Yupinya Nampitjin: Shock of the Old - Art Collector

Issue 15, January - March 2001

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Dr Christine Nicholls considers the extraordinary life and work of this gifted Balgo Hills artist, tipped to assume the mantle left by the esteemed Emily Kngwarreye.

Earlier this year, Sydney’s artistic glitterati were gathered at a Millennial New Year’s Eve party at the harbourside home of a famous Australian painter. A couple of people I know were invited. Later they reported that when those present were discussing something that was chic, cool or ‘in’ – whether an artwork, a piece of furniture, music or a kitchen design, they had a curious habit of describing the objects of their praise and desire as “very Emily”.

Perhaps at the next New Year’s Eve party the same Indigenous art aficionados will no longer be describing those cutting-edge items that signal taste and distinction as “very Emily”, but as “very Eubena”. The accolade will be well-deserved for Yupinya Nampitjin, (Eubena is the de-Indigenised version of her name given to her by Catholic missionaries), whose works so brilliantly evoke her ancestral country in such a contemporary way. It’s time for her to assume the mantle. As we go to press Yupinya is unable to keep up with the demand for her work, despite the fact that she spends most of her time working flat-out on her vibrant, messy, gorgeously coloured canvases – passionate odes to joy which commemorate her ancestral ‘country’ in Western Australia’s Great Sandy Desert.


When Yupinya Nampitjin was a child, she and her family lived and travelled on foot through the sandhills of their Kukatja/Wangkajungka homelands, situated on the northernmost fringe of the Great Sandy Desert. Yupinya’s family’s traditional country is located about 400 kilometres southwest of the Catholic Mission of Balgo in Western Australia. She now resides at Balgo on a semi-permanent basis, working as an artist at the local Warlayirti Artists Cooperative.

Reminiscing1 about those early days of her life, Yupinya recalls: “…Our family lived in the sandhills of the Canning Stock Route, south of Balgo, when I was a little girl – there was a lot of tjurnta2 , pura3, and wamuru4 in that place, which we would always eat. I had two sisters, one older and one younger, and three brothers, one of whom was older, and two who were younger than me. I lived with my father Tjangala and my mother Nungarrayi. In those days we walked around with no clothes (laughs) – and we never saw any kartiya (white people). We travelled around a very large area. Between Kunawarritji (the area round Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route) and Jila (Chilla Well, to the east). As far as Waladayilyu.

“I lost my mother when I was very young – this made me very sad. Also, I lost three siblings, two sisters and one of my brothers as well. I sat down on these same wavy sandhills that you can see here in this painting (pointing to sandhills depicted on the painting she has just completed5) when I was a small girl, together with my family, karalarriwa, growing up, becoming strong.”

While Yupinya’s birth in the bush wasn’t recorded by any Western calendar, it has been estimated that she was born sometime in the decade between 1921 and 1931. Already the kartiya interlopers had made inroads into her family’s country, despite its inhospitable nature and relative isolation. In 1906 Albert Canning first surveyed the road which was to become known as the Canning Stock Route, running between Wiluna and Halls Creek in what is now Western Australia. The intention was to forge a pathway for the ‘pioneering’ cattlemen of the Kimberley region of North West Australia to get their cattle to the meat-hungry south, particularly to the new gold rush area around Kalgoorlie. In doing so however, the major water supplies that had belonged to Yupinya’s family and others like them were largely taken over by the cattle and their drovers, marginalising the original owners on their own land and ultimately forcing them into a sedentary existence on missions or government settlements.

While still a very young woman ‘Eubena’ married an old man and, following the birth of her first two daughters, the family travelled up the Canning Stock Route to Billiluna Station before following the Catholic mission created by the German Pallotines as it moved around, until arriving at its present site at Balgo Hills (Wirrimanu). For a while, Eubena lived on the mission, working as a goatherd. Later, together with her first husband (who has since passed away), Yupinya worked with a Catholic priest compiling a Kukatja dictionary. Kukatja is one of several Australian Indigenous languages in which Yupinya is fluent.

