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Wally Mandarrk

Wally Mandarrk

1915 - 1987

Born around 1915, Wally Mandarrk grew up in south-central Arnhem Land and spent time at Marlkawo near Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek’s country of Kabulwarnamyo. He did not meet a European until 1946 when he began work at a sawmill in Maranboy. He remained by all accounts a private and traditional man, avoiding contact with Balanda (non-Indigenous people). Through the 1960s and 70s he lived at a number of bush camps including one at Mankorlod before establishing Yaymini outstation with his family in remote Arnhem escarpment country. He was a Barabba clan man of the Balang skin group. His art and practice reflects his traditional character. He continued using orchid juice (djalamardi, Dendrobium sp. - orchid) as a binder for his ochres long after bark artists were introduced to PVA glue. One of his bark works in the National Museum of Australia collection, Borlung and Kangaroo (1972-73) was in fact painted for his family on the wall of their bark shelter in the Mankorlod estate.  It was found there by Maningrida art centre manager Dan Gillespie in 1973. In the 1960s he worked with the anthropologist Eric Brandl, who documented a rock painting Mandarrk completed of Bolung (the Rainbow Serpent) in a cave in the Cadell River region around 1965. Mandarrk's works that were painted for sale are distinctive for the simple, stocky outline of his figures, infilled with regular bands of red, white and yellow cross-hatching on a plain red background. This hatching infill is known as rarrk in the Kunwinjku language. His alignment of the diagonal bands of rarrk is often quite uni-directional and vertical, and the extremities of figures and other objects is often filled with more simple parallel rarrk without cross-hatching. Many of his works depict Wayarra (profane ghost or demon spirits) or Mimih (thin, mischevious spirits inhabiting the stone country). For Kunwinjku people, these spirits sometimes form the basis of morality stories, living as they do in a fashion not entirely different from Bininj (Aboriginal people). Mimih spirits in particular are thought to have originated many everyday bush skills which they then passed on to Aboriginal people. In Mandarrk’s work they are often seen gathering food in dilly bags, hunting and playing mako (didgeridoo). As well as appearing in many stories, the existence of these spirits is often the reason certain areas are not visited, usually regarded as dangerous places. Other works by Mandarrk depict animals such as crocodiles, kangaroos and birds as well as the Rainbow Serpent, with influence from rock art styles.    Mandarrk’s works were collected during the 1948 American-Australian scientific expedition to Arnhem Land, and were also bought by the Maningrida art centre in its early days. His works have been included in exhibitions such as Power of the Land: Masterpieces of Aboriginal Art at the National Gallery of Victoria (1994), the international touring exhibition Aratjara - Art of the First Australians (1993-4), Kunwinjku Bim  at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1984-5 and Art of Aboriginal Australia which toured North America in 1974-76.  Wally Mandarrk passed away in 1987. Profile author: Dan Kennedy

In many ways, the performance of Wally Mandarrk's paintings at public auction is a reflection of the changing tastes in Aboriginal art market itself. His works were included in the very first Aboriginal specilist sale held by Sotheby's in 1994. By 2000, when AIAM100 statistics began, Mandarrk was the 38th most successful artist of all time. Since then average prices for bark paintings have been eclipsed by those for urban, desert and Kimberley paintings and many artists from the central and western regions of Australia have risen through the rankings rapidly. So much so that by 2007, at the peak of the market boom, Mandarrk had fallen to 117th in ranking and by 2010 he'd fallen to his nadir at 127th. Since that time however, the fortunes of a number of the bark tradition's most renowned painters have risen with the recent trend toward ethnographic and museological works. By 2014 he was 118th (having been the 61st most successful artist that year). He is fluctuating between 110th and 130th for the foreseeable future due principally to his low average price. His success in 2014 was due to the success of all 5 barks on offer. Nevertheless, his highest price that year was just $2,440, just a fraction higher than his average price of $2,115 at the time. With a record price of just $7475 set as long ago as 2000, and only 3 recorded sales over $5000, Mandarrks barks are eminently affordable. His clearance rate of 54% is an indication that when they carried estimates that are too high, many works have failed to sell. Among these is the untitled image of a spirit figure with a fish trap presented at Sotheby's in July 2009 carrying an estimate of $6000-8000, and the untiled image of a man playing the didgeridu with his wife alongside estimated at $5000-7000 in Sotheby's subsequent November sale that year. Mandarrk was an artist who painted long before the advent of the Aboriginal art 'industry', though he lived to see it burgioning at the time of his death in 1987. Yet a huge tranch of 45 works appeared at Sotheby's in 1998, of which only 14 sold for a total of $36,398 his highest ever yearly total. When 11 of his paintings appeared for sale 15 years later in 2013 it was an entirely different story. Only one failed to find a buyer. All but two of these appeared in the sale of the legendary collection of Clive Evatt. Evatt, who had owed the Hogarth Galleries in Paddington, sold every one of his Mandarrk barks at Bonhams in 2013, with the highest price achieved being $6,100, the artist's second highest recorded price. 2017 represented a great year for the artist, with mossgreen offering 5 works, of which 3 sold for an averag price of $3,802. With of these works selling for 5,208 and making his third highest result at auction, he placed 70th amongst all aboriginal artists that year. Wally Mandarrk painted his simple iconic figurative barks for more than 30 years. Though there are many of them, no Aboriginal art auction seems quite complete without one or two nice examples. They have a natural earthy genuine appeal and are very reasonably priced. As such, they provide time depth and regional diversity to any Aboriginal art collection at an extremely affordable price. 

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