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Old Mick Wallankarri Tjakamarra

Old Mick Wallankarri Tjakamarra

1910 - 1996

Jakamarra, Jagamara, Jakamara, Djakamara, Wallankarri, Walangkari, Walandari; Shakey Mick, Squeaky Mick

Born at Watikipinrri, west of central Mount Wedge, Mick Walankari had a mixed tribal background and is thought to have been one of the last surviving Kukatja of the Central Desert region. Having worked on cattle stations at Glen Helen and Narwietooma stations before being re-settled at Papunya and being able to speak English well, he often acted as a negotiator in the community. He became an important figure in the genesis of the Papunya Tula art movement because of his seniority and great knowledge of traditional designs and stories. He was acknowledged as an important ceremonial leader, always maintaining a strong tribal interest and providing a wealth of knowledge to his younger protégés. Even before the painting group was formed, he had been involved in supervising Kaapa Tjampitjinpa who was producing images for ceremonial purposes. When the idea for the school murals were first conceived by Geoff Bardon, it was Old Mick, already a pensioner and Kaapa who, followed by a small group of whispering men, handed Bardon the scrap of paper, ‘…smaller and narrower than a matchbox, almost unreadable in its smallness,’ that showed the Honey Ant design (Carter in Perkins 2000: 252). It was from this humble beginning that the outpouring of cultural expression became the Western Desert art movement began. It took a while for Bardon to earn the trust of Old Mick who, as time progressed, became invaluable in providing the meanings behind the paintings. Anxiety over the disclosure of secret, sacred designs had prompted the development of a defined style suitable for public viewing. Within these strictures, intense experimentation was underway and the early Papunya works that were produced have been unequalled in their vigour and intensity since that time. On their most literal level, these paintings are maps, charting the vast terrain of the Western Desert from a uniquely experiential perspective, born of a deep spiritual connection to the land. Like traditional low relief ground sculptures, an outline was drawn first. The ‘traveling line’ gave the story its contours and reflected the momentum that was intrinsic to survival in the desert. It would find its resting place in circles (waterholes, encampments or sacred sites). Colour and texture were added and the distinctive Western Desert dots, like a scratching or stroking of the surface. Early dotting, as seen in Old Mick’s work, was not particularly neat or symmetrical. Dots came in clusters, often seeming to change direction as they encompassed the story components and allowed different areas to converge. The use of fingers in the making of marks seemed to Bardon a haptic mode of understanding and articulating story. It carried the heightened emotional energy of ceremonial dance. ‘It often seemed to me,’ he wrote, ‘that the Western Desert archetypes and hieroglyphs in 1971 were enacting the landscape which they were writing down…the painted forms seemed to breathe up from the painted surface. A silent singing of the great ritual, ’ (Bardon 2004: 45). The first sales of these works amazed the fledgling group of painters and spurred them on to new levels of concentrated activity. Old Mick’s paintings are compelling in their palpable sense of élan and played a vital role in inspiring other painters. A certain roughness of technique accentuates the strength of his work, as if the painter was responding directly to his muse (his country) rather than to his anticipated audience. A wealth of detail often prompts a closer reading. In Old Man’s Dreaming of Death 1971, now in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, Old Mick elucidated the passing between the earthly and spirit world in a solemn but warm and beautifully balanced symbolic rendition. The old man, represented by black half circles, lies in front of his campfire, accompanied by his sacred objects. He refuses earthly sustenance but his spirit is alive and strong. His black Tjuringa is counter-balanced by a red ochre Tjuringa that represents his totemic ancestor who facilitates entry into the eternal world through a meditative practice. Old Mick’s Papunya works were the first to be collected by the National Gallery of Australia, and were featured in the Asia Society’s Dreamings: Art of Aboriginal Australia exhibition which toured North America in 1988-1989. Although he was forced to give up painting by the early 1980’s due to failing eyesight and bad health, Old Mick Tjakamarra taught and strongly influenced a number of ‘second wave’ artists, most importantly Maxie Tjampitjinpa and Don Tjungurrayai. His art and influence continues to provide the wellspring of an ancient tradition that feeds the vision of contemporary Papunya artists to this day.  

