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Tjumpo Tjapanangka

Tjumpo Tjapanangka

1929 - 2007

Murtikarlku, Tjapananka, Tjampanangka

At the time of his death in 2007, Tjumpo Tjapanangka was Balgo’s most venerated male artist. Born c.1930, and settled a long distance from his traditional homeland near Karnapilya in the area west of Lake Mackay (Wilkinkarra), he had become the most highly regarded Law Man in the community. In its infancy Balgo was geographically isolated and often cut off from outside contact for three months during the rainy season. The community comprised primarily of Kukatja and Ngadi speakers. Tjumpo’s group, the former of the two, came to Balgo in 1948 when the local priest, Father Alphonse, sent people into the bush with supplies of flour, sugar, and tea to attract the remaining nomadic groups to the mission situated at Tjumantora. The settlement moved to its present site at Balgo Hills in 1962 and expanded, adding new facilities that attracted visits from Warlpiri and Pintupi speakers from Papunya, Yuendemu and Lajamanu, some of whom stayed. Balgo became a melting pot of different tribes, each with accompanying aesthetic and ritual traditions. However, the community remained relatively harmonious and had a less traumatic experience, both internally and in relations with the outside world, than some of the neighboring settlements, where some settlers were moved against their will. This fostered a climate of tolerance that encouraged artistic experimentation and a healthy sense of competition between artists eager to outdo each other and bring something new to the creative process. Each artist was ‘fiercely proud of his or her individual artistic characteristics. They encourage individualism, critisising only when expression is not factual in terms of Aboriginal Law‘ (Acker cited in Hoy 2000: 48). Tjumpo, who had begun painting in 1986 with the establishment of Warlayirti Artists, embraced innovation from the outset. While his earliest paintings were rendered in the customary autumnal colours characteristic of Kukatja work, between 1987-1989 he developed a fluidity of line that initially traced, quite literally, the creek-beds that link the claypans and prominent features of his inaccessible custodial landscape. However, his works of this period were just a precursor to the looser brushwork of paintings that followed, such as Wilkinba Near Lake Mackay 1993 depicting the serpent Miliggi. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s he lived at Yaga Yaga, about 150 kilometers south of Balgo Hills toward his country near Lake MacKay. At this time, when I first met him, he was considered the last of the real bushmen and was the most highly regarded artifact maker in the region. He did not move back to the Balgo Hills community until the Yaga Yaga community was abandoned around 1996. By 2000 Tjumpo’s artistic experimentation culminated in works such as his masterpiece Kukurpungku 2000. The haptic quality of the work’s execution evokes a sensation of images drawn in the sand with one’s fingers. It reminds us of the relative infancy of acrylic painting in comparison with the ancient practice of sand drawing. Tjumpo’s manner is heavily influenced by this and other earlier traditions. Even his tendency towards minimalism is informed by the Kukutja’s iconic preoccupation with the marks or traces left on the land, rather than representing the motif’s themselves. In opting to employ simpler forms to depict the numinous landscape, Tjumpo’s influence spread to other artists and has come to epitomize the transformation that has run through Balgo art since the mid 1990’s. His own works were characterised by subdued linear patterns rendered in cream and yellow with a sparse application of vital elements in red, adding a vibrancy that enabled him to hint at the elemental forces within his sacred country. This minimalism, often restricting Tjumpo’s iconography solely to undulating lines is reminiscent of the Pintupi creative approach. Though Tjumpo’s work, like that of other Kukatja artists, is distinctly less formal than that of the Pintupi, this aesthetic overlap is nevertheless significant. During his career Tjumpo made occasional visits to Kiwirrkura to stay with his countrymen and, on visits such as those in 1999 and 2004, he painted for Papunya Tula artists. During his final years, Tjumpo painted a number of works on a scale that enabled him to achieve that sense of grandeur seen in the large-scale works of a number of his Pintupi contemporaries. It is indeed a pity that artist’s of his ability and stature have not been given greater opportunities to work in large scale as there is no doubt that he was capable of painting great masterpieces. In both his art and his personal demeanour, Tjumpo Tjapanangka affected an infectiously vivacious and animated style. It is this energy and confidence that he employed to build the resonating planes that characterized his finest works and brought such critical acclaim. His wife Ningie Nangala shared his preference for softer colours, and to some extent this aesthetic can be seen in the more recent paintings created by his stepdaughter, Elizabeth Gordon, to whom he passed on a number of his Dreamings.

