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George Mung Mung
George Mung Mung
1921 - 1991
George Mung Mung spent his life in the East Kimberley cattle industry until he finally settled, in his fifties, where he was originally born and spent his earliest years. His father, Charlie Mungmung, had worked as a police tracker stationed at Turkey Creek at the time of his birth and George began work in the stock camps while still a boy. He was employed by the manager of the Tickelera Cattle Station, Authur Muggleton, and became a drover. As a youth he travelled across the country as far as Queensland with up to 1,200 head of cattle. Later, when the new owner of Tickelara, Bill Scurthrope, sold up and moved to Spring Creek, George, now married to Betty Carrington, joined him and had a family. More than a decade later they returned to the East Kimberley to work with Jimmy Kline, the manager of Texas Downs Station where George became head stockman, and when Kline moved to Turkey Creek, George followed. He later spent four years breaking horses for Tom Davis at Lissadell Station before relocating his family to Wyndham, where his children could attend school. However, with the establishment of the Warmun Community in the mid seventies George once again returned to live at Warmun with his family. The Pastoral Award of 1969, which gave equal pay to Indigenous workers, had all but ended the lifestyle of the Aboriginal stockmen. They found themselves thrown off stations, homeless and unemployed. In its wake, Warmun provided both a shelter and, coincidentally, a site for cultural and artistic revival. This was given extra impetus when George and a number of his contemporaries, including Rover Thomas and Paddy Jaminji, were convinced that the devastation Cyclone Tracy wreaked on Darwin in 1974, was the manifestation of the Rainbow Serpent’s anger at the abandonment of traditional culture in the face of white influence. In a dream Rover Thomas was visited by the spirit of a female relative who had recently died in a car crash, and over the following year this dream became the basis of a song cycle during which the singers revisited all of the most important East Kimberley Dreaming sites. By 1978 this had developed into the Krill Krill Ceremony during which the woman’s spirit travels from the moment of her death in a medical airplane hovering over a whirlpool, to her conception site near Turkey Creek and on throughout the Kimberley to eventually end near Cape Levique as she overlooks the destruction of Darwin. From the outset, George Mung Mung aided the central figures of this invention, Rover Thomas and Paddy Jaminji, in creating the ceremonial boards for the dancers to carry in this reenactment. His own artistic development was significantly influenced by these early origins in both manner and concept. Unlike the large ephemeral ground paintings of the Western Desert with their omnipotent viewpoint, these paintings on plywood boards invited a range of different perspectives. George’s art comprised works that incorporated both aerial and lateral depictions of country simultaneously, as well as figurative profiles of ancestral animals and occasional descriptive annotation. In George Mung Mung’s works, and specifically his earliest paintings on board, naturalistic figurative representations are far more prolific than in Western Desert works, no doubt derived from the Warmun painters tendency to depict the features of the environment created by the ancestors, rather than mapping the journey of ancestral travels, as in desert painting. Initially George’s paintings differed greatly from those of his contemporaries. While Rover’s sparse canvases demonstrated a ‘simplicity that suggested there was far more to each work than met the eye' (McDonald 2004: 21), George Mung Mung’s works were characterized by more complex composition combined with greater figuration. Later he tended toward works that were far bolder and geometric, executed in a far darker palette. In these works he always portrayed the country, which in his final years he would go and visit with his wife, children and grandchildren. A favorite camping spot was Cattle Creek, where they would sit under the tree that stood just ten meters from where Betty was born and where they had married. With his family around them they would relate stories around the camp fire that would connect them all to their country. George suddenly died in 1991, just as Rover’s work was being presented at the Venice Biennale and Kimberley paintings were beginning to make a major impact on the Aboriginal art market.
George Mung Mung was amongst the initial instigators of the art movement at Warmun in the East Kimberley and as a result his works have been included in major art collections around Australia including the Holmes a Court Collection and the Berndt Museum of Anthropology. His inclusion in the latter gives insight into the anthropological value of many of his works and also explains the stellar result of $29,900 that was achieved for one of his finest works as early as 1999. The painting, Texas Country 1985, sold for almost three times its estimated $8,000-12,000. It was a remarkable work combining diverse elements such as a beautifully rendered crocodile and bird, and perspectives of distant hills, with spectacular coherency. The record price was undoubtedly deserved, both for its historical significance and its aesthetic beauty. However it was a precedent that seemed difficult to match, and the record stood until 2007, a year in which three paintings entered the artist’s top ten results. His new record-breaking work had all of the qualities of the former record holder and sold for $34,000, a tad below the high estimate placed on it in Sotheby’s July sale (Lot 120). Along with this result, Frog Hollow near Turkey Creek, an undated painting with Waringarri Aboriginal Art provenance, sold for $24,000 at Sotheby’s in November (Lot 44). It was a typically animated rendition of the landscape in which Mung Mung depicted elements in both lateral and aerial perspective. The arabesques of flowing water at the top of the painting graphically imitated the undulating hills and limestone ridges in the lower section. It incorporated an image of the Rainbow Serpent, indicating the presence of the ancestral forces that vivify the land. The final work of the three 2007 entries was a nice 1989 board featuring a statuesque image of a Kangaroo which appeared as if it were the embodiment of a particular site amongst the surrounding hills. It sold for $18,000 at Lawson~Menzies in November (Lot 117). While the best of his figurative works have done well, a large number of George’s works are executed in a very dark palette and lack the allure of works by several of his contemporaries. There has been difficulty in selling both his large, highly estimated works such as Berlanyji Country 1990, which passed in at auction both in 1999 and 2005 when offered at Philips ($20,000-25,000) and Lawson~Menzies ($25,000-35,000) respectively. Those that have failed to sell were created between 1986 and 1990 and have carried a wide variety of estimates. While two carvings of Creator Snakes both failed to sell, a lovely small carved fish created in 1988 achieved $3,120 when offered at Lawson~Menzies with an estimate of $1,500-2,000 in November 2006 (Lot 233). The best works by George Mung Mung rarely appear for sale. The majority of these were created prior to the introduction of synthetic glue binders making the quality of the surface of many works extremely delicate and alluring. The organic surfaces, figurative detail and delicacy of execution make these paintings highly desirable, and within his oeuvre there exist remarkable treasures of rare brilliance. George passed away just as Warmun began to gain wide recognition and it is amazing to recall that many of his paintings were created at a time when there really was no market for East Kimberly art at all. Mary Macha who played an influential role in promoting the work of these artists has often been quoted as remarking how very hard it was, having been told by the Aboriginal Arts and Crafts company ‘don’t buy any more of that stuff, there’s no market‘ (Laurie 2000: 14). Although this is now far from the case, George did not see the full glory that Warmun would achieve, nor have the chance to realize his own individual potential as an artist as he might have done. He was a great teacher, who was absolutely devoted to the Warmun school in his desire to pass on cultural knowledge to future generations of Gidja children, and would have been astounded and delighted to know how productively the seeds the he and his contemporaries sowed have grown to bear fruit. He is an artist whose works are included in many important public and private collections, and should never be overlooked by those fortunate enough to be present when a work becomes available for purchase.
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