her very brief career. She passed away in 1992 at 36 years of age, just three years after she had begun painting. Balgo Hills, as John McDonald wrote at the time, was ‘not a romantic hamlet’. Violence, gambling and ill health were commonplace. While Ena Gimme’s premature death gives a bleak forecast of the immense challenges, emotionally and physically, the younger generation in communities like Balgo face, her own brief artistic explosion gave hope to the brilliant talents of a younger generation of Balgo painters, many of whom have gone on to sustain the precious tradition of their forbearers.
Ena Gimme was an immensely talented artist. In just three years she demonstrated her unique visual language at a time when the Kukatja women had just begun to embrace the vibrant colours that were to become their distinct hallmark. Of all the women painting at that time she stood out as an artist who could have had the art world at her feet had she not passed away so prematurely. So traumatised was her mother Eubena and her husband David Hall by her death, that both stopped painting altogether for several years. Eubena left Balgo Hills, settled at Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route and would not have returned but for James Cowan’s constant encouragement almost three years later. David Hall sunk in to depression; never again able to recreate the wonderful works he had painted by her side during her lifetime.
A number of her finest works were purchased by Kaye Archer for the Sam Barry Collection and it is two of these that are amongst the records for her highest priced works. They were sold as lots 64 and 65 in Sotheby’s July 2004 sale with estimates of $10,000-15,000 and $20,000-30,000 respectively. The first Talinyu 1991, measuring 100 x 50 cm, sold for $13,200 while the second, LIlpuwu 1991, a smaller work measuring just 90 x 76 cm, set her record at $42,800. Both had been purchased from Coo-ee Aboriginal Art in Sydney, which placed her work in the National gallery of Australia and the National Gallery of Victoria collections during her very brief career. Others were sold through Rebecca Hossack in London and Birukmarri Gallery, which operated during the America’s Cup in Fremantle.
Very few works by Ena Gimme are ever likely to come up at auction as so few exist. With at least half in museum collections her rating as a secondary market performer is far lower than the quality of her artistic talent deserves. One work was offered in 2010 through Mossgreen Lot 127. The work, untitled 1990, sold for $4,183 well within the reserve of $4,000 – 6,000. The first to appear on the secondary market after a three year pause was Untitled (Artist's Mother's Country), it collected $20,400 in 2009. The work was among a larger number of works being sold from the Thompson Marecaux Collection of Balgo Paintings. Against a backdrop of the financial downturn and a generally depressed market it more than doubled its estimated value. Evidence that on those odd occasions when fine examples become available in the secondary market, collectors, especially those concentrating on western desert art, should do whatever is required to secure them. They will not be disappointed.