Mawalan Marika, head of the Rirratjingu clan from North East Arhnem land, is considered one of the true greats of the bark tradition. Born into an era before intensive European colonisation, he became a principle informant to anthropologists Charles Mountford, Roland Berndt and Catherine Berndt in the production of much of the early literature on Arnhem Land song poetry. He was one of the first painters commissioned by the missionary Wilbur Chaseling and produced artworks for Dr Stuart Scougall and Tony Tuckson at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney in the late 1950’s. Yet his life and work testify to an ambiguous relationship with the colonial presence. He was amongst the ringleaders in the fight for Aboriginal land rights in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He played an instrumental role in the production of the ‘Bark Petition’ to the Commonwealth Parliament, used effectively as testament to their claim over the land and consequent right to negotiate the terms of mining on it. Moreover, he made a very personal political statement in introducing women to painting on bark in the 1960’s when he taught his two oldest daughters to paint their family designs, though they were not embraced by the Australian art market until later decades. Mawalan’s paintings, while characteristic of barks emanating from Yirrkala from the 1960’s to 1980’s in their narrative mode of representing myth, are specifically revered for their conceptual grandeur. The Seagull 1962 is characteristic of his style in using symbolic figurative imagery grouped into compositions surrounded by formal designs associated with the Rirratjingu. In keeping with other Arnhem land art of the period, meaning is developed through intricate symbolism which accommodates both a secular and deeper, spiritual dimension. Malawan was very committed, convinced with other spiritual leaders who also painted large collaborative works of the most sacred stories at the time, that their most important sites were under threat from bauxite mining. Another ethnographic theme in his work was the depiction of the relations between Maccasan traders and Aboriginal people of Arnhem Land as early as the 17th Century. Due to his historical and artistic prominence Mawalan is one of the most revered and widely represented artists in galleries and museums in Australia and overseas. His work still forms the centrepiece of the Art Gallery of NSW Indigenous collection and he is the subject of considerable literature, including a documentary film In memory of Mawalan 1981.
Along with Munggarawuy Yunupingu, Wandjuk Marika and a small band of others, Mawalan Marika was a profoundly influential early artist in North East Arnhem Land during his lifetime due to his commitment to educating Westerners whose actions impacted on Yolngu existence at the time. His career parallels that of renowned Western Arnhem Land artist, Yirawala. Both created masterpieces for more than 20 years during a period when Aboriginal art was considered principally as ethnographic.
While only less than 100 of his paintings have been offered for sale at auction compared to more than 154 by Yirawala, Mawalan’s success rate is higher than Yirawala, even after dropping from 80% in 2006 to its current 69%. However, only ten paintings have achieved prices above $20,000 including Sacred Waterhole 1963-4 that exceeded estimates to become the artist’s eigth highest result to date when sold by Joel Fine Art in June 2008 (Lot 18). Prior to 2009 his record, the $42,800 set by Sotheby’s in June 2005, was held by The Seagull, painted in 1962 and collected by Dr Stuart Scougall (Lot 69). The painting had been exhibited in New York, at the Qantas Gallery, in 1963. In the same sale The Milky Way a later work, illustrated in Lewis Allan’s classic book Time Before Morning and John Rudder’s 1999 book An introduction to Arnhem Land Bark Paintings, achieved $26,350 currently the artist’s sixth highest result. The interest in these works at Sotheby’s in 2005 was indicative of the strong interest in Mawalan’s best provenanced and most complex works given that few of this quality had appeared since 1999 when Warrana c.1960 was offered with an estimate of just $15,000-25,000 but sold for $34,500 to the Kerry Stokes collection. In 2009 a new record was set for The Milky Way when it sold for $43,200 at Sotheby’s in July (Lot. 30). The painting was similar to another, of the same name, which sold four years earlier for $26,350. The jump in price was a good indication of the escalating value of Mawalan’s finest works and a more general reappraisal for high quality early barks.
While high prices have been achieved for those paintings depicting complex narratives, others with simpler, more static imagery do not fare half as well. This is sharply illustrated by the fact that a wonderfully complex painting Maruma-Story of a Burial c.1960, which had sold for as little as $6,900 at Sotheby’s in 1997, achieved a sale price of $18,000 just four years later in 2001, while simple works like Djanda (Goanna) c.1960 and Daymirri (The Whale) c.1964 sold for as little as $4,800 and $4,600 respectively in 2003.
Sotheby’s have taken up all of the running with Mawalan’s works, establishing all of the artists highest results until 2008, when Joel Fine Art managed to insert one painting in the artist’s top ten and 2009 when Deutscher and Hackett gained a fourth place sale. As the number of Mawalan Marika’s finest works in private hands are rare or un-attributed by their current owners, on those rare occasions when they are recognised by appraisers and appear at auction, they are likely to defy any downward market trends. As major pieces appear, his ten highest records will tumble and his average prices will rise considerably.