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Shorty Lungkarda Tjungurrayi

Shorty Lungkarda Tjungurrayi

1914 - 1987

Djungarai, Maantja, Lungkarta, Lungkada, Lungkata

As one of the ‘new Pintupi’, arriving amongst the last of the nomadic groups to the enforced resettlement community of Papunya, Shorty Lungkarda, a senior hunter, dancer, and respected tribal leader, only joined the painting movement in 1972. Although he arrived toward the end of Geoffrey Bardon’s time there, moving out to Yayayi with other Pintupi just a year later, so palpable was his authority that, more than five years later in 1977, art advisor John Kean recalled being ‘overwhelmed’ in his presence. ‘I had never met anyone like this before …he (Shorty) spoke softly but insistently in Pintupi, always maintaining direct eye contact’ (Kean 2000: 221). Lungkarda’s previous experiences with white people had been limited to groups of documentary makers whom he had met and guided through his homelands in the Western Desert. Speaking little English, he relied on others to translate for him. He was in a kirda/kirdungurlu relationship with Nosepeg Tjupurrula, who was of the same age and communicated with Bardon through him and his friend Johnny Warangkula. From the very outset, the bold visual simplicity of his artistic compositions conveyed an elemental power, and he became one of the select group granted a government allowance that enabled them to paint full time. Geoff Bardon (1991) recalls how the painting room that was established at Papunya resounded with laughter and animated discussion or at times became intensely concentrated in a sea of silence as the men poured their love of their distant homelands into their work. Lungkarda worked ‘impervious to disturbance’, the seriousness of his intention animating each dot. Money earned from painting circulated through the community, adding to its overall resources and returning status to these venerated leaders. Lungkarda’s ceremonial knowledge and tribal seniority played an instrumental role in consolidating the ‘classic’ Pintupi style. It later provided the bedrock for future and less formal developments. The main subject was Tingari, the central creation myth shared across the distances and differences of Western Desert tribal groups. Tingari is the most important teaching myth, used to initiate the younger generations through revealing their social identity and spiritual inheritance. This knowledge is objectified and elucidated through a deep relationship to the land. After a period of artistic experimentation, including important decisions about which subjects could be revealed to a wider and uninitiated audience, a consistent and recognizable style emerged.  A non-rigid grid of circles symbolise sites that are drawn together and connected by meandering lines of ancestral travel. Areas of background dotting accentuate landscape contours and are also used to conceal aspects of a story that are too sacred to reveal. The basic earth colours of the ‘Papunya palette’ were adopted as the general rule, with an amazing variety of hues being mixed and produced. Fred Myers sensed the authority of Lungkarda and other elders during an incident in which a young man was held responsible for a car accident. The young man sat outside the circle of conferring elders, downcast and ostracised by his community; the gravity of the situation played out through time and distance. Slowly, he was drawn in and allowed to participate in the group’s painting activities that continued all the while alongside the discussions. 'A passage had occurred,' writes Myers, 'he now knows who will look after him when he is in trouble' (2002: 71). The restoration of the social and spiritual fabric of the dislocated Pintupi people became enmeshed with the new forms of art-making. Painting allowed them to affirm their identity and pass on their Dreamings to the next generation even hundreds of miles away from their traditional sacred sites. Eventually, money earned from painting allowed them to return west to their homelands and set up the outstations of Kintore and then Kiwirrkura. Lungkarda was an assertive leader in the ‘outstation movement’ and continued painting from Kintore, where he settled with his family in the early 1980s. For various reasons during the early years, painting was restricted to men only. However, Lungkarda’s adopted daughter, Lynda Syddick Napaltjarri, gained valuable experience and skills assisting him. Women’s painting was soon to emerge as a significant creative force and, under Lugkarda’s guidance, Lynda Syddick emerged, according to Myer, to become the ‘first Pintupi modernist painter’.  By the time she was established as an artist of renown in the early 1980s her work was the first to give voice to the changing influences that fed into the younger generation 'less driven by the protocols of the elders’ (Myers 2002: 304). Shorty Lungkarda’s work remains one of the foundation stones of the entire Western Desert art movement. Without the deep connection to the ancestral powers, reformulated and consolidated through his knowledge, determination, and intrinsic talent, contemporary Australian art would be very much the poorer.      

