A sisters story ken family collaborative biennial installation AGSA tarnanthi saul steed

Collectable indigenous art | welcome to country | Australian canvas

Brainy and cheeky. Witty and inventive. Always smoking hot.

Indigenous Australian artists have forged one of the most globally significant art movements. So, asks Susan Skelly, where does a collector start?

At Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art this past spring, the work of Kuninjku artist John Mawurndjul had viewers criss-crossing its galleries as each new wall spied diverted attention from the last.

The artist from western Arnhem Land is a master of the art of rarrk, or cross-hatching, its lines created using finely split sedge as a brush, dipped in charcoal and ochres and pulled across cured bark canvases to create a unique graphic energy.

Mardayin ceremony john murwundjul rarrk bark painting western arnhem land AGSA

Mardayin Ceremony by John Mawurndjul, 1999, 153 x 88 cm, sold at Bonhams in 2013 for A$109,800

The exhibition, John Mawurndjul: I am the old and the new, now decamped to the Art Gallery of South Australia, is a compelling 40-year retrospective depicting rainbow serpents, lightning spirits, shooting star spirits, and interpretations of the Mardayin ceremony. Painted ceremonial lorrkkon (hollow log ossuaries), appear to be lit from within.

Sydney Morning Herald art reviewer John McDonald is on record as calling Mawurndjul not simply Australia’s premier bark painter, but “one of our greatest artists of all time…”

Art broker D’Lan Davidson, a former head of Aboriginal Art at Sotheby’s Australia, includes Mawurndjul on a list of the 10 artists he sees as currently affording collectors the opportunity for growth along with Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Daniel Walbidi, Paddy Bedford, Gordon Bennett, Wimmitji Tjapangati, Rover Thomas, Lin Onus, Kitty Kantilla and those pioneers of the 1971-72 Papunya boards.

Daniel Walbidi Kirriwirri indigenous art collectable australian art

Kirriwirri by Daniel Walbidi, 2013sold at Deutscher and Hackett in 2016 for A$79,300

While the Indigenous art market tends to wax and wane, artists such as Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Lin Onus and Rover Thomas continue to push records when the best examples of their work come onto the market (see below).

Other evergreen “collectables” include Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, Albert Namatjira, William Barak, Gordon Bennett, Brook Andrew, photographer Tracey Moffatt, Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Sally Gabori, Ginger Riley Munduwalawala, Kathleen Petyarre, Gloria Petyarre, Minnie Pwerle and Rosella Namok.


Papunya board mick namarari tjapatjari sandhill dreaming 1972 dlan davidson,

One of the highly-prized Papunya boards, Sandhill Dreaming, by Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, 1972, sold by Melbourne art broker D’Lan Davidson in 2018 for A$140,000

But experts like Nici Cumpston, curator of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander art at the Art Gallery of South Australia (where the stunning 2017 Ken Family Collaborative three-panelled work, Kangkura-KangkuraKu Tjukurpa (A Sister’s Story), is installed), and the artistic director of TARNANTHI: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art, see a shifting away from the way we identify Indigenous art.

Cumpston points to the 21st century push to position it as, simply, Australian art, “rather than put it in a box.”

Indigenous artists, Cumpston says, should be on an international playing field, “where each artist is unique, whether delivering an ancestral creation story or a multi-media artwork … Instead of stereotypes, just a celebration of personal style.”

Cumpston is enthusiastic about the many enterprising artists conveying social, environmental and cultural messages through their work.

Artists such as Reko Rennie whose video art features a 1973 gold Rolls-Royce painted in his signature camouflage, “driving” patterns in the soil of his Kamilaroi Country to a soundtrack by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, a reference to the relationship between privilege and the dislocation of culture and identity.

Paddles erub arts collaborative premiers prize cairns indigenous art fair kerry trapnell

The award-winning Paddles, by the remote Erub Arts Collaborative

Artists from the Erub Arts Collaborative, on remote Erub (Darnley) Island, in the Torres Strait, 160km north-east of Cape York Peninsula, took out the Premier’s Award for Excellence at the 2018 Cairns Indigenous Art Fair with Paddles, made from ghost nets (abandoned fishing nets), rope and twine woven over a wire frame.

Tony Albert, whose first major solo exhibition, Visible, was held in 2018 at the Queensland Art Gallery, is regarded as a particularly exciting young Indigenous Australian artist, working in object-based assemblages, painting, photography, video and installation.

Collectors might do well to keep an eye out for work from Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in the Yirrkala community in north-east Arnhem Land, whose printmaking studio was established in 1996.

New collectors can do their homework at state galleries, which have impressive collections.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art collection at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra (NGA) includes works by the most significant Indigenous artists, from rare, historical drawings to the dynamic Desert Painting movement and contemporary urban Aboriginal art.

The Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia houses a peerless archive. Travellers to the US can, until July 2019, catch Beyond Dreamings: The Rise of Indigenous Australian Art in the United States.

John Mawurndjul, in the meantime, offers his own self-assessment: “The old ways of doing things have changed into new ways. The new generation does things differently. But me, I have two ways, I am the old and the new.”

Rover Thomas indigenous art collectable all that big rain all that big rain coming from the top side 1991

Rover Thomas’s All That Big Rain Coming From The Top-Side, 1991

Collectable cachet

These are the 10 highest prices achieved at auction in Australia and New Zealand since the early 1980s (including buyer’s premium):

  1. Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Warlugulong, 1977, $2.4m
  2. Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Earth’s Creation 1, 1994, $2.1m
  3. Lin Onus, Fish Ferns and Rocks, 1995, $793,000
  4. Rover Thomas, All That Big Rain Coming From the Top Side, 1991, $778,750
  5. Michael Nelson Tjakamarra, Five Stories, $687,875
  6. Lin Onus, Fish at Dusk, 1996, $671,000
  7. Rover Thomas, Bugaltji-Lissadell Country, 1986, $660,000
  8. Tommy Lowry Tjapaltjarri, Two Men Dreaming at Kuluntjarranya, 1984, $576,000
  9. Lin Onus, Riddle of the Koi, 1994, $561,200

Source: Australian Art Sales Digest

John Mawurndjul: I am the old and the new is at the Art Gallery of South Australia until January 28, 2019.

Featured Image: Kangkura-KangkuraKu Tjukurpa (A Sister’s Story), 2017, by the Ken Family Collaborative: Freda Brady, Sandra Ken, Tjungkara Ken, Paniny Mick, Maringka Tunkin, Yaritji Young, Pitjantjatjara people, South Australia. Synthetic polymer paint on linen, 3 panels each 300 x 200 cm; acquisition through TARNANTHI: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art, supported by BHP 2018, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. Photo: Saul Steed

This story first appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Signature Luxury Travel & Style



Editor. Writer. Traveller. Keeping tabs on all things fab. susan@excessallareas.com.au

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