Yupinya Nampitjin began painting in the mid-1980s with her second husband Wimmitji, who has also since passed away. Although she continues to collaborate with other artists from time to time, for example, with Lucy Yukenpari whose country adjoins Yupinya’s land, in recent years Yupinya has become better known as a solo artist.


The major Dreaming sequences that Yupinya depicts in her work are episodes from the Tingari (Ancestral Women) cycle and the Wati Kutjarra or Two Men Dreaming. As a senior Law Woman and ceremonial leader, Yupinya’s visual renditions of these sacred stories are knowledgeable and quietly confident. But there is a curiously paradoxical spirit apparent in her work: it is at once bold and calm, ‘sublime’ but grounded. While her work is characterised by what could be described as an explosion of warm, sometimes even hot, colours, mostly yellows, oranges, reds and pinks, Yupinya’s use of imagery is not unrestrained. There is a sense in all of her work of a great and powerful pent-up energy straining to be unleashed, and this gives it a real edge.

The Wati Kutjarra (or ‘Two Men’) Dreaming for which Yupinya Nampitjin is an important custodian, is an immensely significant story for a number of Indigenous Australian groups. In their ancestral journeyings, these two Goanna Men traversed a very large expanse of land including that of the Warlpiri, Pintupi, Kukatja, Wangkajungka, Walmajarri and Ngardi peoples, as well as even further afield, through the Pitjantjatjara lands.

The story arose as a result of the lawlessness of a lustful old man of the Tjungarrayi skin group who lived with many women with whom he had sexual relations, regardless of whether or not they were in the ‘right’ kinship affiliation with him to be suitable marriage partners. Whenever boy children were born to any of his wives, Tjungarrayi would order the babies to be killed. By ordering the deaths of the boys, Tjungarrayi was clearly getting rid of potential sexual competitors. Girl babies he did, however, allow to survive – but, in some versions of this Dreaming narrative, even this has some rather nasty connotations given the man’s sexual proclivities.

Eventually two baby boys were born at around the same time, to two of Tjungarrayi’s many wives. On this occasion the mothers, who were finding that having to kill and bury the tiny bodies of all their baby boys was unbearable, defied their husband, taking the two babies far away from where the group was camped, to a place obscured by a large sandhill, where first they breast-fed their infants and then later clandestinely smuggled food for the children to eat. The two boys thrived, growing to healthy manhood, all the while plotting to take their revenge on the murderous old man, their father.

After some time the two, who by now were young men, put their plan into action. They visited their father’s brother, another Tjungarrayi, who lived some distance away and managed to convince him that their father intended to prey upon and steal that particular brother’s wives. The brother, outraged, crept up on the boys’ father and threw a boomerang at him with great force at close range, almost fatally wounding the man, who did, however, manage to retaliate, eventually killing his brother.

This sequence of events, or this ‘original sin’, if you like, acts as a catalyst for a further whole chain of significant Dreaming events. The narrative also acts as a moral template, in which the importance of observing marriage and other Indigenous kinship laws is stressed. In oral versions, for example that of Peggy Rockman Napaljarri, the depiction of the transgressor’s punishment for breaching the Law figures prominently. Apart from the fact that there is not one baby boy, but two, there are also a number of uncanny parallels in this Dreaming to the story of Moses in the Christian Bible, and vague echoes of the Oedipal drama as well, in which punishment for breaches of the moral law also play an crucial role.

The two sons (or Two Goanna Men, now the Dreaming Ancestors of so many Indigenous peoples) took off, travelling over great tracts of desert country, going in and out of the ground at various places, creating natural phenomena, and drinking from rockholes and soakages and leaving traces of their presence in the landforms. As Lee Cataldi has written, the sons “become the culture heroes of a whole cycle of myths concerning the Two Men…A major sequence of the Two Men centred around a place called Yaka Yaka…which includes typical culture hero activities such as teaching people to use fire and and cook their food”.


