Kitty Kantilla was born c1928 at Yimpinari, on the eastern side of Melville Island, and lived a traditional life as a child, only exchanging the paperbark roof of her youth for mission life in her adulthood. The mission settlement located on the eastern coast of Bathurst Island some 100 kilometres across the waters to the north of Darwin had been established in 1911 and those who worked in the mission received rations such as beef, flour, honey and tea to supplement their bush tucker. In 1970 Kitty, along with a number of other countrywomen, created a tiny outstation in her mother’s country at Paru, on Melville Island just across the waters of the Aspley Stait within sight of the growing township of Nguiu. It was here that Kitty first began working as an artist, with a group of widowed women who became renowned during the early 1980’s for their iron wood sculptures of ancestor figures drawn from the Purukupali legend. By the late 1970’s, the pottery, established in Darwin at the Bagot reserve by Eddy Puruntatamerri and others, had been reestablished in Nguiu. This was joined in 1978 by Tiwi Pima Art, which encouraged the production of traditional arts including wood carving, bark painting, and weaving. In the early 1980’s a fabric printing facility, Tiwi Design, was established and by 1985 all three enterprises came under the same management. The Paru women sold their work through this facility on Bathurst Island until, by the early 1990’s, most of them had passed away. Without their support and friendship, Kitty moved in to Milikapiti (Snake Bay), where Jilamara Arts and Crafts had grown from an Adult Education centre supporting more and more artists who lived closer to their own country. Here as she grew older, she ventured away from sculpture and began working on canvas and paper. The roots of Kitty Kantilla’s art, regardless of medium, was always tied to the fundamental Tiwi creation story. This classic morality tale is the equivalent in Tiwi Culture to that of the Ramayana or Mahabarata in Asia and India, or Adam and Eve and their fall from grace amongst Christians. In the Tiwi version of creation, Bima, the wife of Purukapali, makes love to her brother in law while her son Jinani, left lying under a tree in the sun, dies of exposure. Purukapali becomes enraged and after his wife is transformed into a night curlew he begins an elaborate mourning ceremony for his son. This was the first Pukumani (mortuary) ceremony, and tells how death first came to the Tiwi Islands. It remains at the centre of Tiwi culture to this day 'as a nucleus for the entire Tiwi world-view' (McDonald 2003). Kitty Kantilla’s art, and indeed all Tiwi art, is informed by the ornate body painting of the Pukumani ceremony. What makes the art of Kitty Kantilla and those of her generation so inherently important is that the meaning of these designs, characterized by abstract patterns made up of dots and lines, has been largely lost since the missionary era. She was amongst the very last who inherited these designs intact from her father. In her own words, ‘I watched him as a young girl and I’ve still got the design in my head’ (Ryan 2004: 394). In the early period of Kantilla’s works on paper and canvas her style consisted of white, red, and yellow dots against a black background. The fields of dots were punctuated solely by bands of solid colour or geometric shapes. By 1997 she began painting on a white background, thereby reversing the colour dynamics and energy of her works. Still maintaining exquisite attention to detail, her style varied once more in 2002, when she began to employ large blocks of textured colour, punctuated by small segments of dots and lines on both black and white underlay. This subtle mastery over abstraction, anchored to the very essence of her culture, and the trembling impression of her marks at this late stage of her life, evoked the movement of participants as they sang and danced during ceremony. Art critic Sebastian Smee most aptly described Kitty Kantilla as ‘a poet of small scale contrasts’ (2000: 22). In her final years, though frail, she could imbue her works, despite their lack of figuration, with her mixed feelings about the passing of the old ways and the uncertainty about the new. Her art practice and her reputation during the last decade of her life was greatly enhanced by the very special relationship she shared with Gabriella Roy who promoted her as an artist of renown with regular solo exhibitions at her Aboriginal and Pacific Gallery in Sydney. In 2000 Kitty participated in the Adelaide Biennale of Australian Art, and in 2002 she won the works on paper award at the 19th Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Awards in Darwin. Kitty Kantilla, was honoured with a posthumous retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria which opened in 2007 and toured nationally.
While Kitty Kantilla may not have achieved the highest results of all Tiwi artists, but she has received by far the greatest recognition, due principally to the fact that she was the only Tiwi artist of her generation to have been properly represented by an exhibiting gallery.
Her early works were mainly paintings on bark and sculptures decorated in traditional ochre designs. It is her sculptures that took up most of the running in pushing her results during the period post 2010. Despite vast differences in size 13 of the 14 sculptures that have come up for auction have sold for an average of $11,133 and a 30 x 92 cm bark created in 1989 doubled its top estimate selling for $10,800 at Lawson Menzies in May 2005 (Lot 9). Other than that, no other bark paintings have come on the market. Their scarcity has enhanced their value and in time they are likely to become as coveted as her rare and delicate late career paintings.
