Ian W. Abdulla
Ian W. Abdulla
1947 - 2011
Ngarrindjeri artist Ian Abdulla lived all his life at Cobdolga, an early irrigation settlement in the Riverland region of South Australia. The township is located beside the Murray River, it’s name a corruption of Cobdogle, the ‘king’ of the local Aboriginal tribe. Abdulla grew up by the swamp, formed when the system of locks changed the river level, a haven for water birds, especially pelicans.
He began painting in the late eighties, a period of cultural renaissance in Cobdolga, due in large to mentorship from art activist and teacher Steve Fox, who had taken an extended break from his role as art adviser at Yirrkala in North East Arnhem Land. Abdulla captured the prevailing mood of his community when he told Steve Fox that he couldn’t draw and that his mob had no culture left. ‘That was just on the surface though’, Fox later recalled, ‘it all changed the more we talked' (Fox 1992: 68). Despite Abdulla’s early misgivings about his creative potential, his work evolved and found an appreciative audience.
Through his painting Abdulla came to relate the simple narrative stories that recorded his recollections of times and deeds that illuminated the life of the local Aboriginal people living in rural poverty. Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, his childhood memories, though simply told, are far from simple and, importantly, are deeply grounded in historical context. It is a perspective that is at once personal and political, though gently so. In time Abdulla became the most successful of the Cobdolga artists. While much of their art was narrative, contemporary and political, Abdulla himself tended away from the overtly political and developed a quieter, more reflective style, which garnered considerable popular attention, and even affection, from the mainstream public.
'I can only paint what I know to be true,' Abdullah said, revealing the sense of authenticity that lends gravitas to his naive painting style. Human figures, tenuous within the painted landscape of mountains, trees, birds and animals, go about their activities integrated within, rather than imposed upon the background. The overall effect is one of continuity between a unique environment and its human inhabitants. Most of his paintings are annotated, and it is the text, centred in the visual forefront of the image, that provides the link between these naive images and the broader historical framework of Aboriginal dispossession and inequity.
Although his work has remained stylistically consistent throughout his career, his final paintings departed somewhat from stories of his childhood to address contemporary issues. The vanished river life is replaced by the modern day hardships of life in Cobdolga; alcoholism, unemployment, violence and prison life. The childlike, figurative narrative delivers these stories simply as ‘truth’, recording events with a certain sense of objectivity and largely without judgement. Prominent attention to background surroundings still conveys the sense that human intention is subject to greater forces. In his painting Here is Where the Angels Carried Me to The Front Step When I Was Walking Around the Mission Looking For a Head Strainer 1999, Abdulla left behind the innocence of childhood and tells an adult story of hope and redemption. For an artist who initially maintained that, ‘In the future my paintings won't change much from what they are today‘ (Murphy 1992: 14), this direction is compelling. The lack of artifice always evident in Abdulla’s work reflected his opinion that what ultimately matters more than anything is that these stories are told.
The sense that Abdulla was a ‘people’s artist’, and was a storyteller creating works for his own community as much as for a wider audience, has sat relatively comfortably alongside his commercial success and artistic recognition. His representation through Paul Greenaway in Adelaide and the Hogarth Gallery in Sydney was stable and enduring, built upon the same deep personal feelings that he imparted so successfully in his art. Over time he came to occupy a unique position within the broader canon of Aboriginal art as a contemporary voice outside of the ‘urban contemporary’ framework.
Ian Abdulla’s work has been recognised in many ways since it gained recognition in the early 1990’s. He was awarded South Australian Aboriginal Artist of the Year in 1991 and an Australia Council Fellowship in the following year. On two occasions he was runner up in the National Indigenous Heritage Art Award and in 1996 he won the General Painting section of the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. His work has been developed into two popular children’s books that deal with social and environmental issues, As I Grew Older 1993 and Tucker 1994; and attesting to his enduring popularity, his life and art were the subject of the play Riverland directed by Wesley Enoch for the Adelaide Festival in 2007. Ian Abdulla passed away in early 2011 leaving behind this great legacy.
Ian Abdulla’s naive narrative paintings have always been popular amongst collectors of contemporary Aboriginal art, as his extremely high success rate implies. It stood at 88% at the end of 2007 and even after several poor years it still stands at 71%. Since his death in 2011, Abdulla’s works are no longer available in the primary market. Paul Greenaway Gallery, Hogarth Galleries and Niagara Galleries held solo shows through the 1990s but since 2003, the secondary market has been the best place to acquire his works and nine of his highest ten results have been achieved since that time.
Canvas works average around $9,000 and works on paper $5,000. Three of his highest ten results were achieved in 2003, a year in which no less than 16 works were offered for sale principally at Sotheby’s and Shapiro Auctioneers. That year not a single work failed to find a buyer, however, neither auction house managed to dislodge the $30,550 record set by Christie's in August 2001 for Putting Sprinklers on Tomatoes at Night (Lot 32). This extremely large work measuring 199 x 273 cm, carrying an estimate of $20,000-30,000, is unlikely to be beaten for some time to come.
Lawson~Menzies managed to create his second highest result when Out at Night Stealing Pumpkins 1999 sold above the high estimate of $12,000 and achieved $16,800 in May 2007 (Lot 153). And Shapiro Auctioneers hold the record for the highest price achieved for a work on paper at $6,600. The majority of Abdulla’s works have sold through Shapiro Auctioneers and Sotheby’s, which between them have generated nearly half of his sales income.
In 2009 Elder Fine Art offered four works at auction, all selling for under the two thousand dollar mark. In part these low prices, well below average, can be attributed to the smallish size of the works, measuring around 60 x 78 cm. However, in May 2003 Untitled (When We Used to Go Camping Down Near Gerard Mission…) measuring just 56 x 76 cm fetched $5,875 for Christie's (Lot 298A). This seeming anomaly is possibly explained by the fact that all were painted during 2008, the year prior to the auction, possibly arriving at auction direct from the artist’s studio. Somewhat tellingly (i) When My Step Brother. Passed Away. . ., 2006. (ii) That Night I Got Pissed 2006, offered by Deutscher and Hackett in 2009, with an estimate of $10,000-15,000 failed to find a buyer.
Although no new records entered his top 10 results in 2015, no less than 23 works were offered for sale of which 14 appeared at Shapiro auctions. Though the highest price achieved was just $3,360 and only 15 of these sold, it was enough to make him the 33rd most successful artist that year against his career standing at 75th.
While it is unlikely that Ian Abdulla’s paintings will dramatically increase in price they are likely to steadily grow in value due to their charm and general appeal plus his relatively small oeuvre. Very few, if any, have been re-offered for sale and this is testimony to the high regard in which they are held. Collectors who prefer unusual narrative contemporary works should consider this ‘outsider’ artist as one who deserves to be recongized for the special insight that he has given into the life of the marginal and dispossessed Aboriginal ‘fringe dwellers’ who grew up along the Murray and many other rivers in the rural regions from Southern Queensland and the Eastern and Southern states.