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1915 - 1970
Mataman, Madaman, Matha'man, Matarman
Mathaman Marika lived the traditional bush life of the Yulgnu people of North East Arnhem Land until his first contact with ‘balanda’ white people when still a young man. He was in his early twenties when the Methodist missionary Rev. W.S. Chaseling collected the first bark paintings at Yirrkala and Caledon Bay between 1936 and 1939. Few Europeans were aware of Arnhem Land or its inhabitants at the time however Mathaman, his brother Mawalan I, could see the enormous changes taking place that were to alter the Yunlgu culture and lifestyle forever. After a series of violent conflicts initiated by Mathaman and his countrymen over their mistreatment made world headlines, ongoing police searches created so much trouble for their people that they gave themselves up. Reflecting on his time in jail, Mathaman said, ‘for two years I dream about my country: Then I come back and I paint about my country' (Davidson, 1989:10). Over the following decade Mathaman painted important Rirratjingu creation stories that, read as an opus, forms one of the most sophisticated land rights statements produced by an Aboriginal Australian. While the production of bark paintings prior to the 1950’s was not great, from the mid 1950’s the demand from dealers for art began to grow rapidly. In Yirrkala, Douglas Tuffin, a lay missionary, devised the split stick framing still used by artists from this region, introduced tools for the fine incising later adopted for the decoration of carved figures and totemic animals, and produced the first authenticity labels on the back of paintings. And while mission authorities paid artists in tobacco and other trade goods on behalf of anthropologists, collectors, museums and marketing outlets down south, Arnhem Land bark paintings were being sold in art shops in the United States of America and London for the first time. At the beginning of the 1960’s when Mathaman began painting, good bark paintings could be purchased in almost every Australian state as well as overseas, and the demand appeared to far outweigh supply. At that time Tony Tuckson, Dep. Director of the AGNSW, Dr. Stuart Scougall, and Dorothy Bennett commissioned some of the first huge barks from Yirrkala and Karel Kupka, Ed Ruhe and Louis Allan developed important overseas collections. Eager dealers sought paintings by a number of the great painters and religious leaders, foremost amongst whom were North East Arnhem land painters Mathaman and Mawalan Marika. Mathaman was brother to Mawalan 1, leader of the Rirratjingu clan of the Dhuwa moiety, and upon his brother’s death took on his leadership responsibilities. Dhuwa clans share ownership of the Djangkawu, Wagilag and Wuyal myth cycles and in the paintings which followed his brother’s death Mathaman illuminated the presence of these great ancestor spirits through depictions of the creatures, places and totems they created on their travels. His paintings emit a sense of ‘radiance’ through delicate striations of cross-hatching that evokes a feeling of ‘spiritual presence’. The elaborately worked surfaces of his barks are characteristically divided into inter-related sections that contain both figurative and geometric components. A unifying network of straight and diagonal, parallel lines underlie his compositions. This patterning indicates clan affiliations and specific landmarks or locations. Human and animal figures are often depicted without embellishment, in blank silhouette, upon this rich symbolic ground. His beautifully executed complex paintings depicted the Djangkawu sisters who gave birth to the Rirratjingu clan and instituted their sacred laws; the Morning Star, held by women on a long string which they let out, finally pulling it back and imprisoning it in a cave until the next morning; the exploits of the Wagilag Sisters; and The Wuyal Honey Man and his sister. The travels, journeys and exploits of these great ancestor beings form the basis of Rirratjingu society and constitute the Dreaming tracks that interconnect the clans of North East Arnhem Land and unite all of their homelands. Mathaman was the first bark painter in the region to consistently mix pigments, softening the customary contrasts of light and dark colours. He chose sepia, veering away from strong black by mixing it with yellow to make a dull olive green. His use of orchid bulb juice to bind the earth pigments resulted in a matt finish that suited his muted tones and was markedly different to the shiny clarity of pigments mixed with European-style wood glue. Mathaman was a master of juxtaposition, building a fluent rhythm of cross-hatching in order to maximize the magical sense of light that infused his complex designs. His spidery delicacy of line allowed for completeness in each detail, reflecting the purposeful concentration with which he always worked. His meticulous designs were painted from memory, often pulled to the surface with the help of the traditional chants that accompanied the unfolding artwork. Towards the end of his life, Mathaman and his people saw their lands set upon by the bulldozers of the Nabalco mining company. Protest corroborees were organized and the outside world began to intrude in some helpful but more often ruinous ways. Mathaman called the young men to him to give them instruction as he felt his time approach. He died at peace with the Dreaming, returning to the spiritual source that he had felt so strongly throughout his life. It was the wellspring of his creativity, conveyed to future generations within his work.
Mathaman Marika’s finest works belong to major national and international collections. Only 26 of his bark paintings have reached the secondary market and quite a few of these were not illustrated in the auction catalogues. A number were minor works and several exhibited a degree of white ochre loss and were in poor condition. Of the 13 that have failed to sell two were poor examples and one of these, The Djankawu People c.1957 was a small work, which sold for $900 in Lawson-Menzies November 2004 auction (Lot 336) after having failed to sell at Sotheby’s in 2001 with an estimate of just $800-1,200 (Lot 351). In 2009 Bonhams offered two Sacred Djungowa (Sic) Story 1960 barks, which despite modest estimates of $4,000-6,000 failed to find buyers. Again testament to the vast difference in interest between grand narrative masterpieces and those which depict simpler details from such stories. More than any other factor this accounts for the vast discrepancy amongst Mathaman’s sales. Of the 26 offered only six have been prime examples of his work, which demonstrated his supreme artistic ability. His record price stands at the $31,050 was paid for Bremer Island Battle c.1961, a large bark measuring 144.5 x 73 cm, which sold in Sotheby’s June 2002 auction (Lot 53). This exceeded his record that had stood since 1999, when Fish Trap at Gangan c.1960 measuring 115 x 52.5 cm sold at Sotheby’s (Lot 20). This work featured equally magnificent complex imagery with fine ‘rarrk’ detail and sold for what is now his second highest price of $25,300. Another Untitled Narrative c.1959, similar in size and artistic merit to the second best, but marred by the white ochre in poor repair, sold within its estimate for $6,000 in Sotheby’s November 2005 auction (Lot 91). This placed it as the fourth best bark at auction at the time and the fifth today. The third best price of $12,650 went to a 1950’s bark that was a mere 17.2 x 42 cm but in excellent condition. It was lot 26 in Sotheby’s June 1996 auction. Including two sales above $20,000 all up only six barks have sold for more than $5,000 while seven have sold for less. The results for this artist overall belie the fact that he was such an important figure during the period when barks were in their heyday, long before the emergence of desert painting. It just goes to prove that secondary market results are not everything when assessing the importance of an artist. This one produced masterpieces. On those rare occasions when his finest works appear at auction expect fireworks.
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