Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri
Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri
1927 - 2015
From the outset, Billy Stockman was a vital figure in the Papunya art movement. He went on to become one of its most exceptional and productive figures, traveling the world as a representative of Aboriginal Culture and having his work exhibited and collected by major galleries and collectors. He stands at the transition point between the ancient and the new, his work providing a link that allows for an ongoing synthesis between cultural traditions and modern artistic practices. Essentially spiritual, the symbols that appear in his paintings are charged with authority and religious knowledge. They are grounded in the narratives of the traditional desert culture of which he is a senior custodian of particular sites and stories. Born of the Anmatyerre-Western Arrente people, at Ilpitirri, North-West of Papunya, Billy Stockman’s first experience of white people was the Coniston Massacre in 1928 at the age of two. 'All the people were running. I was a little one – in a coolamon. My mother hid me under a bush. My father had gone hunting. They killed my mother. I was grown up by her sister – Clifford Possum’s mother' (Stockman cited in Kleinert & Neal 2000: 702). Billy Stockman grew up at Napperby Station (200 km west of Alice Springs), where he was initiated and later worked as a stockman for many years. He was moved to Papunya as part of the government re-settlement program and lived on the edge of the somewhat chaotic settlement. He could often be seen there, repairing the old cars that were much valued by the new settlers, allowing them to journey back to their much-missed country. He had a large extended family and was, as Geoff Bardon described 'a man with many obligations to all' (2004: 85). Stockman also worked as a cook in the communal kitchens at Papunya and as a yards man at the Papunya School. It was this position that placed him so centrally within the mural painting endeavour that was to spark the explosion of creativity that became a modern painting movement. Along with Long Jack Phillipus, Billy Stockman assisted Kaapa Mbitjana in the painting of the Honey Ant Dreaming on the school walls in 1971. It was the culmination of a project initiated by art teacher Geoff Bardon and being a design of great power and relevance to all of the tribes of the Western Desert it generated much excitement and discussion through-out the settlement. The Honey Ant is the image of the ancestors, emerging from the ground, creating landforms while moving across it and finally returning underground, ever afterwards to be celebrated in story and ceremony. Because different tribal groups were crammed together at Papunya, it was a volatile environment and so it was important to produce designs that would not aggravate the reactive atmosphere. As the painting project continued to grow, Bardon says it was Billy Stockman in particular who understood the necessity of choosing un-controversial subjects such as food gathering or children’s stories. He communicated Bardon’s concerns to the steadily growing group of painting men who nevertheless had to regularly restrain a wish to paint more momentous subjects. As paintings began to sell in Alice Springs the demarcation between sacred and secular became clearer to the men and strategies were devised to avoid infringing tribal laws. The rules of production and reception in such intercultural transactions however continue to pose difficulties, as they still do for many indigenous cultures. Billy Stockman’s work was among the first to stir the purchasing public’s interest. He made a point of thanking Bardon personally and began to apply himself with great enthusiasm to painting. All of the men were greatly encouraged by the money received from the sale of their paintings. It was a way of improving the life of their families but also re-kindled a sense of self and community esteem among the men who had, to a degree, been estranged from their once important tribal positions. Senior men were instrumental in advising on symbols, stories and meanings during the creative process. Billy Stockman had a way of focusing on simple, self-contained vignettes. They often contained stylised, naturalistic plants and animals and a symmetry and decorative quality that appealed to buyers. This talent followed from his skill as an accomplished wood-carver. Like many stockmen, he had learned to whittle wood and as Bardon commented 'could turn a beanwood branch into two or three snakes in a complex inter-twining design' (2004: 31). As the art movement gathered momentum, his life as a stockman had also prepared him for negotiating with the world of the ‘whitefella’. Billy Stockman held many official positions, playing a critical role in the newly established Aboriginal Arts Board during the 1970’s and a stint as chairman of Papunya Tula Artists. He became a campaigner for the outstation movement and was one of the first to move to his own station at Illili, West of Papunya. Here, he continued painting his Dreamings and instructed younger artists on the ancient knowledge, in particular the Budgerigar, Water, Snake and Wild Potatoe Dreamings of his own country. He and his wife Intinika have two sons and two daughters, of whom one, Gillian, has also become a painter. Declining health brought about his retirement to the Hetti Perkins Hostel in Alice Springs. He remained an inspiring figure and authority for the Western Desert people until his death in 2015, a reliable, responsible and caring man who Bardon described as 'embodying all that was loving and trusting in traditional family life' (Bardon 2004: 85).
