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Narritjin Maymuru

Narritjin Maymuru

1916 - 1981

Narritjin 1, Maymura, Maymurru, Maymaru, Naradin, Maymary, Naridjin, Ngaradjin, Naritjun, Narrachin, Narratchin, Naritzin

At the time of his death in 1981, Narritjin Maymuru, along with his brother Nanyin and a classificatory brother Bokarra, were the leaders of the Manggalili clan, a small nomadic group of about fifty people, who lived at Djarrakpi (Cape Shield), in North East Arnhem Land. As with every clan, the Manggalili are associated with country, totems and design that places them on their rightful place within the North East Arnhem Land social structure. Each has a specific design, which they employ in body painting and artifact decoration for ceremony, as well as in their bark painting. It is as if all of the clan designs together were a tartan map that covers the entire landscape. Narritjin’s clan design consisted of diamonds, rows of dashes, anvil shapes and an X pattern that is derived from the breast girdle worn by ancestral women during mourning ceremonies. Narritjin used a brush of human hair, ‘a marwat’, to intricately cover the entire surface of his barks in geometric designs. The figurative elements of his compositions remained subservient to a seemingly abstracted grid. Human, animal and spirit figures usually appeared in a silhouette black or with limited patterning. The contrast between the stark figurative elements and their intricate background created an optical clarity, but more importantly it highlighted the dominant purpose of Narritjin’s compositions, to relay narratives of great significance. While the nomadic lifestyle of Narritjin’s people may seem at odds with the central importance in Manggalili culture of the clan and its associated country, art serves to reconcile the two by providing a medium by which one’s clan’s connection to country can be transported across the vast distances necessary to maintain a hunter and gatherer existence. Narritjin’s work tells of the movements of the ancestral beings, most notably the Guwak (koel cuckoo), who, whilst traveling with the Marrngu (possum), created the lagoon and sand dunes of Narritjin’s homelands. In order to portray these lengthy narratives he segmented his barks into schematic panels. Though a particular ‘feature of Manggalili painting is that subdivisions are fluid; they meander in harmony with clan designs rather than introducing harsh vertical and horizontal accents‘ (Ryan 1990: 24). In relating these narratives Narritjin maintained his connection to his Djarrakpi homeland despite long intervals of separation from it. However, story telling also served as a useful medium for passing on knowledge. Just as Narritjin had learnt clan mythology from his mother’s maternal grandfather Birrikitji at Yirrkala, in turn he taught his children and his brother’s children to paint. They included his sons Manydjilnga and Banapana and his brother’s son Baluka who all gained notoriety as painters and they were followed, in the 1960s, by two of his daughters Bumiti and Galuma. Narritjin’s willingness to pass on his wealth of knowledge explains his daring steps towards closer contact with European Australians. A relatively harmonious relationship developed between the Yolngu people of Northeast Arhem Land and the mission established at Yirrkala in 1935. Narritjin and Nanyin worked for the missionary Wilbur Chaseling at Yirrkala and the sale of their art had the double benefit of securing funds for the church and for the Yolngu themselves. This mutually beneficial arrangement held out until the establishment of the mining town at the nearby Nhulunbuy. With the town came alcohol, which ravaged the community, prompting many elders to establish permanent outstations outside of Yirrkala. In 1974 Narritjin's two eldest sons died, and with his own sudden death in 1981, his dream of an outstation at Djarrakpi lay unfulfilled. Though another five of his children died over the following decade, his remaining clan descendants finally established a homeland centre on Cape Shield in 1995. Painting became the means by which this small settlement could remain viable, a testament to Narritjin’s powerful instruction and commitment to Mangalili culture.
In no small part due to the role played by missionaries, Narritijin, Mawalan Marika and Munggerawuy, amongst others, produced grand episodic narrative bark paintings from the 1950's onwards. Narritjin’s paintings in particular are both historical recordings and artistic masterpieces. It is not surprising therefore, that the most finely crafted barks relating the stories surrounding the Guwak ancestor and his Marnggu (Possum) companion have fetched Narritjin’s highest prices on the secondary market. The beautiful red ochre hues and visual complexity of Possum Tree 1964 no doubt contributed to its record breaking price of $25,200, when sold by Lawson~Menzies in May 2004 (Lot 28). Its aesthetic differs markedly from early figurative Western Arnhem Land bark paintings, with their origins in rock painting, which are celebrated for their anatomical detail. Neither do they resemble Western Arnhem Land’s recent voyage into abstraction seen in works based on designs from the Mardayin ceremony. For although Narritjin’s designs are descended from ceremonial imagery, it is the art of narrative and its deep spiritual meaning which is their primary concern. The sale of Djert (The Sea Eagle) c.1960 for $12,650 in 1999 set a record for the artist which stood until the 2004 sale and was only transcended again in 2007, with the sale of Djarrakpi Landscape Guwak Birds 1969.  It is still the only pre 2000 record in the artist’s top ten results other than his current tenth highest result for Yingapungapa at Djarrakpi, which sold for $4,600 in 1997. Though it is hard to discern a clear market trajectory for this artist, there has been a gradual upward trend with a significant body of sales in excess of $5,000 dollars in 2005. As with most bark paintings, the correlation between size and value is often meaningless and more importance is placed upon the individual quality and condition of each piece. Indeed, his record holding bark measured only 78 by 33.5 cm and his fifth highest result was for a work measuring just 60 x 21.5 cm. In contrast, the large and imposing work Crayfish and Horse shoe Crabat 158.5 x 59 cm failed to sell at Deutscher~Menzies in the same year as the record sale was achieved. Its hefty estimate of $20,000-25,000 indicated the auction house's high esteem for a work that was a very fine example, yet even the excellent catalogue entry written by Howard Morphy failed to help it sell. Despite the ambiguity of Narritjin’s price fluctuations, his work appears regularly at auctions with both affordable and upper range expectations. Only three barks have sold for more than $10,000, while over 30 barks have sold for less than  $5,000. His carvings have sold at very reasonable prices, with just two selling for more than $2,500. This is a fraction of the price paid for carvings by several Arnhem Land artists from the period, of whom David Malangi and Mick Kubarkku immediately come to mind. Given the quality of Narritjin’s works, with an average price for barks at just $3,899, they represent wonderful value for those keen to add a work by an important artist from the area to their collection. Investors would need to spend far more lavishly should they want to secure a good work by Mawalan Marika and they may be very pleasantly surprised by looking through the catalogues and comparing the works of these two contemporaries. Narritjin’s sale rate has been reasonably good since 2002 at 79% when compared to just 53% prior to that. It currently sits at a healthy 61%. This is an artist whose works are inexplicably undervalued in the current market. It seems utterly unrealistic that it should remain that way for long. Narritjin was an extremely accomplished painter whose works were amongst the most highly regarded during the 1970’s and early 1980’s when they adorned the walls of the earliest primary market Aboriginal galleries like my own. His works were included in a plethora of important museum and touring exhibitions from the late 1940’s onward and have been collected by museums and institutions around the world. He is as strong in the literature as almost any other artist in the entire history of Aboriginal art. A technical master of the art of making beautiful and stable bark boards on which to paint, and the soft appeal of his early paintings in particular are enhanced by having been created with orchid juice fixative prior to the use of acrylic binders. Most have lasted in excellent condition and are amongst the most historically desirable works by any of the founders and leaders of the artists of North East Arnhem Land.

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