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Johnny Mosquito Tjapangati

Johnny Mosquito Tjapangati

1920 - 2004

Johnny Mosquito was born in the Great Sandy Desert c.1920 and walked into the old Balgo mission when in his twenties. A Kukatja/Walmatjari speaker, his country lay south west of the current Balgo community beyond Yaga Yaga toward Lake MacKay in the vicinity of Wagulli and Kurtel (Helena Springs). During his lifetime he became the most senior ‘rainmaker’ in the Balgo Hills community and was responsible for all of the Dreamings associated with rain including rainbows, thunder, clouds, lightning and frogs. He was known to ‘bring on the monsoon each year with the aid of ritual and song, and on occasion provoke a downpour when people were (sic) over-electrified by late summer’s dryness‘ (Cowan 1995: 5).  Balgo Hills is known by its Kukatja, Ngardi, Walmatjari, Warlpiri and Pintupi inhabitants as Wirrimanu, literally meaing ‘ dirty wind ‘ a powerful force in an area that cusps the Great Sandy and Gibson Desert. In this arid dry hot landscape there is a particular gravitas attached to stories concerning permanent water sources, referred to by the inhabitants with whispered reverence as ‘living water’. These precious watercourses, rock-holes, and clay pans of Johnny Mosquito’s country were the dominant motifs in his art. He and his inseparable Wangkajunka wife Muntja Nungurrayi painted together from the earliest days of the Warlayirti Art Centre at Balgo Hills. Although they collaborated closely on all of their paintings until 1994, soon after James Cowan arrived as art coordinator he encouraged the male and female artists to paint their own individual works. The paintings that Johnny and Muntja created prior to this intervention were infinitely more complex than those that came after, but all were credited to Johnny alone. The collaboration between the two ensured that each individual painting contained a broader range of information and often depicted larger tracts of land than the individual specific sites Johnny preferred to paint when painting by himself, as he did between 1997 when Muntja passed away, and 2002 when he stopped painting altogether, two years prior to his own death. During the early days of the Warlayirti artists cooperative, prior to Cowan’s tenure, cheep cotton duck was stretched and primed in a mid-grey by mixing black and white gesso as a ground, and artist’s worked on this with brilliantly coloured, but inexpensive, student’s acrylic paint. Adopting this new medium could be seen as an extension of a long tradition amongst Indigenous artists to represent the intense colour seen in their natural environment by collecting and using materials, sometimes trading with other indigenous people across vast distances. Indeed the full colour revolution at Balgo was in large part due to women painters like Muntja, Suzie Bootja Bootja and Tjemma Freda Napanagka, in their daring desire to evoke the luscious colours of the plants and flowers of their desert landscape. This taste for luminosity spread amongst the art community in its early painting days, as the male and female painters worked alongside each other. Blue, in particular, was the first acrylic colour employed by Balgo artists from a brighter spectrum. Time however, has seen the cheap materials, applied originally as brilliant reds and yellows degrade against the grey backgrounds to affect an autumnal palette. Despite this and the aesthetic difference between the works Johnny painted pre 1994 and those created thereafter, there was continuity in the iconography of his work throughout his career as a painter derived principally from this enduring fixation upon water. Johnny’s works created after 1995 are characterized by a restricted, but brilliant palette, and emphatic simplified compositions of the most important elemental features of each particular specific site. By this time Belgian linen had replaced cotton duck, and the quality of the paints had improved markedly. Often employing brilliant shades of blue to depict water, as in both Tjintjarmudal 1994 and his later work, Marloo 1998, he also used red and occasionally yellow, separated solely by minimal white linear dots to delineate blocks of flat colour in emphisising the most important features. This contrast between his use of flat colour and vibratory dots is superb and reaches its zenith in Johnny Mosquito’s 1993-1996 paintings. Johnny is revered as having been one of the first generation of Balgo painters. Every canvas he created, even those painted at the very end of his life, reveal an interior landscape redolent with meaning and charged with energy. His longing for the distant sites visited by the great creation ancestors and sung throughout the millennia found its ultimate expression in his art.  

Johnny Mosquito Tjapangati’s paintings have had a very impressive sale rate at auction. The vast majority of his works were small and measured just 60 x 90 cm or less. Collectors of Balgo art in particular are well aware that his paintings are rare and that Johnny was a founder of the Kukatja art style and was a very special elder and artist with vast cultural knowledge. His 2002 record price held its place until 2015, when Mossgreen sold two works in seperate auctions from the Peter Elliot collection and the Alan Boxer collection, placing at 1st and 2nd, respectively. The works, painted in 1993 and 1991, sold for $23,180 and $20,070, relegating his previous record to third place and making 2015 his best year by far. He was at 48th place in the ranking of all artists of the movement that year. Before 2015, his best years at auction have been 2005, when all four works offered sold for a total for  $26,139, and 2008, when all three works offered sold of which two entered his top ten results at fourth and fifth. The first of these was a fine 1994 rendition of Kultard Rock Hole originally sold to the Sam Barry Collection by Coo-ee Aboriginal Art Gallery in Sydney. When offered at Leonard Joel in July 2008, the 120 x 80 cm work achieved $9,000 (Lot  89). An earlier image, Tjintjamatju, created by the artist in 1991, was another Sam Barry Collection work. This work had originally been offered by Sotheby’s in 2004, when it achieved a price of $8,400, the artist’s fifth highest result at the time. When reofferred in Sotheby’s October 2008 sale (Lot 130) it only did marginally better when sold for $9,000. While his average price was $12,000 in both 2001 and 2002, it dropped between 2005 and 2007, to $6,535, $5,520 and $4,392 respectively. It has risen slightly since, but the net effect has been to lower his career average to just $6,700, a very low figure indeed for an artist of this standing. Johnny Mosquito’s vivid works can often be messy, especially those painted toward the end of his life. As can be seen from the figures above, they can still be bought quite cheaply on the secondary market. This is likely to last while the fashion for minimal linear tone-on-tone works associated with the Papunya Tula style continues to dominate market interest. The secondary Aboriginal art market is still far from well educated in terms of the historical development of the various art movements that it encompasses. Johnny Mosquito Tjapangarti’s paintings are rare gems. Over time, as Aboriginal art collectors are served by publications that assist them to become better informed, they should become more discriminating. Once this occurs, interest in paintings by important Balgo Hills founders like Johnny should definitely be on the rise.

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