Unfortunately, Kitty only had access to arches paper and stretched canvases toward the end of her life and, being such a tiny, fragile, elderly person who took great care with her artwork, she was unable to produce a large number of paintings. The highest average prices for paintings by Kitty Kantilla have been for works that were created during the last four yeas of her life. The 1999 paintings that have sold achieved an average price twice that of works on canvas produced between 1995 and 1997. Her highest price was achieved for a work measuring 93 x 82 cm and created in 2001 which sold at Sotheby’s in July 2003 (Lot 87) for $67,475 while an equally large work created in 1998 (offered in June 2002 at Sotheby’s (Lot 30)) sold for $54,550. 2015 saw a work created in 1998 achieve her new second highest record. Sold from the Laverty Collection at Deutscher & Hackett it achieved $66,000 including buyer's premium during a year in which all 10 of the works on offer sold to eager buyers. Though her average price for the year was slightly lower than her career average, she was the 14th most successful artist that year compared to her overall career standing in 42nd place. In 2016 she was 31st but this was not good enough to improve her overall career ranking.
Kantilla's works on canvas consistently exceeded their estimates until 2004, when the auction houses reappraised the values collectors were prepared to offer for her best quality works. The most graphic indication of this is exemplified by the resale of an untitled work created in 1997. Sold for a mere $3,220 in 1999, it went on to achieve $31,050 in 2004.
However, despite the fact that the sale prices for Kitty Kantilla’s works have been rising over the years, it is surprising that a very interesting 2002 canvas, measuring 77 x 96 cm, failed to sell with an extremely reasonable estimate of only $25,000-35,000 (Lot 127) in Sotheby’s July 2006 auction. Kurlama (Yam) Ceremony in Rain, 1999 achieved just $33,600 when sold at Lawson~Menzies in March 2008 (Lot 246) after having first been purchased from the same auction house three years earlier for $40,800. The work had spent the intervening years touring regional galleries in the Masterworks from the Lawson~Menzies Collection exhibition and one would have expected that the additional provenance conferred would have seen this work sell for a premium. It was painted on a black ground and aesthetically it seems like the darker the overall effect of her artwork, the less favourably it is received. Conversely, the lighter the background and the finer the line work, the higher the value collectors have been prepared to pay. Perhaps the overly dark reproduction of this very painting in Sotheby’s July 2004 catalogue (Lot 50) deterred buyers when it first failed to sell with a $40,000-60,000 estimate; with a better enhanced illustration the following year it sold for $40,800 in the 2005 Lawson-Menzies May sale.
After Kitty's retrospective held at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2007, 2008 was a good one for this artist. Of the eight works offered four achieved prices that well exceeded her career average. 2009 saw 14 works being offered, of which 11 sold for a total value of $137,760. Kulama (Yam) Ceremony in Rain 1999 sold for $31,200 creeping into Kantilla’s top ten. 2010 brought equally consistent results, 11 of 15 works sold for a total value of $121,579 and a new record was set at sixth place. However this work had been offered three times over the previous five years, and is recorded as the artist’s seventh, eighth and ninth record. Each successive sale has brought a small dip in value. The hype surrounding the artist’s retrospective may have generated heat, but as the years progress, sellers with high expectations have generally been disappointed. This trend is further illustrated in 2017, where, even though 11 out of the 15 works on offer sold, almost everty sale placed either at the lower end of the pre-sale estimate or below it altogether, resulting in an average price of $8,148. The saving grace of 2017 was an untitled work from 1997, selling for a very impressive $34,160 and placing 11th on her list of highes prices.
Overall it is worth noting that Kitty Kantilla’s best works have yet to reach the secondary market. Anyone fortunate enough to have bought one of her later canvases with very fine lines and tiny dots on a white background may not wish to part with it unless increasing prices prove just too tempting. Her finest works of exquisite beauty, subtlety, and intricacy will always find an eager audience. Their beauty holds broad appeal for 'the freely drawn geometric patterns and planes, have an instinctive rightness that both invites and defies analysis' (McDonald 2003: 395). This was perhaps the case with the exquisite work that sold at Sotheby's June Auction in Melbourne in 2011 (Lot 72), creating her new fifth record, in an otherwise flat year. Pumpuni Jilamara 2002 could easily be attributed the praise bestowed upon Kantilla's best work, a few blocks of geometric shapes appear almost to float upon a fine sea of dots.
Almost universally, works on paper attract far less value in the market than similar works in size and aesthetics on canvas or linen. Yet many of Kitty Kantilla’s very finest works were produced in this less lucrative medium where the vivaciousness and vitality of her art appears enlivened upon the paper’s surface. Collectors would be well advised to seek these out. Kantilla’s works on paper present a fortunate opportunity to own an inexpensive yet beautiful masterpiece, rather than settling for a more expensive, lesser work on canvas.