When Sotheby’s set Billy Stockman’s record price of $201,500 (for the 54.5 x 46 cm 1971 board Wild Potato (Yala) Dreaming) in 1998, the result was second only to Johnny Warangkula’s Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa 1972( sold the previous year for $206,000, in the annuls of all Aboriginal art sales). It was still the fourth highest result ever achieved for an Aboriginal painting by the end of 2001, but 19th highest at the end of 2004 and the 34th by the end of 2006. Neverthelessm few artist’s record prices have lasted as long. Billy Stockman's next highest result is however only $36,000. This was achieved for a 1991 work entitled Travels of the Spider Ancestors (was sold by Lawson~Menzies in June 2008, Lot 262). It was a good result for a late career work by one of the early Papunya artists and justified the confidence Lawson~Menzies specialists had in it, evidenced by the presale estimate of $35,000-45,000. Brave of them, as all of the artists top ten results at the time were for 1971-1973 boards and apart from this spectacular exception nothing painted after 1978 had appeared in the artists 15 highest results or has generated more than $8,000 for its seller since. This very prolific artist, who created work for more than 30 years has had over 320 works offered for sale since his first paintings appeared at auction in 1988. Yet his career average price is just $5,055 despite a respectable clearance rate of 59%. While 1998 was by far his best year at sale with 16 of 17 works sold including his record price, 2005 was also a good year with 17 of 19 painting selling. This however was the last time Billy Stockman’s fortunes were on the ascendant. Since then his clearance rate has been under 50%. Only 13 paintings in total have sold for more than $10,000 and it is his low average price that has prevented Billy Stockman from attaining a higher place in the annuls of Aboriginal art. When, in 2005 Sotheby’s offered a rare sculpture of a Carpet Snake carved by the artist in 1972, it created quite a sensation. Estimated at just $1,000-1,500 (Lot 269) this rather spectacular object measuring just 69 cm in length sold for $22,800. It is by far and away his best result for a work in any medium other than painting. Sotheby’s have in fact made up most of the running on Billy Stockman’s works with their closest competition coming from Lawson~Menzies. He is, however, one of the most durable and recognised artists amongst collectors. Amongst his most notable failures at sale have been the large work Totemic Snakes 1985, that had been purchased from Deutscher~Menzies in June 1999 (Lot 17) for $8,050 when estimated at $8,000-10,000. Offered again at Lawson~Menzies in May 2007 (Lot 120) it simply could not justify its presale estimate of $18,000-22,000. Another failure was the beautifully rendered and extremely attractive board entitled Kangaroo Dreaming, Papunya which should have fully justified Mossgreen’s confidence in placing a presale estimate of $20,000-22,000 (Lot 190) but was passed in at their August 2008 sale. Further reinforcing the price sensitivity of Billy Stockman’s works, Frog Corroborree, a large early 1973 board, failed to sell at Deutscher~Menzies in June 2000 (Lot 144) when offered at $25,000-35,000, though it later sold at Sotheby’s in 2002 (Lot 335) for just $8,400 with a lowered expectation of $7,000-10,000. On a more positive note, a board entitled Women’s Bush Tucker Story 1972 (measuring 61 x 69 cm and bearing a Stuart Art Centre code number from the 11th consignment) originally failed to sell when offered at Lawson~Menzies in May 2004, carrying an estimate of $35,000-50,000 yet sold for $30,000 at the same auction house three years later. This is the artist’s fifth highest record at sale to date. It would seem that, for the time being at least, those interested in works by the most seminal artists of the movement should be able to include Billy Stockman in their collections for what will come to be considered a bargain price. His early boards are wonderful buying at anything under $30,000 and there are any number of 1980s and 1990s paintings to be had for a song. Billy died in September 2015 after a long and fruitful life. It is is definitely time that collectors began to reassess this wonderful old man’s legacy.
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