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John Kipara Tjakamarra

John Kipara Tjakamarra

1932 - 2002

John John, Kiparra, Kurrpurra, Kuparu, Wingantjirri, Wanyuma, Wanyima, Tanalga, Jakamarra, Jagamara, Jakamara, Djakamara,

John Kipara was born and grew up near Kulkuta west of Tjukurla north of the present-day community of Kiwirrkurra. He spent his youth in salt lake country, south-west of Lake Macdonald. His family had been one of the first groups to be re-settled at Papunya in the early sixties and after John encountered Europeans for the first time in his early 30’s he expressed his desire to join them. Shortly after arriving, John Kipara joined Anatjari Tjakamarra, Yala Yala Gibbs and Freddy West as a farm labourer and later became a founding member of the artist group that coalesced around Geoff Bardon in 1971. As the new style of painting on boards developed away from direct ceremonial references, John embraced the stories and designs of the Tingari ceremony and ancestors, becoming one of the mainstays amongst the Pintupi artists who produced this ‘classic’ iconography. Geoff Bardon remembered John Tjakamarra as a 'quiet and gentle man’ whose early paintings imitated the traditional sand mosaics that were instrumental in the preparation of traditional corroboree sites. His works of art, always executed in earthy ochre tones, were simple yet powerful in their composition. In most of his early paintings, the five-circle grids were linked by travelling lines from concentric circle to circle, reflecting the multiplicity of relationships between the land, the people and their spiritual ancestors. The U shapes denoted ceremonial men seated around sacred sites. John Kipara and other important Pintupi artists focused on this design as a result of ‘intercultural politics’(Myers, 2002: 64). The mythical travels and actions of the Tingari men and women were considered less culturally sensitive as subject matter for saleable art than those of other creator-beings which were of a more secret and sacred nature. His early paintings reflected the life force and spiritual essence he associated with his homeland area of Kulkuta and Namangka, and the Tingari ancestors who inhabited it. In 1972, he was one of four Pintupi men who assisted an Italian crew to make a film that dealt with the last traditional hunter-gatherers on earth. He was a lithe, handsome man at the time and, amongst the other Pintupi present, he was unmatched at reading the tracks of animals. He still regularly made spears and hunted kangaroos and other game with them. During the seventies, as the Papunya painting movement gathered momentum, John lived and worked at Yayayi, one of Papunya’s smaller outstations, slightly removed from the main area. Peter Fannin, the art advisor immediately after Bardon, would drive twenty-five miles out to the encampment where the artists would eagerly await his arrival, their recent works leaning up against trees or lying on spread blankets. It was a public event and the resulting payment for last month's sales noticeably boosted the resources of the community. The initial group of artists was granted a government painting allowance. They were greatly encouraged by the slowly growing public appreciation of their cultural riches, which, up until this time, had rarely been acknowledged. John worked closely with Yala Yala Gibbs and Freddy West, who were from the same homeland area. At times, they would work together on joint canvases as the concept of a personally created and owned artwork was new to them, as was the ‘white fella’s’ notion that they were building a ‘business’ together. These three men were joined by Charlie Tjapangati in working on a very large major Tingari canvas that was included in Australian Perspecta 1981, the centrepiece of the Australian contemporary art calendar at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Alongside three other Papunya paintings, art patrons were granted an introductory insight into the vast cultural and spiritual depths of the unknown interior. This was an important moment in the legitimization of Western Desert painting by the art establishment and, with gathering international interest, it became the catalyst for a re-appraisal of the identity of Australian art. Tjakamarra made an initial journey back to Kulkuta and Yawalyurru with a group of men that shared ownership of this homeland in June 1974. Finally in 1981, he followed the group of 300 men, women, and children who moved back to his Pintupi homelands to establish the community of Kintore. With the proceeds from his art sales, John Kipara lived and worked at Walungurru where Pat Hogan watched him effortlessly striding out on a hunting expedition in 1982, exhibiting skills he retained well into the 1990’s. After the 1980’s he painted fewer and fewer works and there is little evidence of his interest in painting at all after 1990, by which time he was the last remaining Papunya Tula shareholder living in the region around Tjurkurla. John Tjakamarra’s legacy lies in the classic Pintupi Tingari paintings he produced over a period of 30 years. Having grown to adulthood prior to contact and enduring only a short period of resettlement, John Kipara Tjakamarra spent the remainder of his life at his small outstation Walungurru, where he died in 2002 at seventy-two years of age, in the company of his immediate family.

