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Long Tom Tjapanangka

Long Tom Tjapanangka

1929 - 2006

It is not unusual for an Aboriginal artist to shy away from elaborating on a particular work, although this is more common when they are of sacred significance. However, this was not the case with the work Ulampuwarru (Haasts Bluff Mountain) that won the 2000 Telstra-sponsored 16th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award (NATSIAA) for Long Tom Tjapanangka. The painting was chosen for its strong aesthetic appeal, depicting in planes of bold colour two rows of gum trees and a rainbow serpent moving across the front of a mountain rendered in unadorned blocks of red, ochre, and green. The simplicity of the design was striking and yet the artist declined to explain the work. So it stood simply for what it was. Artist Judy Watson, one of the award judges commented, ‘it’s just out there…It has all of Long Tom’s usual elements, but also something very different’ (Smee 2007). Tjapanangka’s personal history is unique. He was born in Lupuul, on the border of the Northern Territory and Western Australia near Lake MacDonald, and travelled to Haasts Bluff on foot in his youth. The establishment of Haasts Bluff as a cattle station in 1954 meant that Long Tom would find work as a stockman. He knew the area well, having helped to build fences throughout the surrounding land. Like many others who had come in from the desert and had traditional hunting skills, Long Tom was recruited to assist the police force. Thereafter he spent a considerable part of his life as a stockman and police tracker, traversing extensive tracts of country into Victoria and up to Queensland. Most of his paintings were created in Haasts Bluff, where he and his first wife Marlee Napurrula began painting for the Ikuntji women’s centre in 1993. Marlee suffered a motor neurone dysfunction after hospitalisation and after her death several years later, he married Mitjili Napurrula, with whom he collaborated for many years. Haasts Bluff is itself a place of considerable cultural hybridity, having served as a ration depot from early in the twentieth century providing for the Warlpiri, Pitjantjatjra, Pintpui and Arrernte people that sought refuge there due to massacres, drought, and the establishment of pastoral leases on their lands. It was proclaimed an Aboriginal reserve in 1940 and over time has become a meeting point for people of many different tribal groups. Tjapanangka, a respected elder of the Pintupi, returned to his birthplace, Lupuul, after receiving an Australia Council development grant and his attachment to this country, its stories and his nomadic transition away from it, became more clearly evident in his art. He rarely articulated any sense of displacement or disorientation, as was the case with the majority of the early Pintupi painters. Rather, as his career developed, his paintings were more likely to be grounded in the tangible elements of his immediate environment. As narrative depictions, they stand apart from time and space in that they do not require a literal interpretation. Certain images recur within the broader scope of Tjapanangka’s cultural history. 'The whole lot, that’s the whole story. Might be tali [sandhills], puli [rocks] anyplace. You know ‘im. You can see 'im. Anyone can see, look around'  (Long Tom Tjapanangka cited in Croft 2000: 86). Long Tom depicts ‘country’ in a visual language that is strong, simple and boldly coloured. He paints in two distinct styles; one abstract comprising broad spacial planes; and one more literal, mostly concerned with animals such as camels, snakes, dogs, emus and trees. In other more location specific works he explores the landscape around Ikuntji country – Ulampuwarru, Mereenie, Anyali, Uluru and also the mountains Kata Tjuta, Mt Liebig and Winparrku. For a man who has won the most prestigious art prize offered to Aboriginal artists in Australia, Long Tom has been far from a prolific artist. He painted for the Ikunji Art Centre and several dealers who visited his outstation occasionally. He painted every now and then on visits to Alice Springs, but preferred to paint only sparingly. On his outstation, far from the hype of the art market, he was said have a great sense of humour and provide enthusiastic company to those who took the time to visit. His only solo exhibitions were held with Niagara Galleries in Melbourne and Schubert Galleries in Queensland during 1995 and 1998. When his works first appeared because of their unusual nature they were in great demand. After winning the Telstra Art Award his work was in great demand. Having withdrawn from painting thereafter, however, his works rarely appear outside of the museum context. His contribution to the ongoing dialogue of desert art has therefore been somewhat limited.

With a clearance rate of around 50%, Long Tom Tjapanangka has had very mixed results at auction. Despite the fact that Ikunji Art Centre provenanced works occupy eight of his ten highest prices, neither size nor provenance seems to have been a particular issue in the success of his works. It would appear that the major reason for his high failure rate at auction has been overly optimistic pre-sale estimates. In many ways this was inevitable with an artist whose work was in such short supply immediately after he achieved such prominent notoriety. Those who purchased works from his solo exhibitions at Niagara Galleries and Galleries Schubert in the mid to late 1990’s would have been entitled to expect that, after he had the National Aboriginal Art Award under is belt, their paintings would have jumped in value. Two of these do in fact occupy his third and fifth highest results at auction, however, others have failed to reach the high estimates they were saddled with at sale. Interestingly, although his results are studded with works created throughout the 1990’s and as early as 1993, the year he began painting, not one single work appeared at sale until 2001, two years after he won the Telstra Award. In that year his record was posted at $8,100 for Two Snakes 1995, in Sotheby’s July sale when estimated at $5,000-7,000 (Lot 178). This was exceeded the following year by an untitled work created in 1995. Sold by Shapiro Auctioneers, the 137 x 137 cm painting achieved $10,575 against a presale estimate of $8,000-12,000. The record stood until 2004, when a large untitled work, measuring 136 x 182.5 cm, originally purchased from the Niagara Gallery solo exhibition in 1995, sold for $10,800 (Lot 116).  By November 2006 the record had jumped to $23,400 after a work painted for Jinta Gallery, outside of the art centre, sold at Lawson~Menzies (Lot 34). However by the end of 2007 another two works had entered the top ten including the artist’s current record holder, Puli Kutjarra measuring 182.5 x 198 cm estimated at just $10,000-15,000, which sold at Sotheby’s for a massive $43,200 (Lot 75). Of his early work, mostly smaller pieces on paper and board, several went unsold at auction between 2001 and 2005, while the remainder were generally expected to attract under $10,000 and consistently conformed to market estimates. Bonham’s and Goodman and Lawson~Menzies both attempted to sell works that failed the first time around. Offered in the following year, both failed once more carrying unaltered estimates. Meanwhile, Shapirio Auctioneers successfully sold Ulampuwarru (Haasts Bluff Mountain) 2000 in December 2003 for $6,580, but when their client offered the same work two years later in October 2005 (Lot 455) it failed to attract a buyer despite being offered at the same estimate. In 2008 no less than nine works were offered for sale with all but one being works on paper or board carrying estimates in the $1,000-2,000 range. Although five of the nine sold, thereby maintaining the artists’s clearance rate, the overall effect on his career average price was to make it drop by nearly $800 from $6,541 down to $5,759. In 2010 not a single work of the six offered sold. Between 2011 and 2017 twenty-three works wer offered, of which 9 failed. You would be forgiven for finding these statistics just a bit too confusing. While Long Tom is an important artist whose works are scarce, his secondary market results with a few notable exceptions have not been strong. His paintings have a naive quality about them that appeals to a limited audience. While they resemble bold colour field paintings, there is a notable lack of texture in his large expanses of red and green with limited application of yellow, white and black. In this they bear a faint resemblance to works by Ginger Riley but without Ginger’s quirky figurative flair. Even though they may not have universal appeal, those who like Long Tom’s paintings can purchase them with every confidence that they should hold their value. Just don’t expect anything too spectacular by way of investment.

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