Born at Yalantijirri near Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route, Eubena Nampitjin moved to the Catholic mission that had been established 5 years earlier near the northern reaches of Lake Gregory in 1948. In 1962 the mission moved to Wirrimanu (Balgo Hills) where there was a more permanent water supply and thereafter became a melting pot of tribal peoples drawn from the cusp of the Tanami and Great Sandy Deserts. The Wangkajunga, Walmajarri, Kukata, Walpiri, Ngarti and Djaru people congregated there as life became more and more difficult on their traditional land.
While the people of Balgo Hills heard of the emergence of the Papunya art movement from Pintupi when they visited the mission to take part in ceremony in 1971, their own art movement did not begin until the mid 1980’s. The confluence of up to 10 different Aboriginal traditions in this one community resulted in a degree of flexibility in the practice of law, art and ritual. Since many of the older generation left the desert as mature adults, the majority of their paintings relate strongly to their land and are expressed from a personal or experiential perspective. Eubena did not begin painting until the second art coordinator, Michael Rae, extended the opportunity to paint beyond the Adult Education Centre to the camps that had established themselves around the fringes of the mission. Canvases were delivered and collected on a weekly rotation and it was common for husbands and wives to complete canvases together. This was certainly the case with Eubena Nampitjin, who developed her aesthetic alongside her second husband, Wimmitji Tjapangarti. They began collaborating in 1988 and their art flourished under Rae’s guidance. Though Wimmitji and Eubena initially worked in earthy brown and red toning with areas of white dotting and lines, by 1989 they began experimenting with soft floral patterns transforming the complex dotting and compositions that characterise their work into delicately beautiful and opulent paintings. Their early works portrayed Dreaming sites, country, and ancestral travels in the most intimate cartographic detail and are, to this day, the very finest paintings that have ever emanated from the community. Whether these paintings were attributed to Wimmitji or Eubena was always simply a matter of chance. Canvases were delivered and names were transcribed on to the back prior to handing them to the artists. They were never attributed to both husband and wife. As the art centre flourished and demand for their paintings grew, Wimmitji began painting less and Eubena increasingly painted on her own. After the death of her daughter Ema Gimme Nungerayai in 1993, Eubena returned to Well 33 and did not paint again until encouraged to return to Balgo Hills two years later. From that time on she painted alone with larger, freer dots and a more gestural style executed with a palate of red, yellow and pink. In time these late career works became more akin to finger painting with fluid brushstrokes and only the occasional intimate section actually dotted with a stick.
While Balgo’s physical isolation has conferred the space to evolve a distinct and unique artistic style, Eubena’s own separation from her homeland has manifested as an art of absence, an act of homage, which has crystallised the poignancy of her country in her works. The sense of raw energy and spontaneity in her work with her trademark use of vibrant colour, bold patterning, and rough and ready handling creates an 'extraordinary sense of presence,' that overrides any connotations of the work as an object of anthropological significance and invites the viewer 'to appreciate pictures for their immediate visual impact as works of contemporary art' (McDonald 1995).
Eubena’s art transported her 'way into her country, re-inhabiting it brush mark by brush mark, like walking or breathing' (Mahood 2005: 18). She perpetually renewed this sense of country, tirelessly sitting in her customary position on the floor of the art centre, painting for hours on end. She stated 'I like painting from my heart … I like to do paintings, big ones, to keep my spirit strong. Really good. I don’t get tired doing big ones, sometimes I do them in one day. My spirit keeps me strong' (cited in Alexander 2004: V1).
As time has progressed since its incorporation in 1987, the Warlayirti art centre has become increasingly dependent upon a dwindling band of older artists able to mentor younger artists and command high prices. For a period at the end of her life, Eubena was Balgo’s 'grand matriarch and number one painter' (Mahood 2005: 16), whose paintings were always in great demand both in Australia and internationally. For some time it seemed that the older she became, the more she painted. However, she passed away in 2013 having left a significant artistic legacy. The large volume of gestural often fairly repetitive work she produced over the last five years of her life, and the premium prices being charged for her work on the primary market, made the secondary market a better option for those seeking distinctive works at good value. Following her death, works could only be procured from the secondary market and, as a result, Eubena Nampitjin was the 17th most successful artist in 2015 with 10 of the 11 works offered finding willing buyers and her best works that year achieving her 12th and 15th highest results ever at auction.
