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Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra

Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra

1932 - 2020

Phillipus, Longjack Phillipus, Jack Phillipus, Jack Jangangjukrba

A tall man, of ‘fine bearing’ as art teacher Geoff Bardon described him, Long Jack Phillipus was one of Bardon’s original group of ‘painting men’. Born at the important Rain Dreaming site of Kalipinypa, north-east of Kintore, he grew up in the bush and ‘came in’ with other family members to Haasts Bluff as a teenager in the late 1950’s after the death of his mother. He worked as a stockman and later, when he settled at Papunya, as a school yardsman and community councilor. He was competent in his dealings with white people and always a productive worker but also knew a lot about Aboriginal law and loved to ‘go bush’ on hunting expeditions at any opportunity. His reflective nature prompted his interest in Christianity and possibly protected him from the ravages of alcohol that beset many of his hard-drinking friends. In 1984, finding Christianity quite compatible with his traditional spiritual beliefs, he became ordained as a Lutheran pastor. He was always alert to the conflicts that swept through the Papunya settlement where four tribal groups from a huge desert area had been re-settled with their resulting difficulties in adjusting to a European lifestyle. Long Jack Phillipus was an instrumental member of the group involved in creating the famous mural that marked the beginning of the contemporary Western Desert art movement. He participated in the secret discussions amongst the senior law men and later told Bardon that the Honey Ant design was a gift, ‘given to the white man’s school’ by ceremonial leaders of the Aboriginal people.  As school yardsman, Long Jack Phillipus prepared the walls with cement rendering and coats of white primer and then later assisted Kaapa Tjampitjinpa and Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri in the mural painting itself. Amongst the enthusiastic group that began to paint regularly at the back of the school art room, Long Jack’s work was some of the first to sell in Alice Springs, spurring the other men on in their efforts and commitment. Long Jack shared close ties over Kalipinypa with ‘Old’ Walter Tjampitjinpa and Johnny Warangkula and was the owner of the principal Possum Dreaming site in the Gibson Desert, Ngamarunya, which featured strongly as a subject of his art. His painting style appealed to the public with its symmetrical balance and stylised figurative elements. While he leaned towards a softer, slightly more decorative approach, by using the traditional earth colours in more harmonious ways than a number of the other men, he still achieved the striking effects that first grabbed the attention of the Australian art world during the early years of the art movement. A change of government in 1972 brought in a new era of interest and funding for cultural activities throughout Australia, resulting in the establishment of the Australia Council for the Arts and its Aboriginal Arts Board. Long Jack, who had lived in Papunya since 1962, was part of a delegation of Papunya artists who went to Sydney to provide advice and support on new policies that encouraged self-determination amongst Aboriginal communities. The participants were conscious of themselves as part of an ‘art movement’, the force of their communal creativity generating a positive influence individually but even more importantly, upon their wider cultural identity. When criticism appeared in the media, the group prepared a reply: “We are not ‘ turning our heritage into cash’ -we want the whole world to know of our culture,’ they claimed. ‘We keep our ‘sacred heritage’ for ourselves, for our ceremonies and for our children’… The paintings show our stories but only non-sacred stories. The designs we use are the designs we have always used’ (Johnson 2000: 188). The process of refining the contemporary style had not proceeded without controversy. Bardon had encouraged the men to paint children’s stories after conflict had arisen between tribal groups regarding secret sacred material being revealed to the art buying public. Because of the discord that often prevailed at Papunya, lives could be put in danger if tribal law was infringed. The simple intelligibility of these introductory stories brought different backgrounds and interests together in a straightforward relationship between mark and message. Sacred references were disguised or abstracted so that an uninitiated viewer could not decipher them. Long Jack helped Bardon to comprehend the important issue of tribal and personal custody of Dreamings. He also took a lead in stepping away from problematic subjects with his paintings of the Kadaitcha Dreaming 1972, the feared and invisible spirit who punishes wayward children, and many Water Dreamings which tell of the wondrous, life-giving effects of rain in the desert. During the early 1970’s Long Jack served on the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council and created some of Papunya Tula’s largest early canvases for the board’s overseas exhibition program. Although he was awarded first prize in the Northern Territory Golden Jubilee Art Award in 1983 and took out first prize in the Alice Art award the following year, Long Jack found it difficult to make the transition during the late 1980’s and 1990’s to an equally appealing esthetic minimalism as a number of his contemporaries. While he continued painting for Papuya Tula for many years, he was instrumental along with Paddy Carroll Tjungurrayi, William Sandy, Dinny Nolan Tjampitjimpa and others in supporting the Papunya Community Council when it established Warumpi Arts as an alternative support organization and retail outlet for artists continuing to live in the Papunya Community. Warumpi Arts operated a gallery in Alice Springs throughout the 1990’s and Long Jack’s works were regularly featured there. It is likely that his defection from Papunya Tula was born of his frustration at seeing the work of a number of his contemporaries as well as that of other, younger and emerging artists sell more regularly and at higher prices than his own. Nevertheless, his paintings produced for Papunya Tula are undoubtedly his best works and it was principally through his association with the company that he regularly participated in important landmark exhibitions throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s including The Face of the Centre, Mythscapes, and Power of the Land, all curated by the National Gallery of Victoria. His early works are represented in many impressive and important collections and will always demand the greatest attention. While he continued to paint throughout the 1990’s and beyond, Long Jack Phillipus will be remembered principally for his leading role during the emergence of the movement. His late career works have been less popular than those produced during the 1980’s yet they enabled Long Jack to provide a steady source of financial support and encouragement to his large and extended family.   

