Alex, Mijelmarngu, Mintjilmanganu
Alec Mingelmanganu lived at the former Benedictine Mission at Kalumbaru and became one of a select group that began painting there in the mid-1970s. Anthropologist Kim Ackerman first noticed his work during a visit to Kalumburu in 1974/75, when he discovered a discarded Wandjina painting formerly used during ceremony. It was later shown during the 1975 Derby Boab Week Art Show under the title ‘Australian Gothic’ (Sotheby’s catalogue entry November 1997). During the late 1970s, Mary Macha, who ran the Government-backed Aboriginal Traditional Arts outlet in Perth, developed a friendship with Ackerman, whom she from time to time would seek advice from. The first Wandjina paintings on bark had been produced for anthropologists as early as the 1930s. In 1979 Mary Macha received funding from the Education Department to conduct workshops aimed at investigating whether traditional ochres could be used on canvas, as an alternative to bark. The resulting works were the first to be produced in the region on canvas. Inadvertently, Mingelmanganu’s participation drew immediate attention to his genius, for his 'first canvas was outstanding' (Macha cited in Ryan 1993: 17). A solo show was held in September of the following year at the government marketing company’s Aboriginal Traditional Arts in Perth. The celebrated canvases produced for this exhibition are considered amongst the finest depictions of Wandjina that have ever been produced for sale. The majority of these works are now in major state galleries, including two in the National Gallery of Australia, one in the National Gallery of Victoria and one in The Berndt Museum of Anthropology, Perth. Mingelmanganu’s images of Wandjina with pointed shoulders mimicked the depictions of Wandjina that he had seen on a trip to Lawley River with anthropologist Ian Crawford the year before. In fact, it was Mingelmanganu’s desire to replicate the life-size of Wandjina cave paintings that influenced him to ask to work on canvases of a similar size to artists Robert Juniper and Vaclav Macha's, which he had seen in Perth at the time of his solo show there. This prompted four masterpieces in the last years of Mingelmanganu life, three of which hung, for many years, in the foyer of Lord McAlpine’s Australia Bank building in Perth. Mingelmanganu’s motivation to perpetuate the power of the Wandjina through his art was not dissimilar to the way in which regular restorations of rock paintings were motivated by a desire to continue cultural practices and religious beliefs. Restoring rock paintings of Wandjina is an integral responsibility for many Kimberley tribes, including the Woonambal, to whom Alec Mingelmanganu belonged. The Wandjina, spirits who preside over the rains and the unborn spirits of children, were found predominantly on the walls of caves, where they are said to have transformed into paintings upon their death. Thus the Aboriginal custodians believed that they did not create the Wandjina paintings, but inherited them from the spirits who first made them. Not all Wandjina look alike. Each clan was responsible for only a single Wandjina and it was said that there were 'so many of them that almost the whole Kimberley is crisscrossed by their paths' (Crawford 1968: 31). Mingelmanganu’s Wandjina are highly distinctive and unique in proportion, composition and tonal quality. In a number of his largest works, the full-length figure of a Wandjina is decorated in lines of dots similar to body painting designs, intended to give a visual brightness which expresses the spiritual essence of the ancestral beings. Alec Minglemanganu is considered the greatest of all artists to have rendered this ancient spirit-being in modern media. His paintings have become the most loved and highly collectable of all of these iconic creator spirit depictions.
Alec Mingelmanganu’s earliest works were made for ceremonies and usually discarded after use. As such it is highly unlikely that the ochres on these early works, if even available for sale, would be stable enough to make these highly desirable as collectable works of art. However, he did produce small works for sale on canvas, boards, engraved wood and on bark that were sold through Aboriginal Traditional Arts in the late 1970s. These works are either in public galleries, or the owners do not wish to part with them as very few have come onto the market.
Only 30 of his works have come up for sale. Nine of these works did not sell, each for different reasons. One bore an estimate of $250,000-350,000 in Sotheby’s July 2005 sale. This was the largest estimate ever placed on one of his works by more than $100,000. Another, offered at Sotheby’s in July 2001 lacked the charm of other comparable works. Another was a very different story indeed. First offered through Lawson~Menzies in their November 2006 sale (Lot 9), this unusual bark painting had been discovered in the Perth home of a doctor who had worked for several decades amongst the Aboriginal people of the Kimberley. Having been authenticated as a work by Minglemanganu it sold for $38,400. No doubt sensing an opportunity to pull the rug from under their competitor’s feet, Sotheby’s offered the buyer the opportunity to re-offer the work just eight months later with an estimate of $80,000-120,000 (Lot 31). It proved too much to resist and the bark sold for $102,000, a hefty 265% increase in value less commission. One can only guess the circumstances that induced the new owner to offer the work through Sotheby’s once more in October 2008 (Lot 51) carrying an estimate of $90,000-120,000. In any event, by then the market peak had collapsed and it failed to sell. Similarly, the artist's record-setting work Wandjina c1980 which sold in 2002 was reoffered in 2010 with estimates commensurate with its previous sale price of $244,500. The work failed to attract a buyer, despite another Wandjina work selling in the same year for the not insignificant sum of $84,000.
Mingelmanganu began painting on canvas in 1979, producing works for his solo show in Perth in 1980, and tragically died the following year. The majority of these exhibition works are in state galleries, leaving few in the public domain. His Wandjinas are usually striking with iconic power and, being rare, generally provoke spirited bidding on those few occasions when they come up for sale at auction. His highest price is $244,500, which was paid for a 118 x 90 cm, 1980 canvas. This was double the high estimate in Sotheby’s June 2002 sale. The sale remains the record price paid for a Wandjina painting on the secondary market and sets Mingelmanganu as the most desirable artist working in this style. The following year, Sotheby’s sold a slightly smaller canvas from the same period, within its estimate achieving the second-highest price of $175,500 for one of his works at that time. This price was, however, transcended when Sotheby's sold a Wandjina on bark from the collection of Dutch supermarket owner Thomas Vroom in London in 2015. Measuring 123 x 48 cm, and estimated at GBP20,000-30,000, the work achieved GBP93,750 or $187,069.
Though other artists such as Charlie Numbulmoore fetch increasingly high prices, Mingelmanganu is unique in that, other than the Vroom bark, his most prized pieces were created on canvas. The scale that this medium allows adds certain potency to his images, recreating the vibrancy Wandjina images hold when painted in their original environment; grand scale paintings on the walls of caves in the Kimberley.
Another Mingelmanganu bark painting sold for $38,400 in 2006 and Sotheby's achieved a price of GBP62,500 ($AUD110,769) for a bark in 2018. It was for a time really canvas works that represented a 'firmly established blue-chip investment' Dedman 2006: 454), and, being rare, these remain difficult to obtain. Nevertheless, a small iconic work on canvas (50x39cm) from the estate of Lady Mary Nolan failed to sell when offered by Bonhams with a presale estimate of $40,000 - $60,000 in November 2017, later selling in June 2018 for $30,500 with a lowered expectation of $25,000 - $35,000. Conversely in 2019, Cooee Art MarketPlace sold an excellent example of a Mingelmanganu bark for $96,000 against an estimate of $60,000 - $80,000.
Minglemanganu is one artist whose works are highly desired but extremely rare and very few owners are willing to part with their prized works. Expect any work that makes it to the secondary market to garner major attention.