Her best early works were painted with her husband, Wimmitji, and were largely attributed to him. This is evident from the two earliest paintings that have come on the secondary market. One in particular, painted in 1987 and offered at Deutscher~Menzies in June 2000, bore no similarity at all to the rest of her oeuvre. As her work differentiated from that of Wimmitji and she gained greater experience, her style gradually developed. We are now able to distinguish three distinctly different stylistic periods in her work.
Her early paintings, most likely under the influence of Wimmitji, are quite detailed in design and the dots, mainly in yellow and some white, remain distinguishable. Very few of Eubena’s paintings from this early period, around 1990, have come on the market. Since she painted far less at this stage, and many of her own paintings could have been attributed to her husband, the demand for these works outstrips supply and their prices should keep rising, especially for the more highly desirable images. Eubena’s second highest price was for a small work from this period measuring just 100 x 75 cm. Wantaru/yintarnyu 1990 sold for $52,200 against an estimate of $15,000-20,000 in Sotheby July 2004 sale.
While the images which characterise Eubena’s middle period still tend to be full of detail there is an increasing use of red and more thickly and closely painted dots as well as the introduction and occasional use of black and green. Her record result to this day is a work created during this period, Ikara 1992 sold for $82,750 against a presale estimate of $40,000-60,000, again Sotheby in July 2004.
Eventually, in her later, and final period, the dots in her works have become so gestural and painterly in their application that they are more or less indistinguishable, and the colours used have been confined to mostly red, yellow, pink and white. Eubena has also combined blue with white in a number of works produced between 2007 and 2009. These paintings, especially when large, exhibit a haptic rhythm that excites the beholder such that, even though there is quite a large supply from this period, the better images still fetch very reasonable prices both on the primary and secondary market. Eubena’s fifth to eighth highest prices at auction, were for large works from this final period. Interestingly Untitled 1999, currently her ninth highest price, held the artist’s record until eclipsed in 2004 by the work that still stands as her highest sale at auction.
In general, the more static the image and the smaller the work, the less value has been attached to it. While leaving out the two highest priced early works which tend to skew the results, prices tend to be principally size related.
Eubena's fortunes at auction have been mixed since the beginning of 2004. Prior to this her career success rate was 70%. While her 2004 results saw this drop to 65%, with only nine of the 16 works on offer selling, it was by far her most successful year in terms of turnover generating $214,359 in sales. 2010 was her most disappointing year in terms of sales clearance, with only four of 23 works finding a new home. With many of the failures carrying estimates above $25,000 and as high as $80,000, these results are clearly indicative of an overheated market for the works of an artist who was still actively painting at the time. Nevertheless quality works can still command high prices. A good example was Millagudoo in the Great Sandy Desert 1995 which established the artist’s third highest record when sold at Sotheby’s in July 2009 for $45,600 (Lot 49). In 2011 and Near Jupiter Well in the Great Sandy Desert 1995 which sold at Sotheby's in New York in 2019 for $AUD50,712, her fourth best result.
As with the work of other first generation Balgo painters, Eubena’s early works are undervalued given their historical importance and aesthetic quality. This is unlikely to last, now that she has passed away and works in the primary market have dried up. Just as 1970s Papunya works were replete with ceremonial knowledge and intimate detail, so too were 1980s Balgo Hills paintings. Over time, as the market becomes more knowledgeable, Eubena Nampitjin will be recognised as the ‘great matriarch’ of an artistic legacy that spread during her lifetime, from the Great Sandy Desert and the Canning Stock Route throughout the southern reaches of the Kimberley.