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Deaf Tommy Mungatopi

Deaf Tommy Mungatopi

1923 - 1985

800 kilometres north of Darwin, the Tiwi Islands are home to a distinctive culture, isolated from the mainland by treacherous seas and in earlier times a determined resistance to outsiders. Plentiful food and freshwater, abundant forest and varied shorelines produced a rich island culture of ceremony and art making for which some families became particularly renowned. The Mungatopis were one such family and Deaf Tommy Mungatopi was their revered leader during some of the crucial years of the emergence of today’s contemporary Tiwi art form. Alongside his five brothers who also were bark painters and carvers, he built upon the foundations of traditional ceremonial life in a process of both artistic continuity and creative innovation. Deaf Tommy was a sought after maker of Pukumani or funeral poles which, besides being commissioned for important funerals in his community, have become emblematic of Tiwi culture, displayed in and around state galleries nationwide. Deaf Tommy was rendered deaf by an exploding bomb when, as a young man, he worked as a coast watcher on Melville Island during World War II. During these years of European socialisation and religious conversion, artistic and ceremonial pursuits were strongly discouraged. Steady interest by early anthropologists and collectors, however, broadened during the 1970s when the Tiwi gained more control of their own affairs. Appreciation of Aboriginal Art and the deep traditions that lay behind it began increasing. Tiwi Art picked up a contemporary momentum and this in turn helped reaffirm Tiwi culture and identity.  Deaf Tommy lived at Milikapiti (originally meaning milk and cup of tea) and worked at the Jilamara Art Centre, which is known for its high esteem of Tiwi history. In the museum attached to the art centre his works (and war medals) are now displayed alongside other famous figures (including the Baldwin, Spencer and Mountford archival photographs) that still inform the modern tradition. Today’s best known painters and carvers on Melville and Bathurst islands still seek guidance and inspiration there. The two seasonally distinct ceremonies that mark the Tiwi calendar are the rituals of increase and the rituals of mourning. In the Pulinari (creation times) death was unknown to the Tiwi until Tapara, the moon man, seduced Bima, the wife of his brother Purukapali.  This caused the neglect and death of her baby son, Jinani. Purukapali found his dead son and created the first Pukumani ceremony. Then, weeping and wailing, he walked into the sea, holding the body in his upstretched arms. It is this final stance that is said to be the origin of the tall, elaborately painted Pukumani poles or Tutini. They are brightly and exquisitely painted in ochre bands of geometric design that may also include figurative elements. Over time they gradually weather away until only black stumps remain, standing amid the stringy bark trees. The Tiwi do not overly intellectualise their art. They watch, listen, dance and sing and their knowledge arises in a more sensate way, seen in the fierce beauty of their dances, body decoration and painting design. Deaf Tommy had a distinctive painting style that incorporates alternating bands of dotting applied by his wooden comb, the pwoja, and sequences of dashes or linked diamonds. Particularly in his bark painting he could evoke the physical atmosphere of a landscape or place through the juxtaposition of sequential repetition and variation. He captured the shimmering effect of sun or moonlight playing across the surface of the water, skilfully evoking the sense of ancestral presence. It is a visual language of pattern and rhythm that constantly evolves and re-invents itself, as it has done for generations. Deaf Tommy was a master of mid-century painting, one of the leading artists of his generation and is represented in most major collections of Tiwi art, including five Tutini poles that are part of a group installed in the sculpture garden at the National Gallery of Australia. Profile author: Sophie Baka Collections: Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. Australian Museum, Sydney. Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth. Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. National Museum of Australia, Canberra. Group Exhibitions: 1993/4 - ARATJARA, Art of the First Australians, Touring: Kunstammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf; Hayward Gallery, London; Louisiana Museum, Humlebaek, Denmark.1991 - Aboriginal Art and Spirituality, High Court, Canberra. Bibliography: Caruana, W., 1987, Australian Aboriginal Art, a Souvenir Book of Aboriginal Art in the Australian National Gallery, Australian National Gallery, Parkes, Australian Capital Territory. Caruana, W., Aboriginal Art, World of Art Series, Thames and Hudson, London, 2003 Crumlin, R., (ed.), 1991, Aboriginal Art and Spirituality, Collins Dove, North Blackburn, Victoria. (C). Isaacs, J., 1984, Australia's Living Heritage, Arts of the Dreaming, Lansdowne Press, Sydney. (C).1993, Aratjara, Art of the First Australians: Traditional and Contemporary Works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Artists, exhib. cat. (conceived and designed by Bernard Luthi in collaboration with Gary Lee), Dumont, Buchverlag, Koln. (C). Le Brun Holmes, Sandra, 1995, The Goddess and the Moon Man: the Sacred Art of the Aborigines,Craftsman House Sydney. Norton, F., 1975, Aboriginal Art, Western Australian Art Gallery Board with the assistance of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council.  

Deaf Tommy Mungatopi was one of five brothers from Milikapiti who interacted with Charles Mountford during his visits to Melville Island in the 1940s. All were singers and dancers and their performances were photographed and described in detail by a number of subsequent visitors, anthropologists and collectors. Other brothers included Ali Miller Mungatopi, Laurie One Eye Nelson Mungatopi and Lame Toby Mungatopi. Paintings and carvings by all of these artists have entered major institutional collections over the years. Nevertheless, works by Deaf Tommy have rarely been offered at public auction and a number of these offers have been resales. Works by the other brothers are even rarer. In 2012 an imposing, through relatively small, bark painting, Coral c.1967, sold at Bonhams for $60,000. The painting was being deaccessioned by the William Nutall Superannuation Fund after changes to the Federal Superannuation laws made holding art and collectables in self-managed funds unpalatable. Nutall, a prominent Melbourne dealer, had originally purchased the work from Sotheby's for $96,000, at the peak of the market in 2007. At the time, this set the artists highest record price at auction. The same work appeared once more in Sotheby's March 2018 London sale and carrying an estimate of GBP35,000-50,000 ot sold for GBP42.500 ($AUD75,323). So rare are his paintings that only 8 have ever appeared for sale though the majority have been offered on several occasions. For instance this single distinctive work holds the artist's 1st, 2nd and 4th highest records. Another work, Coral Phases of the Moon had to be offered three times before finally finding a new home. When first put to sale in July 2006 at Sotheby's (Lot 39) it carried a presale estimate of $50,000-70,000 but failed to attract interest. Sotheby's tried once more in November 2007 with a slightly lower estimate of $40,000-60,000 but failed once more. Finally it did sell, for $24,000, after the owner lowered his expectations to $20,000-30,000 in Sotheby's July 2009 sale (Lot 40). The same this happerned with Coral 1977. It was first offered through Bonhams in 2016 with a presale estimate of $35,000 - 45,000, failing to attract interest. In 2017 the work was offered through Bonhams again, with an estimate of $15,000 - 25,000, but only found a buyer later that year when it was offered once more through Leonard Joel with an even lower estimate of $10,000 - 15,000, when it was sold for $10,964. Deaf Tommy's low sales numbers have depressed his AIAM ranking, however this should rise over time. The publication of Jennifer Isaacs book Tiwi: Art History Culture, firmly posits him as a very important early influence on the contemporary art of the Tiwi people. Deaf Tommy's works are powerful representations of ceremonial significance, and it will only be the luckiest of private collectors that will ever actually own one.

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