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Gabriella Possum Nungurrayi

Gabriella Possum Nungurrayi



Gabriella Possum learned the discipline of painting from an early age at the side of her famous father, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri. Born at Papunya in 1967, she first achieved recognition in 1983, for her entry in the Alice Art Prize, while a 16-year-old student at Yirara College. From the mid 1980’s Clifford Possum had largely abandoned Papunya Tula, preferring to create works and sell them independently. While living in Alice Springs and maintaining close contact with his Anmatjerre countrymen at Mount Allan and Napperby he sold works through Aboriginal Arts Australia’s Centre for Aboriginal Art in Todd Street as well as to a range of independent dealers. Gabriella, along with her younger sister Michelle, meticulously filled in areas of dotting on many of her father’s emblematic canvasses from this period and onward to the following decade. These ‘assisted’ canvasses brought Clifford Possum increasing worldwide recognition until this practice became increasingly controversial in the light of media generated around the praxis of a number of famous desert artists including Possum, Turkey Tolson and Kathleen Petyarre, to name but a few. Clifford Possum’s influence could be detected in Gabriella’s earliest paintings produced in her early 20’s. It was apparent in her ability to weave together a coherent and compelling narrative from the different iconic elements, symbols and stories of her tradition. Yet, Gabriella also forged her own style, appealingly decorative as well as evocative of her desert life and heritage. By the early 1990’s Gabriella, now in her mid 20’s had given birth to the first of her children with husband Selwyn Burns, a member of the Aboriginal rock group Coloured Stone. She designed the record cover following their award as the best Indigenous album in the 1986 ARIA Awards and during the same period became the recipient of a Professional Development Grant, from the Aboriginal Arts Unit of the Australia Council for the Arts. Throughout the late 1980’s Gabriella traveled with her father and sister, visiting galleries and painting publicly during exhibitions organized by Alice Springs entrepreneur Joy Aitken, who euphemistically called her traveling group ‘the Possum Shop’. At this time Gabriella’s works could be distinguished by her use of strong colours, inspired by the dramatic contrasts of the desert landscape. Her engaging Bush Tucker paintings were principally Women’s Dreamings from the Mt. Allen area, the traditional country of her Anmatyerre parents. The landscape, depicted in a way that strongly resonated with her father’s vision, featured exploding seed pods, the black seed traditionally ground for damper, as well as a proliferation of bush foods including bush banana, coconut, plum, and berries. Tracks were shown as women collected food in oval coolamons and gathered to sit with their legs spread, seen from the artist’s omnipotent perspective as U shapes, as they prepared the food for eating. The people who inhabit these paintings are unseen aside from their occasional footprints. They camped near sacred waterholes, indicated by roundels, where they engaged in ceremonies to give thanks for the abundance of food. They painted their bodies with ochre, plaited ceremonial belts and adorned their digging sticks with feathers. They represent both ancestral women who inhabited their country at the moment of creation and Gabriella’s countrywomen, who continue to collect bush foods and accept their custodial responsibility for the land today. Their children are told traditional stories in order to pass on the skills of finding food and water in the desert and how to continue to care for the sacred sites. The figurative elements and identifiable symbols in Gabriella’s paintings allow the narrative content to be easily deciphered during story telling. By 1992 Gabriella Possum had settled with her growing family in Broadmeadow, on the outskirts of Melbourne. She and her father exhibited in Sydney at Coo-ee Gallery that year, before creating works that were exhibited in the U.S.A and throughout Europe in a number of exhibitions including Modern Art-Ancient Icon 1992 and Down Under 1993 while completing commissions for posters, clothing designs and licensed merchandise. It was during this period that she developed the imagery for which she has become best known, the Seven Sisters Dreaming, that traces the movement of the Pleiades and the Morning Star as they journey amongst the constellations of the Milky Way. The songlines of the Milky Way travel from the far northern reaches of Arnhem Land, down across the continent through Central Australia and beyond, into the Australian psyche. For the Aborigines it is the sacred residence of totemic beings, corresponding to an inner microcosm that guides vital aspects of their existence. In the version painted by Gabriella Possum the Seven Sisters traveled over a vast expanse of country, until they realised that they were being followed by a man called Wati-Nyiru who was a man belonging to the Tjakamarra skin group. He was an evil person who wanted to seduce and ‘own’ them. They tried to hide from him in caves, however the man disguised himself appearing in many different forms to deceive them. With little hope of relief, the Seven Sisters escaped through a fire at Kurlunyalimpa to the Milky Way where they became the stars of the Pleiades in the Constellation Taurus. There they remain safe, forever watching out over all women on earth. Wati-Nyiru followed them to the heavens and became the Morning Star in the constellation Orion and is unable to get near them as they move across the night sky. In her renditions of the story, Gabriella recreates the desert night sky with its luminous heavenly characters suspended in the deep blue of space. The Milky Way is depicted as clouds of softly glowing stars, with the major characters in the narrative appearing as singular stellar ‘landmarks’ that emerge from dark empty spaces. In the finest of these works Gabriella demonstrates her own singular style by employing all of the skill and technique she learnt sitting at her father’s side watching him vary his palette and variegate the margins of his dotting in each complimentary colour. Foremost amongst the many important collections in which her works are held are the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of South Australia, Flinders University Art Museum, the Holmes a Court Collection and the Kelton Foundation in Los Angeles, USA. Gabriella's works are included in these collections even though she has always worked for independent dealers. Since the mid 1990’s these have principally been located in Melbourne and include Peter Los, Des Rogers and Adam Knight, owner of Aranda Art Gallery. In 1999 she painted in the foyer of the United Nations, accompanying an exhibition of Western Desert paintings and since that time has painted in Melbourne exclusively for private dealers who have arranged for her participation in a number of events in Australia and overseas. In 2008 Adam Knight of Aranda Aboriginal Art Gallery commissioned a 20-metre art installation depicting Gabriella’s custodial Grandmother's Country for Jamie Durie’s display at the 2008 RHS Chelsea Flower Show in London. When the display was awarded the gold prize by HRH Queen Elizabeth, Durie presented the Queen with an original work by the artist, a unique achievement. The work now hangs in the royal collection along side that of her famous father.