Many of Yupinya’s canvases are visual testaments to the journeys of the Two Men, who moved around over a vast terrain, drinking from the rockholes and soakages which were part of the geography of her youth, creating and partaking of bush tucker of various kinds. The Two Men not only travelled above, but also underneath the earth’s surface, creating various landforms and incising, indenting and puncturing topographical features with sacred markings and leaving other signs of their presence during the Tjukurrpa (Dreaming).

Yupinya works with intense concentration and with great creative energy, piling layer upon layer of paint on to her canvases, sometimes resulting in ridges, rivulets and depressions. A painterly and totally engaged artist, her brushwork is absolutely physical, as if she herself is involved in recreating the journeys of her Ancestors, in ‘making’ country. The resulting three-dimensionality and the uneven surfaces of her canvases reflect the classical themes and elevated subject matter of her work. Her technique means that this is a risky business and not all of her canvases ‘work’. But when they do, Yupinya’s use of space and the depiction of spatial relations within her canvases is nothing short of brilliant – intuitive and intellectual at the same time. Through her work, Yupinya is one artist who has changed the way in which the rest of us see ‘country’. It is not represented as semi-arid or barren, but teeming with life and meaning, subterranean and above ground.

When I visited Balgo in August 2000, Yupinya sung part of the Wati Kutjarra song cycle in our presence. For me, this was definitely the high aesthetic point of the trip. Immediately before singing some long sequences detailing the travellings of the Wati Kutjarra over her ancestral country, Yupinya elaborated on the painting that she had just completed, in the following words: “…Towards the centre of the painting is a waterhole, a well – in English, it’s called Well 33, Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route. Kunawarritji… That well is between those sandhills. In the Tjukurrpa (Dreaming) the Wati Kutjarra drank from that well, those Two Ancestral Men from the Tjukurrpa drank from that same well, that special waterhole. Lirraku. With their mouths and lips (they drank). It is an important place. After they drank from it the Two Men began travelling north. I was staying there when I was a little girl.”

In art as in life, Yupinya is creative, pragmatic, resilient and above all, intelligent. Her approach to life is exemplified by her attitude towards the imposed religion – while she is not a regular churchgoer, she is often to be seen with a large Christian cross adorning her throat. Equally, Yupinya Nampitjin is generous and radiates warmth, is self-possessed but profoundly modest, humble and respectful to others, at the same time evincing her sense of self-worth. In the words of Warlayirti’s Erica Izett, “Yupinya is both iron strong and unfailingly generous.”

These personal attributes are remarkable, given that the most pervasive theme of Yupinya Nampitjin’s life has been an often violent loss – the takeover and loss of her land, the near-desecration of her ancestral country as a result of the expansion of the cattle industry, the loss of several of her siblings through accidents while they were in childhood, followed by the deaths of her two husbands, and several of her daughters. However, Yupinya, through the art of her painting, makes virtuoso works based on ‘high’ Kukatja /Wangkajungka subject matter while transcending the limitations of ‘traditional’ Indigenous landscape and avoiding the temptations of nostalgia, thus effecting the transformation of her audience.


Yupinya Nampitjin’s paintings are available from several prominent dealers of Aboriginal art including Beverley Knight’s Alcaston Gallery in Melbourne and Gallery Gondwana in Alice Springs. Yupinya’s primary dealer is the Warlayirti Balgo Art Co-operative, in the remote Balgo Hills near Halls Creek in far North Western Australia. Tim Acker of Warlayirti told Australian Art Collector that demand for Yupinya’s work outstripped supply. “Entry level prices direct from Balgo for a 750cm x 500 cm canvas start at $4,000. The current ceiling for large works (around 1,800 x 1,200 cm) is $13,500 but we fear this may not be for too long.”

Yupinya’s work is represented in many major Australian and overseas collections, including the Holmes à Court Collection, the Western Mining Corporation Collection, ArtBank, the Thomas Vroom Collection in Amsterdam, and also in the United States’ Kelton Foundation Collection, Kluge Ruhe Collection, Levi-Kaplan Collection, as well as in the Gantner-Myer Collection. There are also works by Yupinya in a number of the major Australian galleries, including the National Gallery in Canberra, and the National Gallery of Victoria.

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