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Willie Ryder Tjungurrayi
Willie Ryder Tjungurrayi
Willie, Willie Gibson, Willie Ryder, Ngitjita
Despite his reputation as a major figure in the Central Desert art movement, Willy Tjungurrayi did not move to Papunya from his birthplace, Patjanta, until his late 30’s, several years after Geoff Bardon had departed the community. He came in from the desert as part of a large group led by Charlie Tarawa and his camels, and was trucked across to Papunya with most of the other residents of Haasts Bluff when that community was disbanded. Willy Tjungurrayi only began painting for Papunya Tula in 1976 after returning from a trip to the Western Desert sponsored by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal studies. He moved during the 1970’s between a number of Western Desert communities including Yayayi, Waruwiya and Ilyilingi finally settling in Kintore where he lived from the early 1980’s until 2003. One of three brothers born of the same father of whom Yala Yala Gibbs is the eldest and George Ward is the youngest, Willy raised Joseph Jurra Tjapaltjarri while living at Kintore within this close family group. Here he continued painting the delicate classic Pintupi grids of interconnecting rondels and Dreaming tracks that dominated his works throughout much of the 1980’s and 1990’s. These early to mid career paintings are more cartographically detailed and ethnographically specific than those he produced from 2000 onward and have been noted to embody a vibrancy that makes the 'eye dance over glowing surfaces that appear to be in perpetual motion' (Neale 1994: 70). One such work with intricate interconnecting webs of Dreaming tacks is one of his earliest, Pulpayella, created in 1976. This and other early paintings depict the sites where large groups of men gathered in the formative period establishing the song cycles, ritual procedures and ceremonies that are considered secret and sacred amongst Pintupi men to this day. During the mid 1990’s, after having been exposed to Western culture for some time, Tjungurrayi began creating paintings that married individual artistic expression with ceremonial visual traditions. He, along with George Tjungurrayi, is often cited as an artist whose more recent works are ‘distinct poetic abstractions’ in which the meanings can differ or simply do not count (Petitjean 2000: 599). This is especially so of the seemingly abstracted visceral lines of works in which duo-chrome images on a black background exhibiting delicate colour transitions and thereby creating an hypnotic wavering rhythm across the canvas. Though these works still make reference to the Tingari ancestor’s travelling over vast stretches of country, the symbolism is far less tangible than in his earlier works. Hail Storm at Kaakurantintja 2002 tells of a large group of Tingari Men who travelled to this site in mythical times only to be killed by a fierce hailstorm. The painting, of oscillating linear white dots on a subdued ochre brown background, creates a textured surface evidencing a 'highly individual visual language used to convey his vision of the landscape through which the Tingari travelled' (Petitjean 2000: 599). Willy Tjungurrayi’s paintings have been exhibited and collected widely in Australia and overseas. While his 1980’s works have fallen out of favour along with those of many of his male counterparts in the Central and Eastern Deserts, his more individually distinct works of the last decade have played an important part in fuelling the growing market aesthetic for more abstracted contemporary Aboriginal painting. In 2000 he had his first solo exhibition at William Mora Galleries in Melbourne and in 2002 a second solo show with Gabrielle Pizzi. Since that time he has acted independently of Papunya Tula, painting only for the company when living in Kintore. On his frequent visits to Alice Springs he paints for a number of dealers most notably Tony Mason for whom his brother George Ward also works regularly. His recent success has been intimately connected to the spotlight placed on the output from the Papunya Tula artists following the exhibition and catalogue Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, as well as the number of galleries that currently access his work through a variety of other sources.
Despite a career spanning 30 years, Willy Tjungurrayi’s works have not faired well on the secondary market. He has been a prolific painter during the last decade and the availability of his works in the primary market has definitely adversely affected his auction prices and clearance rate. Despite his towering presence in the primary market during the last decade, his success rate at auction is a lowly 42%. Interestingly, the book Papunya Tula - Genius and Genesis published in 2000, which is held largely responsible for the recent succuss of Papunya Tula art in the market, featured only one work by this artist along with several large men’s works on which he collaborated. His one solo work was a large Tingari image painted in his mid 1980s style that today seems dated in comparison to his later works. The omission of more recent work was clearly due to the fact that by this time the artist was already painting for a number of independent dealers in Alice Springs, most notably Chris Simon (Yanda Art) and Tony Mason, for whom many of his best works of this later period were painted. Despite this there is little doubt that Papunya Tula provenanced works will continue to sell for a premium in the short to medium term, as evidenced by his highest recorded price to date. Hail-Storm at Kaakuratintja 2002, sold in 2005 for $59,250. However this work was large (153 x 183 cm) in comparison to his stylistically similar painting Tingari Cycle, 2002, 122 x 122 cm, which had been created for one of the independent dealers in Alice Springs that sold for $26,400 at Lawson Menzies in 2004. This painting was estimated at just $7,000-$9,000 yet the numerous bidders, in what seems to be an increasing trend, clearly valued the quality of the painting over its inferior provenance. There has been a clear preference for paintings produced since 2000, along with those created prior to 1982. While 12 of the 18 works offered between 2001 and 2004 sold for a clearance rate of 66% his clearance between 2005 and 2008 dropped to 42% with only 22 of 52 works finding new homes. In 2008 alone, with only three works selling of the 10 presented at sale, his career success rate fell by 2% to just 48% despite the fact that his career average price went up slightly. It did so on the back of the sale of two works that both sold for $14,400. Interestingly, the larger measured 122.5 x 182.5 cm and carried Papunya Tula provenance while the smaller 102 x 112 cm work had been originally sold through Hank Ebes’ Aboriginal Gallery of Dreamings in Melbourne who had purchased it from Chris Simon. The tighter, more formulaic work was typical of his paintings for Papunya Tula in the late 1990s while the larger freer work exhibited the more expressive style of his post 2004 paintings. 2009 had some strong sales, though only three of seven sold, all three reached impressive figures, at their highest $48,000 for Tingari Painting. Few major works have been presented since. In 2015 for instance 5 of the 8 works on offer sold , but there was not a major painting amongst them and his highest price recorded for the year was just $2,300. Of the 20 works that went to auction between 2016 and 2017, only 6 sold. The only notable sale in this time was the 181 x 151 cm Kaakuratintja (Lake Macdonald), 2003, which sold for $18,300 in the sale of works from the prominent American Luzco Family Collection through Deutscher and Hackett – the work had PT provenance. During the last five years Willy Tjungurrayi has produced a number of masterpieces both for Papunya Tula and for independent dealers. There is no doubt whatsoever that his works are equally good regardless of the dealers he works with. Non-Papunya Tula paintings sell in the primary market for prices equal to, or better than, his best results so far at auction and it is likely that a number of these will be considered his masterworks in the future. I would expect original source provenance to become less important than the impact and quality of the painting itself, as time progresses.
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