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Milliga Napaljarri

Milliga Napaljarri

1921 - 1994

Milyika, Millie

Milliga was born near Kiwirrkura in 1922, long before contact with others beyond the reaches of her Great Sandy Desert homeland. She moved with her family in to the old Balgo Mission some time after it was established in 1942 and later moved to the new community after it relocated further north where permanent water could be found in the 1960’s. She took up painting shortly after the establishment of the Warlayirti art centre in the community in 1987, although there is little evidence of paintings completed prior to 1990. Unfortunately, her painting career was brief as she passed away in 1994, having completed no more than 30 paintings. Like other Kukatja women, Milliga’s works were concerned with depicting food and wood sources in the country of her birth. Her depictions of country included sites where mangarta and warlku (which are ground into a paste to make damper) and nyuwari, a blackberry, are rife. Milliga was matchstick thin and frail during the final years of her long life. One of a last group of desert nomads in the Balgo Hills community that had grown to adulthood prior to contact with Europeans. Her home was a shelter comprising cyclone wire suspended above four star pickets on which her bedding and all of her possessions, meager though they were, lay piled during the day providing her with enough shade to sit comfortably and watch passers by. Here she painted impasto-like clusters of coloured dots, in a manner akin to finger painting, over an under-layer representing the body designs for women’s rituals. Milliga 'used to put her fingers into the paint, and then dab them on the canvas, just like people telling stories on the ground' (Watson 1999: 171). Sitting on the red earth in Balgo Hills, Milliga’s ability to be simultaneously abstract and traditional was seen, at the time, comparable to only one other artist whose work she never saw. Geographically located a world away in the reaches of the Eastern Desert, Emily Kam Kngwarraye created works with a similar layered technique of spontaneous over- dotting. As with Emily Kngwarray, Milliga’s work was informal, layered and ‘at all times free of artifice' (1994: 61). In works typified by Purrunga 1991, a lack of visible structure is supplanted by clusters of light colours over the dark underlying designs, giving distinct sections to the canvas. The shimmering fields of yellow and white dots, with hints of subtle pinks are evocative of the profuse colour in the desert landscape as the bush blooms in the spring time. This penchant for lustrous colour also paid tribute to the ancestral beings, who were thought to have radiated with shimmering fluorescence, and to the very notion of health and wellbeing amongst Kukatja people who rub their bodies with animal fat and red ochre in order to radiate health and well being. In contrast to such ancient cultural connotations in Milliga’s use of colour, the medium was a very inexpensive and poor grade of acrylic paint that was provided to the artists in Balgo Hills at that early stage of development at the art centre.             While the Warlayirti Artists cooperative began in 1987 under the guidance of the first art coordinator Andrew Hughes, the dynamism in colour that followed began under Michael Rae’s administration of the cooperative. Driven by 'the empowering of women as daring innovators, willing to take risks' (Ryan 2004: 107), a new art form was forged of gestural freedom and luminous colour. Milliga joined Warlayirti Artists in 1989 at the moment this artistic evolution began. It was the environment of an arts community that encouraged the inclusion of both men and women from Walpiri, Pintupi, Ngardi and Kukatja peoples that fostered this climate of experimentation. It was as Watson describes 'one of the most successful examples of cultural bricolage in contemporary Australia' (2004). Arthur Tjapanangka, alongside Jimmy Njamme, performed a ceremony to imbue the new acrylic pigments with the power of the ancient ochres; a symbol of their embrace of what the contemporary world could offer them. In this acrylic medium profoundly important and glorious works were created. None more so than Milliga’s wondrous canvases. She painted for such a short period and left a precious and rare legacy. Her last works have found acclaim for their reach at pure abstraction. The loose, large brushwork in Walku, Wild Peach and Grasses 1994 has great aesthetic appeal, but the grandeur of her earlier compositions is largely lost due to their relatively small size, the degrading vitality of their pigmentation over time, and the lack of historical perspective in an art market constantly allured by the new.

Milliga’s work rarely appears at auction, given that she started painting late in life and died shortly thereafter, leaving only a very small oeuvre. Her record price is the $35,750 paid for a 91 x 61 cm canvas titled Kulkarta 1992 which was sold in Sotheby’s July 2004 auction. While this work was one of her best, it also benefited from carrying a fortunate and highly prized provenance; that of the Sam Barry Collection, which comprised 150 of the finest Warlayirti paintings collected during the movement’s formative years, as well as having been originally purchased from Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi. Her second highest result  was achieved for Pururrungu 1991, a work of similar size that sold at Sotheby’s in July 2004 for $26,350 (Lot 66). Of the 23 paintings offered on the secondary market 13 have sold for an average price of $13,128. However with such a small sample, insufficient numbers of her highest quality works have yet appeared to match the five works that have sold for more than $16,500. And of the 23 works that have been offered for sale no less than 5 of these have been offered twice , with mixed results. Of the recorded failures, one work Purrunga 1993 failed to sell twice. The first time in 2005 at Sotheby’s when as Lot 255 it carried a presale estimate of $10,000-15,000 and then again the next year as Lot 138 in their October 2006 sale, with an estimate as low as $5,000-7,000. Even her most ardent admirers would admit that this was not one of her finest works, yet carrying the lower estimate in 2006 it should have been recognised as a bargain by at least one canny collector. Her best year on the secondary market was 2004 when all three of the works offered sold for a total of $65,940. This included her two highest selling works to date. One example of a resale is very old and occurred prior to the burgeoning interest in Aboriginal art. Purrunga 1991 measuring 100 x 50 cm cleared $8,050 in Sotheby’s 1996 sale and then $10,925 as in June 1999 (Lot 93). At the time it was created Milliga was considered amongst  the most important of all painters  at Balgo  and the equal of Wimmitji Tjapangarti and Eubena Nampitjin. Another resale occurred in 2010, Artist's Country 1992 fetching $24,000 at Deutscher and Hackett (Lot 36), making a new third place record. It had originally sold five years earlier at Sotheby's, fetching $18,000, which makes for 30% profit before associated costs. 2015 was a good year for Milliag as the two works offered both sold and entered her top 10 results at 5th and 9th place. These, in common with all works that have appeared for auction to date, were small. 2016 saw only one small work go to auction that failed to find a buyer. It was previously purchased in 1996 for $4,600. Should anything larger exist and come on to the market I would expect it to sell for a premium. Artists of Milliga’s stature were the last of that vanishing breed that grew to adulthood before contact with Europeans. She spoke no English and seemed to live the final years of her life in a reverie of memories lived, and stories learnt, as a nomadic desert dweller. Her best works are little gems and due to their scarcity, their historical importance and their contemporary art appeal, they will continue to be highly sought after and infinitely collectable.  

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