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Mani Wommatakimmi Luki

Mani Wommatakimmi Luki

1914 - 1980

Harry Carpenter Wommatakimmi

Mani Luki was one of the early Tiwi master sculptors of the 1950s and 60s, whose works are now considered among the finest and most collectable of Tiwi carving. His distinctive figures focus upon the ancestral drama of Purukupali. The myth tells of how death came to the Tiwi world where once it was unknown. Bima, wife of Purukupali, secretly stole away with her husband’s brother, Tapara. The sun woman, angered at this infidelity, beat down upon her sleeping infant Janaini, causing his death. The grief stricken Purukupali pursued and fought his brother, who fled into the sky to become the moon, still bearing the scars from their fierce battle. Purukupali mourned his son, long and loudly. He carried him into the sea, holding him aloft, until they were both engulfed by a whirlpool and sank from view. Bima (Wai-ai) became a curlew, still flitting along the shoreline, calling mournfully and seeking relief from her pain. The reenactment of this story is the basis of the dramatic Pukumani ceremony. It is the origin of the carved and elaborately painted funeral poles that are placed on Tiwi graves. These carvings are the basis of Tiwi figurative carving.   Mani Luki returned to Milikapiti from a mainland leprosarium in 1963. The interest of the art world had turned to the Tiwi Islands. In particular, funeral poles had been installed in several state galleries and were widely considered to be breathtaking. Mani Luki had already made a name for himself as a carver (hence his Europeanized name, Harry Carpenter) and his years in the institution had encouraged his ability to communicate and exchange ideas with others. Milikapiti was less controlled by the church prohibition against traditional culture, and was in consequence favoured by art collectors and enthusiasts. The government welfare agency was keen on full employment and recognised traditional crafts as a way of maintaining it. Mani Luki was employed to teach carving and painting at the school. He received commissions and began to feature in large collections such those of Dorothy Bennett and Sandra Holmes, today housed in state museums.  Mani Luki was prolific in his output and his portrayal of the archetypal figures of myth proved an endless source of interest and fascination.  The carvings typically have a relatively large head and articulated hands and arms, sometimes separately carved and attached. They wear painted clothing with geometric patterning. Some aprons are thought to be of Macassan influence, while other clothing items are more Europeanised in style, with belts, buckles or hats as seen in early 19th century military uniforms. The bird that sometimes sits atop of Purukupali’s head is Tokampini, who brought the terrible news of his son’s death. Though the Tiwi were historically unwelcoming towards visitors to their islands, much evidence of trade and exchange with their northern neighbours is apparent. Mani Luki had a flexibility of style that allowed prevailing influences to find their place within the bedrock of Tiwi tradition. It is interestiung to speculate that the articulated limbs in his carvings were possibly influenced by his having seen the many images of carvings created during the 1960s in Aurukun in Cape York that were present at the time. Mani Luki's ability to express individuality within established conventions is partly what gives Tiwi art its immediacy and vigour. The family dynasties that have always been admired and rewarded over centuries for their artistic skills fostered an ongoing creative spirit that was passed down through the generations. This spirit still declares itself in Mani Luki’s unique carved characters that form a large part of the displays seen at the Northern Territory Art Gallery and Museum.   Profile author: Sophie Pierce   Collections:      Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth. Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Group Exhibitions: 1990 - Keepers of the Secrets, Aboriginal Art from Arnhemland, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth. 1988 - Aboriginal art of the Top End, c.1935-Early 1970s, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne [work attributed]. 1974 - Australian Aboriginal Art from the Louis A. Allen Collection, M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, California Palace of the Legion of Honour. 1972 - Australian Aboriginal Art, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago. 1969 - Australian Aboriginal Art - The Louis A. Allen Collection, R. H. Lowie Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley.    Bibliography:      Allen, L., 1975, Time Before Morning: Art and Myth of the Australian Aborigines, Thomas Crowell Company, New York. Caruana, W., 1993, Aboriginal Art, Thames and Hudson, London. (C) ; Norton, F., 1975, Aboriginal Art, Western Australian Art Gallery Board with the assistance of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council. O'Ferrall, M., 1990, Keepers of the Secrets, Aboriginal Art from Arnhemland in the Collection of the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth. (C)

While it is possible that Mani Luki continued to carve Tiwi figures and artefacts up to his death in1980, the only carvings that have appeared for sale in the secondary market were made during a brief period between 1958 and 1972. His sales at auction have been sporadic and it was not until 2016 that his artworks finally transcended the 20 lot lower threshold that enables followers to get an accurate account of his place in the annuls of the Aboriginal art movement. Although a number of very good sales during the period 2006 - 2007 saw him enter the top 100 artists, the lack of entries during the following years has seen him settle at the 117th ranking amongst all artists now that he has sufficient records for his statistics not to be discounted. The fact that 2016 was, despite some dissapointment, such a successful year for the artis saw him land at 88th by the end of 2017. Unfortunately, when compared to prices achieved 10 years earlier, Mani Luki's recent records have languished. Four of his top five results were recorded in 2007 or earlier (two as early as 1999). His best recent record was the GBP25,000 ($42,885) achieved for an Untitled Purukapali carving in Sotheby's London sale in 2016. This was an atypical and crude work compared to his finely crafted pieces featuring articulated limbs, but it suited the Sotheby's ethnographic aesthetic. In fact no less than four pieces by the artist entered his top 10 results in 2016. Two of these were particularly disappointing results. First sold to the Luczo Family Collection in the USA by  Sotheby's in 2007 for $43,200 (Lot 76), it achieved just $12,200 when offered once more to the market in 2016 in Deutscher & Hackett's October sale (Lot 20). And another purchased in 2009 from Sotheby's for only $7,200 failed to sell in 2015 when offered at Mossgreen with a pre-sale estimate of $10,000-15,000. Another work gives a far better indication of the value of Mani Luki's works, even though it last appeared at auction more than a decade ago. This particularly nice example of the artist's finest carving failed to sell at Lawson Menzies in 2005 when carrying a pre-sale estimate of $20,000-25,000 (Lot 118). However two years later, carrying the same estimate, it achieved $23,213 when offered once more by Joel Fine Art (Lot 43). In my opinion, this is the right level at which a work by this artist should be offered. His works are rare and unique in their execution. Mani Luki was a senior elder when he began carving his signature works and he created a small number of them. Anyone who loves Tiwi people and their culture would be delighted to be able to live with one of these very special pieces. 

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