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George Ward Tjungurrayi

George Ward Tjungurrayi


George Ward Tjungurrayi encountered welfare patrols while living in the desert near Tjukurla W.A. southeast of Kiwirrkurra, and west of Kintore. Although they were born of different mothers George Ward shared the same father with Yala Yala Gibbs and Willy Tjunurrayai. He arrived in Papunya in the early 1960’s while still in his teenage years and worked as a fencer and butcher in the community kitchen. Beginning to paint in 1976, he initially  assisted senior artists who worked within the tightly knit group of established Pintupi painters. The creation of large works during these early years of the Western Desert art movement involved many men at various levels of responsibility. For the younger ones, like George, it was an apprenticeship in the skills, knowledge and cultural obligations required for the artistic vocation and for eventual ceremonial leadership within his tribal area. He left Papunya with his young family during the late 1970’s and lived for a time in Warburton, Wiluna and Jigalong before working as an assistant on Uta Uta’s monumental Yumari canvas in 1981. Spurred on after listening intently to the discussions amongst the Pintupi elders about returning to their traditional lands, George moved to Kintore later that same year and, in 1984, moved even deeper into Pintupi territory and finally settled at Warakurna from where he frequently travels between the Western Desert and Alice Springs. During the early eighties, George was reputed to have painted the mythical journeys of the Tingari ancestors through his country. He followed the traditional manner of concentric circles and dotted infill using earth colours. He did not begin painting in earnest however until after the death of his brother Yala Yala Gibbs in 1998.  It was from this period that his career as a painter could be said to have started in earnest. He rapidly developed his own style based on men’s designs used to adorn ceremonial artefacts including dance regalia with their mesmeric interlocking geometric and parallel linear patterning. In the groundbreaking exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW (Papunya Tula Genesis and Genius, 2000), that chartered the emergence of the contemporary Aboriginal art movement, George Ward was one of the lesser-known artists, yet he already stood out with his tendency towards a ‘stripped down’ iconography (Rex Butler). His own style was emerging and it leaned heavily towards abstraction. It emphasized the bold linear qualities of the Pintupi painters but moved away from the distinctive Western Desert dots and lexicon of iconographs that were developed during the first five years of the movement. George would start with simple designs that marked the features of his country such as sand hills, waterholes or dreaming sites but then take flight within his own artistic process. His work came to less represent a particular Dreaming and more, like abstract art of the European tradition, while exploring the concept of Dreaming itself (or even more so, the sense of Dreaming and the energy or awareness it aroused). George would experiment with mixing a limited colour combination to produce different optical effects, sometimes bold contrasting stripes and at other times gentle undulating harmonies. His connection to country is felt in the powerful sense of vibrancy that emanates from his paintings. The canvas seems to pulsate or shimmer. The reworked surfaces at times change colour on one brush to effect silvery shadows that flicker alongside his long, fluid, painterly strokes. The imperative of his Dreaming springs from his artistic expressiveness, breaking through the constraints of tradition and its culturally specific focus.   Sometimes in the history of an art movement, such breaks with tradition can seem at first to be transgressive but in George’s case his creative trajectory chimed perfectly with public sensibility. The great success of Emily Kngwarreye’s work during the mid 1990’s confirmed the market’s demand for painterliness and Georges Ward's imagery showed both the sought after degree of abstraction as well as an individuality of expression. The earlier phase of direct articulation of symbols and designs based on ceremony had provided the foundational starting point, but the booming national and international interest was hungry for the leading edge. The reputation of artists such as George Ward rose to prominence and was reflected in the continuing refinement and sophistication of their particular trademark styles. He was awarded the prestigious Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2004 and since that time his work has appeared in many important collections and exhibitions both in Australia and overseas. He subsequently worked for a time in Alice Springs, producing works of high quality for a number of private dealers, most importantly Tony Mason, for whom he painted a number of major works. While several entered good collections and have achieved high prices at auction, the controversy following articles on the Alice Springs art trade during 2004 and 2005 have unfairly hardened the attitude of a section of the market toward these and other works created outside of the ‘Papunya Tula’ company. This is unjustified, given their quality. Nevertheless, despite the politics of the contemporary Aboriginal art market and the burgeoning interest in his work, George himself has continued to paint since that time in his air-conditioned garage at Kintore or on canvases carried with him to Warakurna, deep in the Australian desert. He remains the quintessential desert nomad who has been described as a modernist who ‘redeems the past’ by revealing to his audience the wonder of its true potential.  (Butler, 2002).

George Ward appears to have painted very little between his brief years living at Papunya in the mid to late 1970s and the late 1990s, when he took up painting once more in earnest. Not one single work has appeared at auction that was painted between 1978 and 1998, and it would seem he was not at all active as a painter during this period. Every one of his 10 highest results was painted from 2003 onward, and it is these highly abstracted Tingari Dreamings that his reputation is founded on. They fall into two categories; those few created for Papunya Tula, and the majority that were created for independent dealers. In fact only three works, including his 2nd highest record, carry Papunya Tula provenance amongst his top ten results. Soakage Water at Kirrimalunya 2004 set a record for the artist, and a powerful precedent when this 182 x 305 cm non-art centre work sold at Lawson~Menzies in May 2006 for $42,000 (Lot 144). Despite high demand in the primary market during 2000-2005, most especially after he won the Wynne Prize for landscape art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2004, only 5 works have sold for more than $20,000. However few major works have been offered. Interestingly, though many paintings have failed to sell at auction, there are very few indeed that could have been considered to be major paintings. Only 3 carried presale estimates as high as $15,000-25,000. This leads to speculation that his major works are hard to come by and should do well whenever they appear for sale. Only 10 have ever been offered at auction with a low estimate at or above $12,000 and 7 of these have sold. The dominance of minor works that have gone through sales has skewed George Ward's results downward and taken some shine off his success during the last decade. He is now in his mid seventies and has been painting prodigiously only since 2000, and  prolificly since 2004. Due to fact that he now paints for a number of independent dealers, his work can be found in many good galleries and is regularly promoted through ads in art magazines and this has certainly fueled what has been an extremely buoyant market for his work. Provided the current preference for aesthetic abstraction continues, and works of quality are accompanied with excellent documentation, there is every reason to expect George Ward Tjungurrayi’s best paintings will continue their growth in value. He is a fine artist who still has the dexterity that many of his older peers have now lost. In time collectors will come to understand more clearly the social and economic parameters at work amongst the artists and dealers of Alice Springs. As they do, prejudice against works created for independent dealers by artists of the caliber of George Ward Tjunurayai should lessen considerably.

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