Born in 1947, Elizabeth Nyumi’s early years were spent some three hundred of kilometers south of Balgo near Jupiter Well where she lived a nomadic life until she walked up the Canning Stock Route and into the old Balgo Mission in her late teens. This migration was not atypical nor, realistically, a choice for many indigenous people in the area. Their precious water supply was lost when the wells were fenced off and subsequently polluted by herds of cattle. Though Nyumi began painting in acrylics for the Warlayirti Art Centre in 1988, her earliest paintings on canvas could be seen as a contemporary continuation of a lifetime of sand drawing, the traditional visual component of story-telling that is often accompanied by a chanted narrative. This primary influence was evident in both her use of colour tonality, and, in her earlier work, her use of a stick to apply paint to the canvas. Through the early 1990’s her paintings evolved as she experimented with the newly adopted acrylic medium on canvass. While initially similar in style to works of many of her contemporary female Balgo painters, her work gave way to a more textured surface with the adoption of the brush to apply paint in 1995. Though the underlying structures of the works remained relatively constant, her style became looser and more vibrant with a penchant for luminous colours, the signature mark of the Warlayirti artists.
As with the majority of Balgo artists, Nyumi’s passion for painting has been driven by an innate desire to reconnect to her country through her work. The blank canvas is handled with a kind of urgency as 'she runs her hand over it explaining how she will paint her country: this way, that way, over here- she has no doubts about what she will paint' (Williamson & Togni 2004: 576). The clarity with which Nyumi plans her compositions concerning her country seems at odds with the vast distance separating her from Tapinna/Nyunkun near Jupiter Well, where she was born. This is the paradox that exists for Nyumi, as with many of the Balgo artists in which the separation from their tradition lands only heightens the sense of importance in recreating their country 'like an incantation to keep the image alive and present in her mind' (O’brien 2004: 64). However these paintings, as works of art, transcend the finite preoccupation with nostalgia through the intimate knowledge they convey. If art, 'is the attention we pay to the wholeness of things' (Alexander 2004: 6), then Nyumi’s ability to make us question our own connection to nature, to re-conceptualise the meaning of our own land, reaches art’s pinnacle. The vision in her work is a distant cry from the Western eye, searching for the ever-present, beckoning horizon, 'a point beyond which one is always drawn to discover what is there. Aboriginal people know already, or they don’t need to know' (Mahood 2005: 15). Instead, drawing on influences from sand drawing, ideas of touching, piercing and penetrating the horizontal surface of the ground 'is as dominating a concept as the horizon is in Western conceptions of vertical space' (O’brien 2004: 64).
Beginning around 1999, Nyumi began painting significantly more spacious and minimal works, accompanied by a dramatic restriction in palate, in which yellow and white became dominant. In these and subsequent works, melting textures create an exquisite play with light. A blanket of cream dots rest almost weightlessly over subtly submerged layers. Through this ‘powdered blanket’ emerge various organic and iconographic forms, in an almost haphazard yet aesthetically harmonious arrangement. The kinetic optical effect created through layered alternating colours pays homage to the aesthetic tradition of body painting with alternating bands of contrasting tonal value. The delicacy with which Nyumi handles such subtle contrast is unsurpassed. The brilliance of these later works have been widely acclaimed and recognized, with her work included in the 2004 Biennale of Sydney, and consecutive sell out solo exhibitions in Darwin, Sydney and Melbourne.
Elizabeth Nyumi is the foremost of the second-generation Balgo artists, on whose success the Warlayirti art centre at Balgo Hills depends. More than any other, she carries on and rapturously extends the reputation of the Balgo women artists with her refreshingly distinct and individual depictions of country.