Paddy Nelson Tjupurrula
Paddy Nelson Tjupurrula
1919 - 1999
Following its beginnings at Papunya in the early 1970’s, Western Desert painting spread as the homelands movement saw the setting up of outstations east and south of Lake McKay in the border region between Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Simultaneous to its geographical spread, language groups other than the Pintupi began to paint. Warlpiri artists at Papunya such as Old Mick Walankari, Charlie Tjupurrula and Two Bob Tjungurrayi, spread news of the art movement to their countrymen in the Tanami desert, and it came to pass that in 1983 Paddy Nelson Tjupurrula and five other elders painted the school doors in the tiny Warlpiri settlement of Yuendumu. This project marked the beginning of the painting movement in that region, just as the Honey Ant Mural had done a decade earlier in Papunya. The creation of these images also marked the beginning of an art career that would see Paddy Nelson rise to prominence as the most celebrated of the founders of the Warlpiri art movement. Along with the images that he painted on the doors, Paddy’s early paintings were characterized by fluid, bold brushstrokes depicting variations on classic Warlpiri iconography, with its far more eccentric compositional placement than those in the more formal Pintupi style. These early works adhered to the original spirit of freedom seen in the doors, with their vibrant colours and gestural exuberance, however, as he became more familiar with the acrylic medium, Nelson developed a sophisticated edge exemplified by tighter design. His subject matter centered upon his Dreaming sites that stretched over a wide area of country, southwest of Yuendumu. Along with other Yuendumu artists, Paddy contributed to the region’s rapidly developing and distinctive style as he eagerly embraced synthetic pinks, purples and blues. These more vibrant colours suited the Warlpiri sensibility for gestural freedom, in contrast to the aesthetic minimalism, restricted palette, and more formulaic patterning that emerged amongst the Pintupi. The large collaborative canvas Star Dreaming, on which Nelson and the original group of elders participated two years after painting the doors, exemplifies their tradition. The painting, which today hangs in the National Gallery of Australia, helped to launch the careers of these founding Yuendumu artists. Large collaborative works of this kind became a feature of Yuendumu, reflecting the myriad ties and obligations that are involved in the painting process there. A distinct communal method of painting emerged, with artists often working together in family groups and older artists instructing younger ones. Since that time, Walukurlangu Artists, the now wholly Aboriginal owned and controlled art centre in the community, has provided a place for artists to work and a focal point for the preservation and promotion of Warlpiri culture. Community involvement, evident in those early pioneering days, permeates the ongoing character of art production, with women artists featuring just as strongly as men. Unlike other tribes that had been fragmented and dislocated from their spiritual and physical homelands, Nelson’s community remained particularly strong in its sense of tribal unity. As a senior ceremonial and religious leader, Nelson presided over an active ceremonial life. His works, typically featuring circles, meandering lines, and animal tracks, are infused with a vibrant energy generated from within the background of dotted areas and outlines. They characteristically evoke a sense of earthbound substance while intimating the profuse and dynamic space of the vast tracts of land they depict. This landscape, surrounding the rather incongruous new buildings that were being erected in the growing community, is rich in ancient, mythological significance. Paddy and the other elders worried that their children, distracted by the growing influences of a European-style education, were losing touch with their Dreaming heritage. His centrality and importance within the Warlpiri community translated into a pivotal place in the making of art. Teaching the children the stories of their culture and sensitizing them to how the stories are embedded in the land and the care it requires was an over-riding concern for Nelson and the older generation of artists. Beyond that, they sought to instruct non-Aboriginal people in the value of their ancient culture and to share their unique perspective on the Australian landscape. No less vital was the fact that art-making provided a much needed income for the far-flung outstations and settlements that revolved around the focal art centre at Yuendumu during his own lifetime and, in fact, to this day. By 1991 the ‘Yuendumu Doors’ became the subject of a book and in 1995, after being carefully unhinged and restored, the doors were exhibited at the South Australian Museum. They have now travelled the world, and have come to represent a testament to the seminal era in the genesis of Warlpiri art. From his participation in the creation of a large traditional ground painting for the ‘Magicians de la Terre’ exhibition in Paris in the mid 1980’s to the posthumous presentation of his work in Colour Power 2004, at the National Gallery of Victoria, Paddy Nelson’s art has appeared in major exhibitions and toured internationally for more than two decades. Considering the contemporary focus of the Colour Power exhibition, Nelson’s works seem as relevant now as at the beginning, a fact that attests to the power of traditional forms in contemporary Aboriginal art, and the high esteem in which Paddy Nelson Tjupurrula continues to be held.
