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Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa
Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa
1926 - 1989
Karpa, Jampijinpa, Djambidjimpa, Tjambitjimba; Mbijani, Mbijana, Mbitjana
Although born west of Napperby at the Emu Dreaming site of Altijira, Kaapa’s father’s country lay to the west at Warlurkulangu, the ancestral bushfire site in Warlpiri country, while his mother was Anmatjerre/Arrernte from further east. After a year of seclusion during initiation at Napperby he became a stockman at the adjacent Mount Allan station and subsequently worked cattle in what was a physically demanding and often-dangerous life. He then spent a period droving cattle between the Tanami desert and Mount Isa in North Queensland after which he settled for a time in Haasts Bluff along with his younger ‘brother’ Dinny Nolan Tjampitjinpa and their cousins Tim Leura, Clifford Possum and Billy Stockman with whom he had grown up. After the entire community was moved to Papunya in the late 1950’s, due in part to the lack of potable water, Kaapa became renowned, at least by the white authorities, as a disruptive influence and was said to have been involved in a number of activities involving grog running and antisocial behaviour. By the time of Geoffrey Bardon’s arrival at Papunya in 1970, the police officers at Papunya considered him to be an 'incorrigible drunk and unsettling influence'. Even Bardon described him in 1970 as a 'two legged human swag' (Johnson 2008), however it wasn’t long before he came to consider Kaapa a highly intelligent and gifted man who, like many of his kin, had been intimidated by whites and set adrift from his cultural roots when his traditional lands were divided up for European cattle stations. Yet even before the contemporary art movement began in 1971, Aboriginal community members already respected Kaapa as an important artist, who was often called upon to paint ceremonial objects for Anmatjerre and Arrernte tribal purposes. He had been painting watercolour landscapes in a ‘Hermannsburg School’ style before Bardon arrived and was amongst the first to begin working with him. It was not surprising therefore that, when the older men came together to paint the Honey Ant mural on the school wall, Kaapa was immediately appointed their leader and the enthusiasm of the group painting the mural became focused through Kaapa’s already accomplished skills and his singular creative commitment. Bardon had been unsuccessfully trying to encourage the school children to paint the traditional patterns he had seen them drawing in the playground sand. The idea of the mural soon attracted the attention of the older men and Bardon quickly realized that, in keeping with cultural values, he had to be ‘given’ a design by the tribal law givers. The subject matter had to be agreed upon as acceptable for general viewing and not trespass upon the secret, sacred imagery that in Aboriginal society provides the vehicle for social and spiritual initiation. The Honey Ant is a mythical ancestor who emerges from the ground and moves across it, creating the landforms which young children are taught to recognize as part of their familiar terrain. Bardon questioned Kaapa’s first honey ant, as it appeared on the wall in what seemed to follow a Europe style depiction: 'Not ours,' Kaapa told him, 'yours.' 'Well paint yours!' Bardon replied, 'Aboriginal honey ants!' It was after this brief exchange and following a whispered consultation with the other men, Bardon recalled, that the authentic Honey Ant ‘hieroglyph’ appeared with its true traveling marks around it, painted lovingly by Kaapa with his deft and sinuous hand. There was cheering and rejoicing from the gathering crowd and, as Bardon later wrote 'this was the beginning of the Western Desert painting movement…Something strange and marvelous was set in motion' (1991: 21). Kaapa was a charismatic figure, yet he needed encouragement at first to reveal his true self. He did not trust white people. They had mocked his artistic endeavors in the past and he was initially hesitant to become a member of the new painting group. His extraverted bravado had facilitated his survival in often harsh and unfriendly conditions but sometimes it fell aside to reveal a miserable discontent. Over and above this dilemma however, Kaapa nurtured a unique sense of vocation as an artist in his own right, seeking out the best materials, ascertaining his own position, and unlike the others, signing his works from the very start. His natural talent and skilled technical ability was recognized when he surprised the Northern Territory art world by becoming the first Aboriginal to win the Alice Springs Caltex Golden Jubilee Art Award in 1971. A spate of sales followed and the jubilant painting group elected him founding chairman of Papunya Tula Artists in 1972. It was he who held the key to the painting room, arriving early to keep a check on supplies and setting himself up at his regular spot facing the door, ready to talk to visitors or working with immense concentration at the only table and chair. He was a central figure during the company’s first decade and despite failing to maintain