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Thomas Nandjiwarra Amagula

Thomas Nandjiwarra Amagula

1926 - 1989

Nandjiwarra Amagula was a man of extraordinary skills and integrity. Not only an artist of renown in the bark tradition of Groote Eylandt, he was also a community leader and political negotiator and received an MBE at the age of 45 for service to his community. Amagula acted alongside David Gulpillil in the 1970s classic ‘The Last Wave’ (Peter Weir), was a friend of celebrities and politicians and was known as “the barefoot executive”. His life and work spanned a time of fundamental social change, throughout which the tradition of bark painting provided both a crucial support and a necessary reflection of the shifting histories and fortunes of his remote island situated in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The high profile of Groote Eylandt bark painting has its roots in the past. Like other traditions that developed from rock art, it traditionally had a magical or ceremonial purpose. However a strong aesthetic quality also made an impression on collectors from the earliest times of European involvement on the island. Groote Islanders painted and decorated the inside walls of their bark huts, and because of trade and exchange with Macassan fishermen from Indonesia also had an interest in more secular and self expressive forms of painting. Groote Eylandt is renowned for its several rock painting sites where the imagery relates directly to that found on sheets of bark. The use of a characteristically monochrome black background, with figurative elements described in areas of dots, dashes and hatching, outlined with contrasting red, white or yellow, became known as the old or classic style (emerging in the 1920s).The black ground is obtained from manganese. Groote Eylandt has some of the world's largest deposits of the mineral. Though there are cultural connections and stylistic affinities between western Anindilyakwa people and the Nunggubuyu and Yolngu tribesmen in Arnhem Land, the painting style is markedly distinct from those practiced on the mainland. The first collections of bark paintings from Groote Eylandt were made by the anthropologist Norman Tindale who assembled the first collection in 1921-1922 (now in the collection of the South Australian Museum). Tindale was followed by Frederick Rose from 1938, with the assistance of a white resident of the island and later superintendent of the Umbakumba settlement, Fred Gray. Gray was an entrepreneurial type who sought to encourage local Groote Islanders in bark painting as a means of financial independence from the often restrictive church and government obligations. As a young man, Nandjiwarra visited his father Damandu who was working within the Umbakumba community. Charles Mountford collected his work in 1948 during the American Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land and in the 1950s, the Rev. L.M. Howell commissioned eight sets of narrative paintings from Thomas Nanjiwarra and Bill Namiayangwa (1923-68). Later, Helen Groger-Wurm collected Nandjiwarra's barks in 1969.(these became the National. Gallery of Australia's first major acquisition of Aboriginal art in 1972: comprising four sets of paintings by each artist, seven of which depict narratives in sequential frames). Nandjiwarra's on-going friendship with academics and enthusiasts in the southern cities meant that an appreciative audience began to collect the barks of what became a prolific and sophisticated painting school of which Nandjiwarra was one of its most sought after artists. He went on to produce exquisite and detailed works that combine narrative elements with patterning from the different clan groups to which he was connected through family relations. His animated imagery, and spatially complex pictorial scenes combined totemic animals, Macassan boats, wind spirits and creation beings. During the 1960s and 70s, when this distinctive and celebrated style reached a peak, the advent of manganese mining operations brought a demanding and disruptive influence to the island. Inheriting a leadership role, Nandjiwarra became chief negotiator with the mining companies (BHP, GEMCO). He was intent on protecting his community and environment but was also aware of the need to spend mining royalties in order to move into the new times facing his people. Community meetings were held under the Banyan trees and soon Groote Eylandt became known as a model for other indigenous communities facing incursions from developers. School attendance was at 90% and thriving health centres and housing improvements were put in place.  Meanwhile in 1978, Nandjiwarra was voted chairman of the Aboriginal Cultural Foundation and well-informed and serious collectors from around the world would visit his island to study and buy artworks. Since 2005, an art center and gallery have encouraged Groote artists to rekindle elements of the ‘classic style’, recognising the importance of maintaining the island’s unique cultural identity in the face of modern distractions. The barks of Nandjiwarra remain one of its most distinguished exemplars, featuring centrally in landmark exhibitions such as ‘Creation Tracks and Trade Winds: Groote Eylandt bark paintings from the University of Melbourne Collection’, held in Melbourne in 2007. Author: Sophie Pierce Edited: Adrian Newstead Collections:      Musee des Arts Africans et Oceaniens, Paris, France.; Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin.; Museum of Contemporary Art, Arnotts Collection, Sydney.; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.; Ruhe Collection of Australian Aboriginal Art, U.S.A.; Group Exhibitions: 2002 - Exposition collective, La Loire-Atlantique donne rendez-vous à l’Australie, Art et Culture des Antipodes, Arts d’Australie • Stéphane Jacob / Conseil Général de Loire-Atlantique, Nantes. 1991 - Aboriginal Art and Spirituality, High Court, Canberra. 1989 - Aboriginal Art: The Continuing Tradition, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Bibliography:     Caruana, W., 1993, Aboriginal Art, Thames and Hudson, London. (C); Bush, C.,1990, Explorers to Groote Eylandt, in Pascoe, B., (ed.), 1990, Aboriginal Short Stories, No. 32, Pascoe Publishing, Apollo Bay, Victoria. ; Crumlin, R., (ed.), 1991, Aboriginal Art and Spirituality, Collins Dove, North Blackburn, Victoria. (C) ; Dussart, F., 1993, La Peinture des Aborigines D'Australie, Editions Parentheses, Marseille, France. ; Kupka, K., 1972, Peintres Aborigines d' Australie, Societe des Oceanistes, Musee de l'Homme, Paris. ; Tweedie, P., 1985, This My Country, A View of Arnhem Land, William Collins Pty Ltd, Sydney.

For an artist whose bark paintings first appeared (unsuccessfully) at public auction in 1999 Thomas Amagula's market performance since 2009 has been quite remarkable. In that year he forged his way into the top 200 artists of the movement for the first time leapfrogging more than 200 artists on the back of the sale at Sotheby's of a collection of small barks which netted $132,000 including the buyer's premium. These 17 small barks from the collection of William McE. Miller, Jr, in the USA., thematically explored what happens to a man after he dies on Groote Eylandt. On the back of this one sale alone he became the 83rd most successful artists of all time. By the end of the following year he had reached 80th his highest raking to date. He is now 95th. Prior to this his record price was the $7440 paid at Sotheby's in 2008 for two untitled barks depicting a Pelican story that were originally purchased through the Church Missionary Society. In one, a small boy gets his brother to climb up to collect little pelicans for him. In the next, a man becomes a bird and flies away. This same pair of barks reappeared in Deutscher and Hackett's, Important Aboriginal and Oceanic Art, sale in Melbourne, in March 2010 (Lot No. 99) , this time selling for $15,600, the artist's second highest auction result. Overall, 20 lots have appeared thus far at auction of which 14 have sold for a success rate of 70%. The strong market performance of early bark paintings from Groote Eylandt during the past decade is mirrored in the sales of several formative artists who created works in this style. Paintings by these artists have become highly desirable and average prices paid for fine examples by Nandjwarra and others are likely to continue to rise into the future.

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