Gabriella Possum Nungurrayi, the daughter of one of Aboriginal art's most successful artists of all time, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, has been propelled from 114th to 59th rank during the past 7 years, due almost entirely to her European sales. Amongst these, six of her top ten, including her record,  were recorded by Parisian house ArtCurial. These auctions, and er inclusion in the exhibition of major works at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, confirm the continued interest of European collectors in her work. The ongoing importance of the Aboriginal components of the Musée du quai Branly and significant representation at galleries coinciding with major art events such as Art Basel cannot be overstated.  In July 2008 Melbourne dealer Peter Los organised a sale of Australian Aboriginal art at the Hôtel Dassault in Paris through the French auction house, ArtCurial. In a sale that had mixed results, Gabriella Possum’s Bush Tucker Dreaming: My Father's Country was one of the star lots when sold for 22,980 € (then equivalent to $37,496). It is incredible that until that time, every one of her eight highest results had been achieved by Elder Fine Art in Adelaide, with not a single sale recorded to any of the major players with stand alone Aboriginal art auctions. Elder transcended the $7,050 mark set by Christie's in November 2003 no less than three times on one steamy November night in 2005. Works sold for $7,659, $7,770 and $8,436 with the highest being for an Untitled work measuring 208 x 122 cm (Lot 93). This in turn was exceeded in June 2007 by Seven Sisters Dreaming (Lot 158) and later, in December 2007, by the two paintings that hold the artist’s highest records here in Australia. The complex Bush Tucker Dreaming that sold for $11,000 against a presale estimate of $8,000-12,000 (Lot 152) and the equally detailed and whimsical Women's Love Story & Hunting Food, which reached $17,050 (Lot 33). Interestingly, none of these works are recorded with a date of creation. It would be interesting to speculate why it is that no Tier I auction house has sold more than three works and Sotheby’s have sold only one – especially interesting as Gabriella Possum’s results at auction are impressive and her lineage ‘royal'. Between 2005 and 2007 no less than 37 works were offered of which 31 sold for a clearance rate of 84%. Given a career success rate of a still relatively healthy 65% it is clear that the appreciation of, and demand for, her work has increased rapidly since the beginning of the new millennium. Her results would be all the more impressive were it not for the appearance at sale of prints and graphics of which only nine have sold of 26 offered for an average price of just $353. The sale in Paris, that set her career high of $37,496, corresponded to a period of serious ill health. However, she now continues to create works of great beauty, albeit not as fine as those created during the previous decade. Foremost amongst a number of absolute bargains sold at auction were the exceptional 122 x 241 cm rendition of Seven Sisters Dreaming estimated at a giveaway $2,500-3,500 and sold for $4,810 at Leonard Joel Melbourne in October 2005 (Lot 220) and the very unusual combined work featuring both Seven Sisters Dreaming and Bush Tucker Dreaming that sold for just $3,421 when estimated at a throw away $1,200-1,500 in the same sale (Lot 9). Re-sales are hard to detect given the number of works with similar titles, however there have been some notable failures, generally recorded due to over ambitious estimates. Lawson~Menzies obviously felt they had a very special and most unusual Seven Sisters image that seemed to have been rendered in an experimental technique using a palette knife. Estimated at $18,000-20,000, the highest ever sought for a work by this artist, Lawson~Menzies failed to attract a buyer at their May 2007 sale (Lot 14). They had no better luck with the magnificent 94 x 186 cm Seven Sister’s Dreaming 2000, which they estimated at $10,000-12,000 in their November 2007 sale (Lot 258). In 2016  there were 15 works offered for sale of which 8 sold. The highest price recorded that year was just $4,600. Of the 8 offered in 2017 only 3 sold, for an average price of $3,372. With the narrow range of provenance currently accepted by Sotheby’s, Deutcher and Hackett, and Mossgreen it is unlikely that an artist, even of Gabriella Possum’s lineage and talent who has worked independently and eschewed exclusive contracts with any one gallery, will get a guernsey in spite of the fact that her images are much loved, as evidenced by the fact that they have appeared on the side of trams in Melbourne and several other public commissions.  As a result, collectors keen on her works should be able to pick up bargains for the foreseeable future. She is a seriously talented painter, even if her Bush Tucker works seem slightly kitsch or generic to those in thrall of the optical and minimal. Her cosmic paintings are worth far far more than the market currently demands, but buyers should be quick. They are unlikely to remain so inexpensive once her production slows.

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