Paddy Nelson Tjupurrula painted in a range of styles and a variety of colours and yet, all his paintings have an individuality recognisable as his own. While the arrangement of the main icons for each story remained quite consistent, the manner in which the background is in-filled and the combination of colours often varies. In examining the success of his paintings at auction, it is interesting to note that it has often been the combination of colours and their arrangement in the background that has marked out one work as a gem and another as seemingly mediocre. By the time Paddy Nelson’s paintings came on the secondary market, he was already a fragile old man and his works were hard to secure on the primary market. Although the first of his works at auction failed to sell in 1994, by 2004 only one out of fourteen offered failed to find a buyer. These two works, alongside a lowly estimated work in both 2009 and 2011, remained the only failures until 2017, when all four works offered failed to sell. This resulted in his clearance rate dropping to a still respectable 77%. His top selling work, the largest and earliest of his paintings to appear prior to 2009, actually sold at auction as early as 1998. Karrku Jukurrpa 1985 measured 172 x 83 cm and achieved $16,100, well over its estimate of just $7,000-10,000 in Sotheby’s June 1998 auction (Lot 239). That year was the artist’s third highest grossing year, with all three works offered finding a buyer for a total value of $28,750. His highest grossing year was 2004 during which $33,000 was achieved for the five works sold of six offered. It included the $15,600 paid for a 137 x 53.5 cm canvas titled Wati Jukurrpa 1986 at Sotheby’s in July (Lot 419). This is still the artist’s third highest result to date. In 2009 the sale of a sole painting, Yarla Jukurrpa (Wild Yam Dreaming) for $30,000 came close to eclipsing total sales of any year previous, almost doubling his previous record. The work, measuring 143.9 x 145.2cm, displays a colorful combination of icons arranged with a playful disregard for symmetry. This sale was an exception. The average price for one of his larger canvases (137 x 53 cm or 122 x 122 cm range) is around $7,500, his smaller works (70 x 40 cm range) fetch, on average, about $4,500. These are rough figures as the image is the determining factor and, in general, his earlier works have sold better than his later ones. If the image and colouring are particularly good, size is less important in determining value. For example a multi-coloured 67.5 x 93.5 cm canvas, Untitled 1986, fetched $8,100 in Sotheby’s July 2003 auction. This was well above its $3,000-5,000 estimate and remains his sixth best result so far. In contrast an untitled work with a restricted colour palette and formal compositional structure failed to sell at Leonard Joel in Melbourne in 2009 even with an estimate of just $800-1,200. Considering that Paddy was one of the originators of the Yuendumu Doors project and that he was an important elder and a very fine artist, the prices for his works are not as high as one would expect. His top selling work consists of a subtle blend of acrylics in the colours of natural ochres; the kind of colours that many buyers presume is the most traditional. However, if their local art centre gives them a choice, most Warlpiri and Kukatja artists seem to choose bright colours. If and when the fashion ever changes, we might see a reappraisal of Paddy Nelson’s brighter paintings and a consequent number of new records. Paddy Nelson’s sales peaked in 1998, with two notable works selling for unprecedented values while another major work sold that year for somewhat less. At $8,000 Yala Jukurrpa (Bush Potato Dreaming) only ranks as Nelson’s eighth highest sale even though it is probably the painting that has attracted the most attention as a fine example of his early work. Paintings created between 1984 and 1986 seem to be the most sought after by collectors, although occasional 1990’s paintings have fared well. For example Men’s Dreaming, created in 1987, sold for $10,800 in November 2006 at Lawson~Menzies (Lot 170). Between 2003 and 2008 Paddy Nelson’s works demanded upwards of $6,000, peaking with the sale in 2004 of Wati Jukurrpa, for $15,600. Providing an indicator of the rise in the value of his works, Ngapa Jukurrpa c.1990, originally sold by Sotheby’s with an estimate of $2,000-3,000 in November 1997 for $2,760, resold at Lawson~Menzies in May 2005 for $5,040 when carrying a presale estimate of $5,000-7,000. Paddy Nelson was not a particularly prolific artist and, though most of his paintings have sold for less than $5,000, the majority of these were offered prior to the heat generated by the buoyant market post 2000. With only seven works out of 31 offered having failed to sell, it is clear that there are canny collectors out there who know a good thing and have been able to buy this artist’s paintings at way below their real worth. A wonderful opportunity still exists for smaller collectors to obtain works by this most important artist. But don’t spend too much time thinking. It is unlikely to be long before the penny drops!
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