Shorty Lungkarda did not begin painting until late in 1971. While he was an important and respected tribal leader he was not one of Bardon’s close confidants, unable to speak english and having arrived some time after the first artists began painting. His works were first exhibited in Alice Springs and while they bear Stuart Art Centre catalogue numbers they are not accompanied by handwritten notes or schematic outlines prepared by Bardon specifically for each painting. Only two of his 1971 works have come up for auction and, being his very first attempts in an unfamiliar medium, they do not bear comparison to those created in 1972 and later. No lots appeared for offer at auction in 2010. Two appeared in 2011 but both failed to sell. In 2012 the artwork Big Cave Story, 1972 achieved the artists sale record price of $216,000. Sotheby's had offered the work at a pre-sale estimate of $180,000-220,000 in its June Important Aboriginal Art sale. Since 2012 only one important work has been offered and it had appeared at auction on two previous occasions.The untitled 1972 work first appeared at Sotheby's in 1996 and sold for $36,800. It appeared again in 2000 and sold for $68,500. Sotheby's handled it for a third time breaking into the artist's top 5 results at $107,213. Lungkarda died in 1987 before a number of his contemporaries rejected traditional iconography in favour of a more abstracted spare picture plane, thereby turning away from the style developed with Bardon in the early 1970s. Shorty’s own works, therefore, are valued principally on the strength of their iconic imagery, which emulated his tribal authority and status. In common with the majority of artists of his generation, most of his top-selling works were created during 1972. However, significantly, a 1974 work is among his highest results at $123,500. Tingari Ceremony at Ilyingaugau 1974 sold in Sotheby’s June 2000 auction (Lot 36) equalling a record that was established at Sotheby’s as early as 1997, for an untitled 46.5 x 53 cm board. This 1972 work, while quite minimal in style, is so unique and striking that once seen it is not easily forgotten. It is one of the rare occasions where a record price stood unchallenged throughout almost an entire decade, eclipsed only in 2009. The 1974 painting is a large work on canvas measuring 169 x 102 cm featuring a complex overlay of dotted concentric circles that emanate a powerful and mesmeric three-dimensional effect. In cases where a work has be re-presented at auction and failed to reach its generally increased reserves, the reason seems to lie with the imagery or poor execution. One particular case is a work entitled Children’s Story 1972. While the image is interesting, it is not the artist’s best, failing to reflect the tremendous growth in the market during the period between 2000 and 2005. It originally failed with a pre-sale estimate of $30,000-50,000 in 2000, and when Sotheby’s auctioned it again in October 2005 with the increased estimate of $80,000-120,000 it was once more passed on. Once more offered in 2009 at the pre-sale estimate of $50,000-70,000 it failed yet again (Lot 55). It found its way, however, into the superannuation fund of Melbourne uber-dealer Bill Nutall who offered it for a fourth time (this time through Bonham's reinvigorated Aboriginal art department) in May 2012 carrying an estimate of $40,000-60,000. Finally it sold for $45,600. Regardless of this, Shorty's best works will continue to rise in value. due to the fact that there are so few of them. More satisfying results for the owners were the $32,300 increase in value over the purchase price in 1995 for a very pleasing and unique 40 x 33 cm 1972 board sold in Sotheby’s June 2000 auction (Lot 35), as well as the increase in value from $8,050 in 1999, to $21,600 for a 1980 work when sold at Sotheby’s in July 2006 (Lot 89). Untitled 1972 fetched $168,000 and held the artist's record between 2009 and 2012. It had an impressive pedigree, previously belonging to Margaret Carnegie and having been included in a number of prestigious exhibitions including Lauraine Diggins' A Myriad of Dreaming in 1989, as well as the important Australiana Moderna e Contemporanea e Arte Aborigena in Milan in 2002. The work displayed the same fragile veiling of white dots against an ochre dark background as is seen in the other stellar pieces of this period. Notably, it had been offered by Sotheby’s in 2004 with a higher estimate of $100,000-150,000, but had failed to attract a buyer. Perhaps its request for inclusion in a forthcoming show Origins at the National Gallery of Victoria to celebrate their 50th anniversary added to the work's allure. Clearly Shorty’s results in the secondary market are dominated by his 1972 works; 18 of the 27 offered have sold. Only one of the four 1973 paintings has found a new home with poor clearance rates also recorded for paintings produced in 1976 and 1977. Few, if any, paintings created after 1980 have appeared on the secondary market despite the artist's passing. Sotheby’s have achieved all ten of the artists highest results Shorty Lungkada was one of the foundation artists of the Aboriginal art movement. His most emblematic early images with their powerful iconic content will continue to be both highly desirable works of art and Blue Chip investments which should grow in value over time.    

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