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David Yirawala

David Yirawala

1903 - 1976

Born c1894 in his home country of Marugulidban in Western Arnhem Land, Yirawala’s boyhood was spent traveling over the land and learning his father’s sacred designs, songs and stories. His initiation was a long journey, culminating only when, at 45 years of age, he was endowed with the final secrets. He became a great ritual leader, with knowledge over all the secular and sacred ceremonial content of Kunwinjku iconography. He lived with his first wife at Oenpelli where he fathered two children. After her death he had three sons and a daughter by his two promised wives. In the late 1950's the family moved to Croker Island (Minjilang), where a number of artists had collected due to the artistic freedom of the Methodist mission in comparison to the one operating at Oenpelli. However the extent of this freedom is arguable, as Yirawala was apparently unaware that the paintings he created over a nine-year period had been sold through the mission until an encounter with collector Sandra Le Brun Holmes in 1964. On telling him the truth, Yirawala apparently confided, 'all my law. Dreaming story big mob I make, nine year. I bin lose him whole lot, Marain business, Lorrgon, Ubar, magic, all finish. My eye little bit no good now' (cited in Holmes 1992: 15). Though devastated by the news, a partnership began between Holmes and Yirawala that marked a turning point in his career as an artist. While organising the filming of Return to the Dreaming in 1971, she arranged for an exhibition of his work to tour southern cities to which Yirawala later traveled and spoke. Artistically, the partnership also marked a new beginning. His early work had been preoccupied with Mimih and sorcery stories depicted characteristically in white outlines, similar to the rock art of the region. By contrast, the works that date from the show that was staged in 1970 and onward feature important aspects of the Ngalod, Mardayin, Lorrkkon, and Ubar ceremonies. The surfaces of his barks became elaborate and in-filled with intricate cross-hatching within x-ray style figurative forms. Many of the cross-hatched designs (rarrk) were derived from the clan markings formerly restricted to painted bodies during ceremony. Yirawala pioneered these new developments in Western Arnhem Land art, thereby shaping the direction Kunwinjku bark painting would follow stylistically thereafter. He did so, not only through his introduction of rarrk designs, but also in his experimentation in varying the monochrome base colour of the bark. The delek (white) underlay of Luma Luma and Wind Mimi 1971 serves to heighten the elegance of the rarrk designs on the figures. The effect was to highlight the physicality of the figure as an anatomical vision, while imbuing the subject with spirituality. In this way the 'conjunction of the metaphysical and physical elements, the revelation of the cosmic within the concrete, gave Kunwinjku art its transformational edge' (Ryan 1990: 77). This is the power to which Picasso referred when he claimed 'this what I have been trying to achieve all my life' (cited in Holmes 1992: 1). However, in Yirawala’s world, it was only natural that art and life, the physical and metaphysical, were inextricably entwined.  The deed Yirawala drew up with Sandra Le Brun Holmes gave her first option on his work, the majority of which she managed to keep as an intact collection. In 1989 the National Gallery of Australia acquired the Holmes’ collection of 139 bark paintings, marking the first time in the history of the Aboriginal art movement when a ceremonial cycle could be seen visually in its entirety. In this regard she had kept her bargain with the artist and assisted in leaving us with his most lasting and unique legacy. Yirawala was vitally concerned that Balanda (outsiders) should understand the cultural significance of his work and, in doing so, build respect for not only his art but also the culture to which it was intimately connected. Unfortunately his efforts and wishes in this regard largely failed to have the desired effect in his own lifetime. While he became a rising star and was made a member of the British Empire for his services to Aboriginal Art in 1971, as well as receiving the International Art Cooperation Award in the same year, his efforts to prevent mining in the Western Arhnem Land region of his birth lay unfulfilled upon his death in 1976.    

While Sandra Holmes played an important role in supporting Yirawala during the later part of his career as a painter, it is interesting to note that seven of the top eight results for his works have been for paintings created prior to their agreement over the distribution of his works. This may make some sense, given her fastidious accumulation of his paintings into such a large permanent collection which was later sold to the NGA. His ten highest records range from $25,620 to $64,800, of which two were sold in 1997 and one in 1998. It is likely that, other than truly spectacular images, Yirawala’s works are no more valuable now than they were ten years ago. By way of example, a large bark for this artist measuring 128 x 53 cm in size, entitled Sacred Bird c.1965, sold in Sotheby’s June 1998 sale for $26,450 and yet only received $17,250 when offered for sale again two years later. In comparison Yirawala’s second highest priced painting, the quirky 10 Mimih’s c. 1959, is full of movement and joyous expression. This smaller work, 87.5 x 59.5 cm, showed an increase of $22,600 over its 1999 price at Sotheby’s when it achieved $49,850 in their July 2003 sale. The collector, who more than doubled his money in just three years would have been very happy indeed. Attempts to push his prices through unrealistically high estimates have failed in a market that has been quite flat for bark paintings of this period, other than those with the most engaging images and superb provenance. Lumah Lumah’s Daughters c.1963, a small bark of 43 x 20 cm, failed to sell in Sotheby’s 1997 auction with hefty estimate of $15,000-$20,000. It failed once more in their 2002 sale despite being more realistically priced at $7,000-10,000. Finally it achieved $8,000 at Sotheby’s in July 2004. This was most dramatically underscored in 2008 when no less than 11 works were offered and only three sold. Remarkably, every single one of the 11 works were offered through Sotheby’s and while the two most successful equaled his 10th, and set his 11th highest records, no less than five works with low estimates in excess of $20,000 failed to find buyers. It was a disastrous year at auction for works by such a great artist and resulted in his career clearance rate dropping from 69% to 65%. During the 2 years when no less than five of his works were sold at auction, the average prices peaked in 1997 at $18,400, and then at $23,908 in 2003. These spikes in prices in 2003 and 1997 were principally due to his two highest results occurring during each of those years. With the effect of these discounted, his prices have remained remarkably stable throughout the period.  In general, prices for premium pieces have risen slowly while less interesting and stilted works have fallen in value. Those works painted c.1958-1960 have had more success at auction than later works. However, in all probability, as neither the number of works nor the length of time statistics have been gathered on this artist has really been long enough to judge accurately, it is likely that the image rather than the cultural story, or the period painted, is the important factor in the sale price. 2017 showed us that fantastic works by the artist sometimes become available at criminally low prices. The fantastic Mimi Rain Ceremony, painted in 1968, was let go for an absurd $4,873 against a presale estimate of $12,800 to $18,000. Meanwhile, later in the year, a work of similar quality went for a much more reasonable $23,560, marking the artist's 11th highest sale price. Yirawala was a master technician and the condition of most of his bark paintings is extremely good. Such is the calibre of this artist that jjst about any of his works, when offered at reasonable estimates, are highly desirable purchases. There realy is never a bad time to buy one of Yirawala's better barks. There has been a recent surge in the value of a number of currently practicing bark painters and it is only a matter of time before the work of Yirawala and other great bark painters of the period are reassessed, sparking a hike in the value of their works. They are that undervalued.

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