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Lily Kelly Napangardi

Lily Kelly Napangardi

Born at Dashwood Creek in 1948, Lilly Kelly Napangardi arrived at Haasts Bluff as a baby in the arms of her mother Narputta and her father Sandy Opal Tjapanangka. The family moved to the newly established settlement of Papunya in 1958 when Lilly was still a young girl and her father became one of the original Papunya Tula shareholders.  In the late 1970’s Lilly married Norman Kelly Tjampitjinpa and began assisting him with his paintings while living at Papunya, before the family moved 75 km west to Mt Liebig at the foot of the McDonnell ranges. Lilly Kelly began painting in her own right for Papunya Tula Artists during the mid 1980’s when the company's field officers first began visiting Mt.  Liebig regularly, and in 1986, she won the Northern Territory Art Award for a painting entitled Watiyawanu. The win drew attention to the growing number of artists in Mount Leibig and the nascent art centre operated by the shop owners in the community. During the 1990’s Norman Kelly moved to Lajamanu and took a second wife while Lilly remained at Mount Leibig and brought up their three children. In time, while she continued to paint without particular distinction, she became one of the senior Law Women of the community, and the custodian over the Women Dreaming stories associated with Kunajarrayi, in Warlpiri and Luritja country stretching between Mt Liebig, Haasts Bluff, Kintore and Coniston. Recognized as a senior law woman she passed on her knowledge of traditional law and ceremonial dancing and singing to her children, eleven grandchildren, and other young women of her clan. With the success of the Watiyawarnu art centre, Lilly Kelly’s paintings began once more to gain national attention from 2000 onward through its participation in the annual Desert Mob exhibition in Alice Springs and her own selection as a finalist in the NATSIA Telstra awards. Her depictions of country during this period and thereafter referred to sand hills, the effect of wind and rain on the desert landscape, and the crucial waterholes found in the area. The best of these works evoke the ephemeral nature of the drifting, changing sandy country in the finest microcosmic detail. Rain streaks the land as it runs off the sand hills while the blowing wind folds them into the undulating waves of an infinite expanse. Yet beholding each work in is entirety is to view the landscape in macrocosm as the eye follows the hypnotic fine doting and muted tones that build up into a mysterious, enigmatic topography of her land. Rendered in intricate detail, with subtle colour variations these paintings covey powerful and inspiring visions of her country with an apparent accuracy. Early examples of Lilly Kelly's sandhill paintings are rendered using a dotting technique, which diminishes the size of the dots with each row, rather than her later works which diminish the dots within each evolving line. Earlier works therefore have a more meditative settled quality and stronger formal compositional structure. In her later works the ebb and flow of the dotting is evocative, rhythmic and ultimately engaging.  Lilly Kelly has been described by those who know her art practice intimately, as an action painter. They suggest that her works are essentially haptic and unplanned and that she engages in painting without any formal schema in mind.  If this is the case, then it is likely that it is, in fact, this informality that evokes such a powerful response from the viewer. The first institutional purchase was of two spectacular major works to the Art Gallery of New South Wales arranged through Neil Murphy Indigenous Art, which organized a solo exhibition for the artist at Span Galleries in Melbourne in the same year. In the wake of her Melbourne success Kelly was reputedly under consideration for inclusion in the 2004 Biennale of Sydney however, although nominally represented byWatiyawanu Artists, she has painted indiscriminately for many dealers in Alice Springs since that time and attempts to present her works at the highest level have, unfortunately failed. Lilly Kelly is a very fine artist who, if handled professionally, is capable of greatness and with this no doubt in mind, Australian Art Collector Magazine selected her as one of Australia's 50 most collectable artists for 2006. Yet in equal measure she produces perfunctory works motivated more by income than the pleasure of creative engagement. A number of her finest paintings have been acquired by major international collectors including Thomas Vroom and Richard Kelton as well as being added to several Australian State art galleries. The magnificent paintings held by the Art Gallery of NSW, rated by Murphy as the artist’s finest, were exhibited in the exhibition Gifted: Contemporary Aboriginal Art: The Molly Gowing Acquisition Fundin 2006/2007.    

Lilly Kelly is one of three Mount Leibig female artists whose careers have burgeoned post 2000. While Ngoia Pollard, who won the Telstra National Aboriginal Art Award in 2006, and Wentja Napaltjarri, have arguably established a higher profile than Kelly amongst exhibiting galleries in the primary market their sales at auction have been too infrequent to have established a secondary market presence as yet. There is little doubt  however that, in time, they will join Kelly and Bill Whiskey amongst the top 100 artists. Lilly Kelly’s auction records are completely dominated by works created after 2000 including all of her top ten results.  One of the few exceptions amongst the 59 works that have been offered was a work created as early as 1989. It is the only Papunya Tula provenanced painting that has appeared for sale despite the fact that she created works for the company for almost a decade beginning in the mid 1980’s. When offered at Christies Auctioneers in October 2004 (Lot 21) the rather generic Untitled work failed to attract a buyer despite its provenance. All of her top four results however were created for Watiyawarnu Art, the semi-official art centre in Mount Leibig while works created for independent dealers litter her best sales. Lilly Kelly’s work first appeared at auction in 2004 more than a decade after the fist specialist Aboriginal art sale and nearly two decades after she began painting. Few works of significance had appeared by the end of 2005 however in 2006, her most successful year at sale, 13 works were offered of which nine sold for a total value of $95,805. During the following year eight sold of 13 offered and although her works fared slightly worse during 2008, thereby dropping her average price to slightly below $10,000, her career clearance rate is still a relatively healthy 53%. In 2009 an incredible  22 works were offered for sale. That nine found buyers at a total value $37,410 is not all that bad. The artist’s response to her success in the primary market created a glut of paintings in the auction houses with estimates predominately upwards of $15,000. The most ambitious being Sotheby’s estimate of $30,000-40,000 a work entitled Sandhills in their July sale (Lot 89).  The number of highly estimated works that have failed however should be of deep concern-the downside perhaps of a badly mismanaged career. Not entirely unrealistic considering her record price at auction was achieved for a work of the highest quality commissioned by Neil Murphy through Watiyawarnu. Sandhills Around Mount Leibig2004, measuring 176 x 120 cm. sold for $39,600 against a presale estimate of just $12,000-16,000 at Sotheby's in July 2007 (Lot 167). This transcended the previous record set by another very fine work from the same original source which had sold in Lawson~Menzies November 2006 sale for $24,000 (Lot 42). Most of the 31 works that have sold in the secondary market have been relatively large with few falling below 90 x 120 cm. As a result only eight works have sold for less than $2,500 while eight have achieved prices between $5000 and $10,000 and six have sold for more. Surprisingly it has been Elder Fine Art in Adelaide that have championed Lilly Kelly’s works in the secondary market having sold eight for a total of $49,270. This compares to the  $51,720 has been realized for the six works sold through Lawson~Menizes while Mossgreen have sold three and Bonhams and Goodman two. Yet Sotheby’s hold the record despite having sold just one work.  Lilly Kelly best works are highly accomplished and regardless of provenance, or delicacy of execution, many others are very good paintings indeed. In the right setting, their spacious textural feel resonates sympathetically with contemporary aesthetics. These are paintings to be valued more for the pleasure they impart rather than their cultural content. Due to her fierce independence and prolific nature Kelly’s works appear in a range of primary market outlets from retail stores to exhibiting galleries. If you like her work, take your time, and chose wisely. Only the very best are likely to be good ‘investments’.  

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