the same level of intimate intensity and detail in his works post 1975, he remained influential amongst Papunya-based painters throughout the rest of his life (Bardon 2000: 201). Kaapa’s early paintings show designs and motifs painted on a plain black or orange ochre background, including realistic figures finely decorated with body paint as well as ceremonial objects such as shields, spears, and ceremonial boards. Early collectors were keen on Kaapa’s graphic clarity and symmetry of design. His ability to paint intimate details with the brush and to build an ordered sense of story appealed to European sensibilities. Yet over the years following Bardon’s departure, the confluence of artists, advisors, and widening public reaction propelled developments in painting at Papunya towards a less representational, evolving modern style. Ancient Dreaming myths that had traditionally been told through song, dance and ground painting could not transfer literally to paintings on board and canvas without revealing restricted ceremonial knowledge. Kaapa was encouraged by Bardon and subsequent art advisors, to concentrate on the essentials of a story, still infusing it with the rhythm of its telling but without revealing secret or specific details. In doing so, much of the power and authority inherent in Kaapa’s subsequent works was dissipated under the veil of dots, which became more prevalent. At first the dots were used to conceal sacred references but more often they were used to emphasize design elements or create a sense of grounding. These subsequent works were popular at the time as Kaapa’s renown grew, but time has revealed these to be far less successful artistically. Kaapa’s greatest artistic legacy was the monumental Budgerigar series 1972, which negotiated a very close line between the secret and the secular. A characteristic dynamic of balance and counterbalance magnifies a powerful sense of presence in these paintings that confirmed his status as a master artist. Detailed brushwork captivates the viewer with a precise visual vocabulary, every stroke vibrating with life and purpose. The much loved tales of the tiny, colourful birds that chirp and flutter around desert waterholes after rain, give full expression in these paintings to Kaapa’s love of spectacle. These works clearly demonstrate that the changing expectations of others, in relation to his painting, never deeply disturbed his own driven and creative trajectory. Kaapa continued to test the boundaries of his art until his death in Alice Springs in 1989. He was one of the first desert artists to be openly assisted by his female relatives in the completion of his works during the 1980’s. While art advisers and observers expressed concern, Kaapa’s status as a highly respected elder, saw him brush these Eurocentric concerns aside as he insisted that this was entirely consistent with Anmatjerre law and cultural practice. However his works of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s with their floral backgrounds and decorative content have not stood the test of time. Kaapa Mbitjana Tjampitjinpa was an artist of the highest importance in the development of Western Desert art. During the early 1970’s he created 'some of the most powerful and emblematic paintings from the Central Desert' (Kean 1990: 567). Yet it is for his early works that his renown endures. The finest examples are held in major collections throughout Australia and overseas, and these remain his greatest and most enduring legacy.
While the most valuable of Kaapa’s paintings to date have proven to be those painted when Bardon was in Papanya between 1971 and 1972, boards sold at auction that were painted subsequent to Bardon's departure are generally superior as works of art than his earliest paintings. It is likely that this is the case because his enthusiasm at that time pushed him toward further developing his style. As Kaapa had a tendency to paint the story outline onto the board in a geometrically balanced manner, those with a varied and intricately in-filled background tend to be more appealing. Most of his ‘Budgerigar Dreaming’ story-boards from that 1971-1972 period are complex in design and replete with deeply embedded cultural knowledge. Budgerigar Dreaming (Number 6)1972 is a perfect case in point. The board measuring 65 x 92 cm, achieved the artist’s record price when sold by Sotheby’s in 2006. Its ceremonial context was enhanced by the schematic figure of a dancing participant created by the clever placement of tjuringa boards representing the dancers arms, legs and torso. This magnificent board sold for $216,000 against a presale estimate of $100,000-150,000 (Lot 81). The price was nearly three times the $79,000 that was paid for the same work in the Sotheby’s 1999 auction. In that same sale in 1999, Sotheby’s achieved the artist’s third best price of $145,500 for a larger 95 x 121.5 cm board called Ngalyilpi Dreaming 1972 which, if offered again in the future, should surpass the current record, set in 2008, due to its unusually complex delicate design and ethereal nature, and because of the increasing value of Kaapa’s better works of this period in the market. Sotheby’s set a new record of $276,000 