As a formative member of the Desert art movement who began painting as early as 1970, you would expect the early boards created by Long Jack Phillipus to be highly prized by collectors. Yet his best results are relatively modest compared to those of many of his contemporaries from the early Papunya period. While two of his best three results for these were set as long ago as 1998, a 1972 board sold in 2018 for $70,760 is his 2nd highest reord and another sold in 2016 is his 4th. Deutscher Menzies began holding specialist Aboriginal art sales in 1999. They were, in part, emboldened by records set for Long Jack in their April and August 1998 Australian painting sales. While the $90,500 record set for Kangaroo Story 1971 in April and the $63,000 for Children's Kadaitcha Dreaming 1972 in August 1998 seem modest by today’s standards, they were very impressive results at the time. They stood in fact as the 11th and 21st highest prices ever achieved for any Aboriginal paintings at the end of 1998. In June of the following year Possum Man and Possum Woman Travelling c.1973 from the collection of Faye and Gordon Nelson was offered for sale, again through Deutscher Menzies (Lot 56). This very large work on board measuring 122.5 x 93 cm only just achieved its low presale estimate of $50,000 when sold for $52,900. The artist's two highest records helped make 1999 the artist’s highest grossing year with total sales of $226,410. It was not until 2006 that his paintings did as well in the secondary market. In the intervening six years his clearance rate was a very poor 50% with 17 works of 34 offered selling for a total during the period of just $185,551. However, while total sales were low at just $67,317 in 2006, nine sold out of ten offered thereby vastly improving his overall success rate at auction. This improvement continued in 2007 when nine works were offered and, though only five sold, Hunting 1971 went for $38,400 achieving his fifth highest result at the time and Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa 1974, a mammoth 197 x 171 cm canvas, achieved his sixth highest at $36,000. Both were offered in Sotheby’s July sale (Lots 43 and 46). However, 2008 was a different story altogether. With only three works on offer, the failure of the only major work, a 60.5 x 51 cm early board with a Stuart Art Centre consignment number, left his sales for the year at just $5,246 thereby resulting in his rank amongst all artists of the movement dropping from 39th to 42nd. 2009 did bring modest improvement, with five of seven offered selling, two with prices about the $20,000 mark. This was not enough to improve his overall ranking as other artists fared better and consigned Long Jack to 47th by the beginning of the new decade. His reverse trajectory continued in 2010 when all three works offered failed at auction. By 2011 he was consigned to 48th place amongst the most successful artist of the movement. Few works have been offered since and by the start of 2020 he remained at 47th in the annuls of the movement. Looking at all of the works that have been offered for sale since they first appeared in 1994 provides a very salutary lesson for those with a poor grasp of the market. Overall 33 of the 34 paintings that sold for more than $10,000 were works produced between 1971 and 1974, the only exception being an uninspiring untitled work produced in 1983 for Papunya Tula measuring 150.5 x 90 cm. This surprisingly sold for $14,340 against a presale estimate of $8,000-12,000 at Christies in August 2005 (Lot 7). Yet the point is made. The market has shown supreme disinterest in Long Jack’s more stilted and iconographic 1980s and 1990s works and even amongst his early to mid 1970s paintings many have failed to excite serious collectors. Long Jack Phillipus deserves recognition as a formative influence amongst the Desert painters at Papunya. Although relatively prolific throughout a painting career that has lasted well beyond three decades his most desirable works are limited, and only rarely appear for sale. I would expect these to fluctuate in value in line with the market. Unless some really spectacular early paintings are unearthed, as occured in 2012, his record prices are likely to remain unchallenged despite having been set more than a decade ago. That is unless these same works appear once more at auction some time in the future. His later works fail to satisfy and have missed the market aesthetic which has driven sales of Papunya men’s art throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium. These are unlikely to value significantly and are better avoided by collectors more concerned about the value of their investment than their attraction to the work itself.

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