Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri
Pitjantjatjara elder Bill Whiskey began creating his finely dotted, colourful canvases in 2004 when already in his mid 80s. He was born in near Pirrulpakalarintja outstation at Pirupa Alka, 130 km south of the stunning mountains and rock formations of Kata Juta (the Olgas) and, in search for food and water, moved with his family to Uluru (Ayers Rock) during his adolescence. Whiskey returned to his tribal land with his family after their first contact with white people ended in conflict, and continued to live a nomadic tribal existence throughout his childhood. By the time he was a young man, his father and a number of his immediate family had passed away and he joined a group of people who made the journey to Haasts Bluff mission, about 250 km to the northeast. Due, in part, to his earlier experience, he was afraid of white people, but after a restive period during which he continued his wanderings, he eventually settled at the mission and married Colleen Nampitjinpa, a Luritja woman with whom he eventually had five children. He worked at Areyonga, being paid in rations for labouring, clearing land and building as well as mustering and cooking but eventually returned to Haasts Bluff until, with Colleen and their children, he eventually moved to the outstation of Amunturungu (Mt. Liebig) during the 1980’s. Over the following decades Bill and Colleen’s renown as skilled healers, or ngangkari, spread far and wide and they became greatly respected for their traditional knowledge and authority. Despite the connotations inherent in his name he was actually a non-smoking teetotaller who initially came to be called Whiskers due to his long flowing white beard and, no doubt due to his own wry humour, the name eventually evolved into Whiskey. The Pitjantjatjara were amongst the last of the Central and Western Desert people to embrace the Desert painting movement. For the most part they had resisted the move to painting their sacred Dreaming stories on canvas for public display and sale until the 1990’s. Whiskey himself did not begin painting until the last four years of his life and, despite his age, was able to complete a number of large canvases amongst an oeuvre of no more than 200 works. His subjects included his early travels and also the mythic battle related in the Cockatoo Dreaming that occurred at his birthplace, Pirupa Alka. This ancestral story involves three birds: the white cockatoo, his friend the eagle and the aggressive black crow that attacked the cockatoo in order to steal his witchetty grubs. During a terrible battl white feathers were scattered about and the landscape became indented by the entangled birds crashing to the ground several times. Subterranean streams filled these impressions with water and a circular amphitheatre was created by the sweep of wings. The badly wounded cockatoo was helped by his friend the eagle, which chased the crow away and brought scraps of kangaroo meat for the injured bird to eat. From a large protruding rock, Katamala Cone, the eagle still watches the area protectively while a large, central, glowing white rock signifies the fallen cockatoo, still sipping the life-giving water from the sacred pools. Colourful blues, yellows, reds and greens, always tempered by cockatoo white, represent the wildflowers that grow in profusion after rain. In keeping with the depiction of Dreaming stories throughout the Western Desert, the mythic and numinous is inherent within the sacred geography. By implication human survival in the harsh desert environment has been due to the knowledge embodied by ancient wisdom passed down through the millennia. Bill Whiskey’s bold bright painting style reflected his indomitable spirit. At 80 years of age he was widely renowned as a powerful healer and keeper of sacred knowledge. His paintings, the first to depict the major Dreaming story and the creation of major sites throughout his country, are imbued with authority and steeped in traditional knowledge.
Bill Whiskey painted for just four years during the later part of his life when his renown as a traditional healer and cultural custodian was at its zenith. When they first appeared in galleries in 2004 his innovative and lively works generated immediate enthusiasm amongst collectors. During the following two years his works were highlighted in exhibitions at John Gordon Gallery in Coffs Harbour, Scott Livesey Gallery in Melbourne and Japingka Gallery in Fremantle as well as with Stephane Jacob’s Arts d’Australie in Paris. Already in his mid 80s, his energy and output was so prodigious that it seemed to belie his age.
After Elder Fine Art achieved $6,600 for a 120 x 120 cm work in August 2006 (Lot 120) Lawson~Menizes offered another measuring 152 x 92 cm in their November sale. It was obvious they intended to champion the artist as this relatively small work appeared as a ‘must sell’ kicker in the first 20 items at Lot 12. Carrying a pre-sale estimate of $10,000-12,000 it sold for $12,000. This excellent result gave little warning however of events to follow. At the time works measuring up to 200 x 200 cm created for Watiyawarnu and sold through those few galleries that could acquire them were marketed at between $28,000 and $32,000. The rumour that a prominent Melbourne gallerist had sold a work of this scale to a private collector for $65,000 was greeted with such incredulity that it wasn’t reflected in the $30,000-40,000 estimate placed on the major 181 x 181 cm work Rockholes Near Olgas that appeared at Lawson~Menies in November 2007. The work submitted by Coo-ee Aboriginal Art, had been purchased from Watiyawarnu just six months earlier. The house broke into sustained applause when it set a record price for the artist of $72,000 (Lot 53) given the painting was still ‘wet’.
In September 2008 Lawson~Menzies offered another major work. The magnificent 180 x 270 cm painting Rock Holes and Country Near the Olgas c.2007 carried a presale estimate of $80,000-100,000 and stimulated spirited bidding. With the hammer poised to strike it exceeded the high estimate and looked to be heading toward a titanic struggle between two buyers with deep pockets until one withdrew on advice from their consultant in the room. The final price was $144,000 with the cautious under-bidder, already sensitized to the looming economic meltdown, successfully securing a work of similar dimensions on the primary market less than three months later for under $100,000.
Until 2009 only five works had appeared for sale on the secondary market and all but the first of these has been offered through Lawson~Menzies. By 2008 the expectation grew that as more works appeared at auction his ranking would continue on its steep incline, thereby indicating that he was one of the most highly collectable artists of the moment. This was confirmed in 2009 when eight works sold out of nine on offer and cemented in 2010 with a yearly ranking of fourth. Championed by Sotheby’s and Deutscher and Hackett, Whiskey's works generated $276,119 in sales for that year alone. Unlike other sudden rushes to market the relative scarcity and consistency in quality of his works ensured prices remained high with an average around $35,000. The only barrier perhaps now being affordability for the less affluent collector, though Deutscher & Hackett sold a very fetching smaller untitled work for just $4,320, in October 2009 (Lot 139). His sales during 2012 were impressive. Though only four works sold of six offered all four entered his top ten. His results have been no less impressive since. Between 2013 and 2015, 11 of 14 works have sold generating $396,120 in sales, seven of which have recorded top 15 results. Between 2016 and 2017, only 6 works of the 13 on offer sold. However, despite one of these six being a minor work that sold for only $3,885 and another being a print that sold for only $292, his average price for the two years was an impressive $20,167. This was thanks in part to two wonderful works that sold from the American Luczo Family Collection. No les than 8 works appeared for sale in 2018 though most were minor. Nevertheless, a very accomplished major work measuring 202 x 148 cm achieved $57,340 against its presale estimate of $30,000 - 40,000 which became his 9th highest record overall.
With a 68% success rate at auction and an exponential rise in values, Bill Whiskey has been one of the hottest artists in the market post 2005. He was, until 2016, the Aboriginal Art Market's most dramatic improver during the past decade. He was ranked 190th in December 2007 and is now 34th. He died during 2008, just 2 years after his first painting was offered for sale at auction. With an oeuvre limited to no more than 200 works, their quality and rarety increases their desirability enormously. I expect his reputation and prices to rise steadily, though the scarcity of major paintings will unfortunately prevent his ascention into the top ten artists of all times. On a rising market, only lucky collectors with very deep pockets will be able to purchase his finest major works.