Those paintings by John Kipara Tjakamarra that are not in Museums and the most important private collections are relatively rare, most especially those created in the formative period of the Desert painting movement. Very few have been offered for sale and his records, such as they are, are peppered with repeat offerings. Travels of Tingari Ancestors 1972 was first offered for sale by Sotheby’s in June 1997 with an estimate of $15,000-20,000 (Lot 25) and later in June 2000 at $50,000-70,000 (Lot 107). The buyer, who originally paid $46,000, more than twice the high estimate, would have been a little disappointed given the costs involved in selling, despite it achieving $63,000 three years later. Similarly, an untitled 1972 work that had been exhibited in the landmark exhibition Papunya Tula, Twenty One Years, at the Araluen Art Centre in 1992, sold for $17,250 when estimated at $15,000-25,000 at Sotheby’s in 1997 sale (Lot 187). The vendor must have been shocked that Sotheby’s estimated it at just $20,000-30,000 a full nine years later, and devastated when it achieved just $24,000 (Lot No. 85). You would have been forgiven, in both cases, thinking that the works offered were completely different ones from those originally purchased, so vastly different were the colours of the illustrations in the catalogues. Two works that looked almost identical until close scrutiny experienced a very different fate. Men and Women 1972 measuring 71 x 51 cm achieved a staggering $101,500; a figure that has remained the artist’s record since 1998. It was an incredible result at the time, against Sotheby’s presale estimate of $30,000-50,000 (Lot 43). Yet in July 2004 an almost identical work Untitled c.1972 was estimated by Sotheby’s at just $10,000-15,000 (Lot 99), and sold for $18,000. Only three boards from the formative period have failed to find a buyer. One was a rather crudely executed ‘attributed’ work, Untitled (Kangaroo Story) c.1972 that was almost definitely not created by this artist despite its attribution at the time. It was offered at Sotheby’s in June 2002. Another was, without doubt, one of his finest. It was offered at a bargain estimate of just $15,000-25,000 at Sotheby’s in June 2000. (Lot 33). The depiction, in a work which was executed on the masonite interior lining of a car door, included sacred bullroarers and the participants gathered during ceremony. It had all the ethnographic and ‘outsider art’ qualities to excite the ardent collector. Yet it mysteriously failed to sell. Very little interest at all has been shown in any of his later works. In fact, works produced after he actually left Papunya and returned to his homeland have generally sold, but not sold well. As with most 1980s Papunya works, they fail to excite contemporary buyers and are overlooked by ethnophiles.  The best of these, Snake Dreaming at Pilkartu 1987, achieved $12,000 which was squeezed out of the artist’s top ten results in 2009. Carrying Papunya Tula and Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi provenance, and measuring a healthy 183 x 122 cm, it sold at twice its high estimate. Nothing has matched the artsit's first three years on the secondary market. Between 1997 and 2000 all 12 works offered sold and his average price stood at $21,916. Since then, results have been far more ordinary. Between 2002 and 2003 all four works offered failed to find a buyer although things improved a bit between then and 2007 with eight works sold and five unsold. Fresh early works by this artist are unlikely to appear very often in the market and will always attract interest. Collectors would be well advised to avoid anything produced after 1980 unless it is spectacular. 2012 was a good example of this. A fine 1971 work Big Pintupi Dreaming entered his top ten results after selling for $29,280. John Kipara Tjakamarra did not develop further as an artist once separated from the intense creative environment of Bardon’s painting room. Like the early boards by other founding Desert painters, those by this artist attract a very specialized interest and, while they will always hold their value, their real interest should never be a financial one. The men who created them were the real deal, and this particular great old desert man just wanted to live out bush the way he had before he came into contact with white men and their curiosity about his ancient culture.   

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