As would be expected for an artist of such influence during the formative period of the Desert painting movement, nine of Old Mick Walankari Tjakamarra’s ten highest results are for works that were created during 1971-1973. His work first appeared at auction as early as 1993 when a small 25 x 35 cm work entitled Women’s Croborree was offered at Joel’s with an estimate of just $600-700 but surprisingly failed to sell. The following year Yintulkanyu-The Artist’s Country, also failed to find a buyer while Women’s Story estimated at $4,000-6,000 sold at Sotheby’s for $10,350 (Lot 99). Only 37 works have sold of the 48 offered to date and several of these have been resales. With so few works having been offered for sale, only two early 1970s paintings fall outside of his top twenty results. The first was painted at Papunya in September 1971 for Geoffrey Bardon and illustrated in his major book, Papunya, A Place made after the Story. When presented in 2008 the irregular 53.5 x 20.5 cm board entitled Water Dreaming sold at Sotheby’s October sale for $7,800 (Lot 313). The other was a skinny and rather crude 1973 rendition of a corroboree at Mount Wedge offered as early as 1997 that achieved just $3,220, despite being accompanied by a diagram and notes produced by Peter Fannin at the time of its creation. In that same year, 1997, Sotheby’s offered two other works for sale. Old Man’s Dreaming 1972 achieved $27,600 and Big Caper 1972, a rather complex work depicting an important cave site, sold for $20,700 making the Coroboree at Mount Wedge, despite its lowly price, the artists fifth highest result at that time. Big Caper 1972 carried a presale estimate in 1997 of $15,000-20,000, but when it reappeared at Sotheby’s five years later in 2002 its estimate reflected only a modest increase in value to just $20,000-30,000. Sotheby’s conservative estimate resulted in its sale for just $24,000. The painting rendered in powder pigment on composition board, despite its contrasting iconography against a black background, was not nearly as alluring as the powerfully iconographic Untitled 1971 painting sold in 1996 by Sotheby’s for $48,300 (Lot 233), which is still Old Mick’s highest record. It seems hard to believe, given the buoyancy of the Aboriginal art market during the subsequent years and the enormous increases in price achieved for paintings created by many of his contemporaries, that his record prices have not been transcended in two decades. Even more surprising when one considers that this same work, despite its previous result reappeared at Sotheby’s in 2006 carrying an estimate of just $20,000-30,000, sold for only $28,800 (Lot 77). By this time it had been renamed Rain Ceremony having been illustrated in the book on the origins of the Western Desert art movement published in 2004 by Miegunyah Press, together with a diagram of Bardon’s original field notes, surely reason enough to increase its presale estimate significantly. Without doubt the purchaser secured one of the bargains of the decade. Only one early work of high value, has failed to sell. Bush Tucker Story 1972, a stylistically more complex example than others of the period, carried a pre sale estimate of $20,000-30,000 when offered by Sotheby’s in July 2001 (Lot 159). However since that year, when both of the works offered remained unsold, 22 of the 26 paintings and carved artifacts by Old Mick have found willing buyers. Given the fact that his three lowest results were for artifacts sold in 2000 through Goodman’s Auctioneers for $690, $460 and $403 respectively, Old Mick’s average price looks very good indeed. Despite these three low value items, this average stands at $10,779, which considered along with his 79% success rate at auction makes his works highly collectable investments. His results during the last 20 years confirm their desirability. In 2007 all five works offered sold, with Tree Corroboree 1971 and Women’s Story at Yalukuru 1974 becoming both making his top ten. While Old Mick Walankari’s paintings are not numerous, they have powerful imagery, rarity, and historical status. Those fortunate enough to own one of his better works should hold on to them for as long as they continue to derive pleasure from them. They are unlikely to be able to replace them for the currently prevailing values, which seem extremely low by comparison to others by his equally talented contemporaries. As long as vendors insist on high estimates when they consider who to entrust with their sale, they are unlikely to be disappointed with the result.   

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