top of page

George Milpurrurru

George Milpurrurru

1934 - 1998

Nulumba, Milburru, Milparurr

George Milpurrurru was raised in his father’s country Ngalyindi, the Ganalbingu outstation, which straddles a ridge to the east side of the Arafura swamp. The swamp, in the middle section of the Glyde River, is home to flocks of water birds, fresh water plants, snakes, and a rich array of other flora and fauna. This Eden became the wellspring from which Milpurrurru’s drew his artistic inspiration. He began to paint under the guidance of his father, Nhulmarmar and, as Judith Ryan observed, 'Nhulmarmar’s art prefigures that of his son, Milpurrurru, in its capricious reversals of tone and patterning and its graphic power'. Indeed, Milpurrurru’s mastery over the play between foreground and background characterizes his paintings in which blocks of flat colour and intricate rarrk cross-hatching create a strong graphic effect. His style traversed stylistic conventions across Arnhem Land and sythesised these into highly designed compositions. In doing so, he drew on the aesthetic traditions of Western Arnhem Land artists, who applied cross-hatching solely within the figurative or schematic motifs of the work, while at the same time borrowing on the Eastern Arnhem Land convention of leaving figures unadorned, depicted in black against a heavily patterned background. Yet even in this variation, Milpurrurru stood outside Eastern Arnhem Land conventions in preferring to create complex arrangements of intersecting patterns. He first began selling his work in the 1970's for just ten pounds, most notably to the mission superintendent at Milingimbi, Alan Fidock, and art dealer Dorothy Bennett. However with the establishment of Bula Bula Arts at Ramingining in the late 1970’s, Milpurrurru and others were enabled to establish successful artistic careers. Djon Mundine became the art adviser in the community and by 1979 one of Milpurrurru’s paintings, of men hunting in their canoes, was commissioned for the 1979 Biennale of Sydney. The fact that Milpurrurru cannot be easily distinguished by a set of simple stylistic conventions is testament to his individual innovation. It is also, however, an indication of the lack of homogeneity amongst Central Arnhem Land artists, specifically during the 1980's at Ramingining. Milpurrurru led pioneering leaps in redefining the structural parameters inherited by previous generations of artists, creating barks of grand scale, painted with piercing clarity, compared to the more organic and rudimentary works produced by artists of the previous generation. One of Milpurrurru’s central narratives is that of the Magpie Geese; a Dreaming that lies at the heart of Ganalbingu ceremonial life. At the end of the monsoon period the Gumang (geese) lay their eggs. The Ganalbingu then venture out in stringy bark canoes to hunt the eggs. A ceremony called Gurrumbumbungu is held in conjunction with the hunting to ensure the geese will lay again. During the ceremony men perform the Goose dance with cooked eggs, which are later given to the women to rub over their newborn babies. Milpurrurru performed this dance as a ceremonial leader of his people for the opening of the 1986 Biennale of Sydney. The performance demonstrated the diversity of his creative output, as well as the intimate relationships between different aspects of Ganalbingu culture. Milpurrurru mastered not only painting and dance, but could also fashion his own canoes, woven fish traps, tools, and even his own house, each separate skill part of a holistic tradition.  George Milpurrurru and his contemporaries were attributed with placing Central Arnhem Land firmly on the art map during the 1980's and 1990's. Along with other Ramingining artists such as David Malangi, Jimmy Wululu, Jack Wunuwun, and Djardi Ashley, Milpurrurru was increasingly included in major exhibitions. Their zest to experiment by combining a diverse array of artistic traditions beyond those that were culturally prescribed gained them the public recognition that enabled Milpurrurru to take advantage of a blossoming gallery scene. He held his first solo exhibition in 1985 at the Aboriginal Arts Australia Gallery in Sydney a year before he exhibited in the Biennale of Sydney for the second time. Most importantly he was a major contributor to the 200-pole Aboriginal Memorial housed in the National Gallery of Canberra, the most significant Indigenous contribution to the 1988 celebration of the U.N. Year of Indigenous Peoples. In 1993 he became the first Aboriginal artist to be honoured with a solo retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia.   

George Milpurrurru’s prestigious achievements as a practicing artist are, unfortunately, largely mismatched with the rather dismal history of his paintings on the secondary market. His highest price was achieved as long ago as 2000, two years after his death, and stands at just $9,775. It was recorded for a bark painting entitled Gumang - The Goose Dancing Ceremony c.1983, a characteristically large bark, measuring 120 x 95 cm, depicting one of Milpurrurru’s central Dreaming stories, the Magpie Goose. However anyone familiar with his oeuvre would be the first to point out that this is far from his finest work. By tracing the sales for works with similar subject matter and size over the preceding years, it is clear that there has been a gradual ascent in value albeit from a low initial base. In 1994 a Magpie Goose related bark sold for $3,120 and in 1999 a similar work went for $4,600. In 2000 $5,750 was paid for a particularly large work measuring 200 x 110 cm, and in the same year his record sale was recorded at $9,775. This trajectory largely holds true across all of Milpurrurru’s work, regardless of their iconography. Nevertheless, primary market prices for art by important painters in 1994 were significantly different than they are today. At that time $3,000 would have been a very good price for a bark painting exhibited in a significant artist’s solo exhibition while today one might expect up to four times this amount. His best years at auction were 2000, when four of six works sold for a total of $24,337, and 2003, when five of six sold for $21,760. However, since then results have been nothing short of disappointing.  In 2005 Mudukuntja Hollow Log Ceremony 1986 was offered with a presale estimate of $5,000-7,000, but failed to sell. The following year his highest result remained under $4,000. In 2008, while four paintings sold of five offered, the highest price amongst them was just $2,394 recorded at Dunbar Sloane in Wellington, New Zealand. It is difficult to determine Milpurrurru’s most preferred style from his results at auction. The two highest recorded sales are marked by their particular difference in style and temperament. Pythons and Waterlilies c.1988, which sold for  $7,200 in 2004, is a work in which the figurative elements are incorporated in the overall graphic design executed predominantly in green and yellow pigment. By contrast, Gumang - The Goose Dancing Ceremony c.1983, tells an epic narrative in traditional black, red, yellow and white ochres. Even to ascertain the period of his work of greatest acclaim is difficult from his auction results. Works that have appeared on the secondary market were created between 1960 and 1993, yet no golden age is apparent over this long artistic outpouring. A rare early work Long Grass at Maningrida 1967 sold for just $2,400 in 2004 (though diminutive in size at just 46 x 27.5 cm). The work has a beautiful fragility in tune with the rustic, raw quality of older central Arnhem Land barks. The price is more indicative of Milpurrurru’s dire under-appreciation than of a rejection of his early works. This could also be said of his results in other media. Works on paper, prints, and sculpture have all suffered the same fate at auction.  Fortunately, one can still appreciate Milpurrurru’s genius through his extensive representation in major institutional galleries and museums. While we are yet to see George Milpurrurru’s finest works appear in the sale rooms, for the time being at least, it seems that he is more likely to receive his due acclaim on the walls of Australia’s top art institutions than in private collections or at auction.

Explore our artworks

See some of our featured artworks below

bottom of page