in October 2008, for Goanna Corroboree at Mirkantji (Lot 95), the board that won Kaapa the Caltex Golden Jubilee Art Award in 1971. The 1971 board had previously appeared for sale in Lawsons Aboriginal art sale fourteen years earlier in 1994. On that occasion it had been catalogued as Story of a Journey with no date, and had sold for a mere $9,200 hammer. One interesting offering in 2006 was the beautiful Budgerigar Dreaming c.1991-1992, executed in the style of his magnificent series of ten works which Bardon himself referred to as the artist’s ‘ultimate achievement.' This painting achieved his sixth highest result at the time, despite its less than pristine condition, when it sold for $72,000 at Lawson~Menzies in November 2006 (Lot 40); a more than fair return for the owner who paid just $10 when he found it in a garage sale in Victoria in 1981. A number of Kaapa’s earliest boards painted 1971 have not fared so well at auction. These tend to have rather stiff designs on plain, often black, backgrounds. The highest price achieved for a 1971 board prior to his current record sale was the $94,500 paid for Untitled (Kangaroo Ceremony) sold in Sotheby’s July 2004 auction (Lot 209). Collectors should be aware that, despite the artist’s three highest results having exceeded $100,000, even if painted within the 1971-1972 period, a Kaapa board doesn’t necessarily fetch more than $50,000. In 2015 for instance, two 1971 boards accompanied by extensive notes from Bardon sold for $21,960 and $19, 520. And in 2016, while three of four works on offer found new homes, Kaapa's magnificent Budgerigar Dreaming Number 6 (previously sold to the Lucso Family Collection for $216,000 in 2006 failed to find a buyer while carrying a pre-sale estimate of $150,000 - $200,000 and two nice boards created in 1972 and 1973 achieved just $29,760 andf $21,080. Collectors would be well advised to exersise caution when buying works by Kaapa. It would be best to consider the work carefully before paying too much for any early board, especially when the imagery consists of a stiff geometrically balanced design on a plain background. Even more so if it was not documented by Bardon or by Peter Fannin, his immediate successor at Papunya Tula. A significant number of these ‘un-provenanced’ boards have sold for less than $10,000. Kappa’s less successful works are those produced during the 1980s and prices for his paintings fall from those created during 1974-1975 onwards. The trends of both increasing failure rates and decreasing average prices accelerate dramatically for his works beyond those produced in the early 1970s. Kaapa's results tell a very salutary story for investors. Overall, 156 paintings of the 235 offered since auction records began have sold at an average price of $16,982. The highest price paid for a work created in 1973 is $24,150 and this was for a most unusual and very rare 173 x 204 cm canvas sold at Sotheby’s in 1997. Clearance rates are sightly better for paintings created in 1974 and 1975 BUT, their average prices drop dramatically to just above $5,500 and $3,000. 1976 cannot have been a good year for Kaapa the artist, at all. Of those works that have been submitted for auction only four out of ten works he produced have sold for an average of just over $1,000, with the highest price paid being $1,610 for a 41 x 81.5 cm board sold at Deutscher~Menzies in 1999. Some subsequent results have been better, however Kaapa’s interest in painting during the 1980s obviously waned. Sotheby’s have invariably included most of these un-illustrated in their catalogues with estimates tending to be below $2,000. The average paid for a work from the 1980s is just over $1,800. One or two works have reappeared at auction and done well. For example a 1977 untitled work more than doubled its 1999 sale price at Sotheby’s after originally selling for $9,160 in Shapiro’s October 2003 auction (Lot 166). However, at the other extreme, a 1974 Native Orange board fell in value from its Sotheby’s 1997 result of $14,375 to $9,000 when subsequently offered at Sotheby’s in 2006 (Lot 28). Another, Wild Orange Dreaming 1971, failed to sell at Deutscher~Menzies in 2000, but subsequently achieved $55,300 when offered at the same estimate of $35,000-45,000 at Sotheby’s just a year later. Offered once more by Sotheby’s in October 2008 it failed to sell again while carrying a presale estimate of $60,000-80,000 (Lot 98), but managed to achieve $45,600 when once again reoffered at Sotheby's in 2010 (Lot 59). Taking all in to account, prices of Kaapa’s works produced during 1971 and 1972 (that unique moment in the history of Australian art which marks the beginning of the Western Desert art movement) will remain strong and continue to grow in importance and value. Nevertheless, those collectors who wish to own a work by an important founding artist can do so relatively inexpensively. For the foreseeable future, there is a real opportunity for one or two collectors to build a large holding of the works Kaapa created after 1973 and into the 1980s at little cost, and re-present them in a more enlightened way to great advantage some time in the future.
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