Tommy Skeen Tjakamarra
Tommy Skeen Tjakamarra
1930 - 2001
A Ngardi tribesman, Tommy Skeen was born in his country near Yaka Yaka, c.1930, and grew up in the desert north of Lake McKay before moving to the mission at Balgo Hills and later working in the Kimberley cattle industry. One of the founding painters at Balgo, his early works exhibited marked shifts in palette and an absence of the subdued ochre colours more commonly used by men at the time. While he employed the sacred spectrum of red, black, yellow and white to depict the traces of ancestral beings, these were rendered as vibrant colours juxtaposed with a range of others including lilac, blues and greens. This special colour sense can be seen clearly throughout his work as exampled by Parra Koora near Yakka Yakka in the Great Sandy Desert 1993 and Inargi Dreaming 1992. Parra Koora 1993 depicts a sacred site connected with men’s initiation in which the prominent iconography is depicted in flat colour with boldly defined outlines. The ceremony taking place, and the inter-connected sites, leap from the canvas while the clap sticks, also representing a range of hills, and the U shaped cave where his father, grandfather and great grand father were entombed are visually emphasised by their containment within a blanket of white dotting, which sparkles like stars above the variegated coloured underlay. The interplay between flat colour and field of white dotting heightens the celebratory feel of this and other work by Tommy, in common with those of his wife Millie Skeen and indicates the close collaborative relationship they shared. During their most productive and accomplished artistic period, 1990-1994, they commonly painted together, and alongside one another. At that time many important artistic couples collaborated such as Johnny Mosquito and Muntja, Lucy Yukenbarri and Helicopter Tjunurrayi, and Wimmitji Tjapangarti and Eubena Nampitjin. With the empowerment of these and other important culture women, who associated bright colour with health, well being and allure, Balgo art gained renown for its new found freedom of expression that manifested as a bold and assertive art style. Balgo artists also equated the bright luminosity that the highly charged colours imparted to their paintings with the power of the ancestral beings and the sacred country they created. It is the carnival atmosphere of vibrant colour, errupting upon Tommy Skeen’s canvases as well as their compositional arrangement that define his artistic brilliance. Tommy’s work did not conform to the characteristically formal, linear quality of the predominantly Kukatja men’s art in Balgo Hills at the time. Rather than conceptually composing the formal design elements, his paintings were created organically through a haptic process. As if painted in a reverie they mapped the richly eventful ancestral journeys across the land and the sacred sites in a way that still seems to contain their spiritual essence. Tommy’s Ingari Dreaming 1992, used as the cover image for Wirrimanu, the first major book on Balgo Hills art, written by James Cowan, reflects the country of his conception. There are a number of representational motifs in the work. The U shapes at the bottom symbolize women sitting. The large circle at the top of the painting represents a lake. The trace of his father is seen in a few footprints on the top right. However, this is the minimal literal translation, a shallow skin atop a transcendent reality that the work alludes to. Tommy’s feat of composition is driven by the complexity of all he portrays. Alongside the representational motifs is the cosmological significance of the place of conception. Conception is said to occur where the mother first feels the symptoms of pregnancy and it is here that the unborn foetus is animated by the spirit of a totemic ancestor, whether water, possum, goanna, digging stick, old man. Tommy Skeen was never a prolific artist. At the time he painted, the art centre at Balgo Hills had never assembled solo exhibitions for any of their artists. However, his works were exhibited in good galleries including Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi in Melbourne, Coo-ee Aboriginal Art and the Hogarth Galleries in Sydney and, the now defunct, Dreamtime Gallery on the Gold Coast, all of which represented Warlayirti artists and placed Tommy’s work in good collections in Australia and overseas. His peek period was extremely brief with his very finest works produced between 1990 and 1994. By the time James Cowan encouraged men and women to paint on their own, Tommy’s dexterity was failing. His late career works, while being powerfully distinctive, do not have the finesse of those he created when in the peak of health in collaboration with Millie. Tommy Skeen’s finest works manage to capture, better than almost any other, the mysterious essence and beauty of the numinous landscape that had completely possessed him throughout his life. Although his painting career was brief, his works continue to appeal on a number of aesthetic and sensory levels and who could ever ask for more than that.
While very few paintings by Tommy Skeen Tjakamarra have been presented on the secondary market, his average price is very healthy indeed at $16,392. Of the 14 works that have been offered to date, 12 have sold for a total of $196,704. Only two works have failed and both of these were created in 1995, by which time he was becoming more and more infirm and not producing his best work. Old Man Dying at Walgulli and Barrakurra were offered as lots 259 and 260 in Sotheby’s July 2005 sale. Even with their relative crude execution these two small works, measuring just 99 x 50 cm and 75 x 50 cm respectively, were both appealing, but their estimates may have been a little over ambitious at $10,000-12,000 and $8,000-12,000 respectively. Nevertheless, despite this small blemish, Tommy’s results at auction are impressive for an artist who never had a solo show and whose career went largely unheralded during his lifetime. His highest price was achieved in 2007 when two works appeared at sale. Sotheby’s established the new record in July following the modest result of $8,050 at Lawson~Menzies’ May sale, for Grandfather’s Story 1996, a small late career canvas measuring 89 x 60 cm (Lot 187). In what should be a very good indicator of market sentiment, Yabanu Ngula 1994, which, while a good work, was not one of his very finest, sold for $48,000 carrying an estimate of $15,000-20,000 (Lot 55). The painting depicted a boy’s initiation ceremony replete with visual references to the activities taking place at Parra Koora, the artist’s sacred site north of Lake McKay. This result pushed Tommy’s far superior painting Inargi Dreaming 1992 into second place, after it had achieved $33,460 more than three years earlier at Christie's. Having featured on the cover of James Cowan’s book Wirimanu, and graced the back cover of the Christie's catalogue, its result at the time was a little disappointing given that it sold for just above the low estimate of $30,000. The Christie's sale was held just a few months after Sotheby’s had offered a large selection of works from the Sam Barry collection, the finest concentration of works from Balgo Hills at the time. Sotheby’s catalogue cover featured the most iconic Balgo Hills image ever created; Sunfly Tjampitjin’s magnificent Yapinti-Pinki Dreaming 1991 which set the room alight when sold for $200,250 toward the start of the evening. However the catalogue featured a further 50 Sam Barry works amongst which was Undularra 1993, which set the record for Skeen at the time when sold for $26,350. Its estimate had been just $8,000-12,000 and the result demonstrated clearly the power of provenance in underpinning the value of paintings. Despite the sheer volume of Balgo works offered, collectors were in a frenzy over the ‘Sam Barry Collection’ and spent heavily. All but the most cashed up and die-hard Balgo Hills enthusiasts would have emptied their pockets mid-year, and taken themselves out of the market for the Christie's sale a few months later. Tommy Skeen’s paintings are unlikely to come up at auction all that often, indeed only 4 have appeared since 2007. When they do, however, collectors should sit up and take notice. His best works are extremely good and their rarity should make them highly worthwhile investments. But far and above financial considerations, Tommy was a truly great artist who captured the essence of the remote reaches of the desert and the spiritual depth of its Aboriginal inhabitants. These works are wonderful to live with; take it from someone who knows.
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