Tjumpo Tjapanangka painted for almost twenty years, though he was never considered one of Warlayirti’s major male artist’s until late in his life, by which time most of the older men could no longer paint or had passed away. His most productive and successful period was during his last five years, when he and Helicopter Tjungurrayi had become the male mainstays of the art centre. While he painted very few large-scale works, and even paintings greater than 120 x 180 were rare, he did manage to complete one or two that measured up to three metres in length. These sold for as much as $40,000 in galleries when they were available between 2005 and the year he died. Mirroring the prices for his works in the primary market, his prices at auction rose as his painting style developed. His record price was set in 2015 when Walartu 2003, a work measuring 120 x 180 cm, sold at the Deautscher & Hackett sale of the Laverty Collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney for $78,000. Another work of the same size achieved $20,400, his 6th highest price ever, in that same sale. These results in a year that saw four of the 6 works on offer find new homes resulted in Tjumpo being the 30th most successful artist that year.  The new record price in 2015 displaced the former record that was set for a subtly toned and beautifully executed work in his most contemporary style rendered in 2000.  The painting, Kukurpungku 2000,  measured 180 x 119 cm and sold for $40,450 at Sotheby’s in July 2005 (Lot 247) a price that was well over its estimate of $25,000-35,000.  In November 2007 Wati Kutjarra 2003, which had been sold through Tineriba Gallery in South Australia, was offered for sale by Lawson~Menzies. (Lot 46). The work depicted the place where the ancestral brothers lit a large fire before Wilkinkarra (Lake MacKay) was formed. It was a wonderful example of the artist's late career work with the red lines indicating the intensity of the flames and the yellow and white tali (sandhills), which dominate this country. The painting was estimated at $40,000-50,000, but despite its brilliant execution sold for just $34,800, still the artist’s third highest price to date. Another late career painting Untitled 2004, painted for Papunya Tula Artists, failed to sell in Joel Fine Art’s June 2007 auction (Lot 49) even though its estimate was only $8,000-12,000. Funnily enough, the only other work offered with Papunya Tula Provenance by this artist also failed to sell. When put up by Sotheby’s in November 2005, the work measuring just 91.5 x 60.5 cm and carrying a presale estimate of $1,500-2,500, was not illustrated in the auction catalogue that carried another two works by the artist including a 1994 rendition of his Kangaroo Dreaming. Both of these failed to raise interest from collectors, yet, when Kangaroo Dreaming 1994 originally estimated at $8,000 by Sotheby’s turned up at Lawson~Menzies in June the following year, it did finally find a new home after being purchased for $6,000 (Lot 480). Tjumpo’s paintings with Tingari designs or those painted in a multitude of colours tend to fare poorly at auction, particularly if the overall image is bright or lacking in subtle colour shifts that oscillate between his linear striations. Tastes may change, however, brightly painted classic  Balgo works are currently out of favour even by major artists like Tjumpo. His works fared poorly in 2007 with four of the five paintings offered remaining unsold and this resulted in a drop in his overall success rate from 64% to 59% where it remained at the end of the following year. In fact, his clearance rate at the end of 2004 had been a very much more impressive 92%. However only three sold of 11 in 2004 and his results on the secondary market took a nosedive coinciding with his elevation as the most sought after male living artist at Balgo Hills and the art centre’s reliance on the sale of his works in the primary galleries. This has changed now that he has passed away and his works are no longer available on the primary market. I would not expect to see too many surprises with Tjumpo Tjapanangka’s early works at auction unless they represent the artist at his finest. The majority of his paintings will never be as important as those by Wimmitji, Sunfly Tjampitjin, Sam Tjampitjin and a number of others. However, when fine examples of his late career works appear, I would expect collectors to pay a premium, as they have a distinctive contemporary aesthetic and are on a par with anything created by the Papunya Pintupi male artists of the period.   

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