Jarinyanu David Downs
Jarinyanu David Downs
1925 - 1995
Available Gallery Artworks
Jarinyanu David Downs was one of those old cowboys who, like Rover Thomas, was born in the Great Sandy Desert in the 1920’s and eventually, toward the end of their lives, settled in the Kimberley region in the North West of Australia. He first moved from his traditional lands to the cattle stations in the 1940s, while still in his early twenties, to join the family of his promised bride. The next twenty years were spent droving cattle as well as occasionally working in the gold mines around Halls Creek. Jarinyanu’s first European boss bequeathed him his European name, David Downs, however when he eventually settled in Fitzroy Crossing, due to its proximity to the Wangkajunga country of his birth, he reverted to using his own real name.
He first began working as an artist after moving to Fitzroy Crossing in the 1960's, decorating boomerangs, shields and coolamons. However it wasn’t until 1980 that he was commissioned to work on paper and canvas, using traditional ochres with natural resins as a binder. These initial works typically were dramatic dark silhouettes against a white acrylic background. Pictorial symbols were used to represent country and, though figures appear, they were merely one element within a larger composition, in contrast to the dominance of the figure in his later paintings. The influence of Christianity could be seen from the outset in many of his earliest works. The United Aboriginal Mission established in the 1950s at Fitzroy Crossing was a powerful presence in the community. As Jarinyanu’s career developed he developed a visual language that expressed his Christian beliefs coupled with a celebration of traditional law. He believed that as god created the natural world, it was perfectly acceptable to pay homage to his creation of the surrounding environment in accordance with its local cultural form. In doing so he created a relationship between Australian Christianity and specific cultural sites, which white Australia had neglected to identify. At the same time, he daringly depicted ancestral beings in human form, visualizing the once unseen Ngarrangkani (Dreaming) ancestors.
The primary vehicle for expressing this two-way religious philosophy was the song cycle of Kurtal, the ancestral rain man. He was born on a distant island and traveled to the Kimberley as a cyclone. As he moved on inland he created places of ‘living water’ (permanent water sources) and visited other rain men, occasionally gaining valuable items from them through trickery and magic. The figure of Kurtal, often depicted with ceremonial headdress, and the participants in ceremonies relating to his story, appear constantly in Jarinyanu’s work. Other than his occasional canvases depicting Christian themes such as Whale Fish Vomiting Jonah 1993 and Jesus Preach’im All People 1986, it is the Kurtal figure that filled canvas after canvas until his death in 1995. Jarinyanu’s success at bridging two such separate cosmologies can be seen as part of a broader tradition of cultural exchange in the Kimberley, predating European contact. However, it is a sign of great triumph that his contact with Christianity did not weaken his commitment to ritual law. He was very conscious of himself as an artist. ‘I’m different’ he would claim, when describing himself. His peers would describe his directness by exclaiming, ‘he’ll tell you right out’ (Kentish 1995: 2)
He had come to terms with the concept of individual fame brought keenly into focus by viewing his own work in art galleries, and the experience of having his portrait painted and hung in the Archibald Prize. His ability to negotiate his way in the white world no doubt had great influence on his success. He was one of three Walmajarri artists at Fitzroy crossing that began painting on canvas through private representation as individual artists. Jarinyanu along with Peter Skipper Jangkarti were represented by Duncan Kentish, whilst Jimmy Pike, whose career began in Fremantle prison in 1980, was represented by Steve Culley and David Wroth of Desert Designs. Individual representation brought many rewards, particularly solo exhibitions in galleries such as Bonython-Meadmore Gallery in 1988, Roar 2 Studios in 1991, Chapman Gallery in 1993, and Ray Hughes in Sydney in 1995, where always resplendent in his white shirt and pants, he was presented as a contemporary artist alongside non-Indigenous artists.
Jarinyanu David Downs enjoyed a highly successful career encompassing sculptural artifacts, painting and a significant body of limited edition prints. He was one of the earliest Aboriginal artists to be individually represented and, at the time of his death, was considered one of the leading lights of the contemporary Aboriginal art movement.
While David Downs’ success cannot be solely attributed to clever representation there is no doubt that he would never have achieved the degree of notoriety and acclaim had he not shared a special relationship with his agent and friend, Duncan Kentish. His unique imagery based on two vastly different religious traditions was conspicuous in galleries in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They first appeared at auction in 1997 when three sold of the four offered and, at their peak, went on to attract lofty prices on the secondary market. By 2001, six years after his death, 27 works had been offered for sale of which 21 had sold for a clearance rate of 78%, however, the story has been dramatically different since that time with his career clearance rate falling to 61% by 2011. In a bullish market, growing exponentially for all but a few major artists, a drop from a success rate of 78% to one of 61% appears to be dramatic. Catastrophic even, if you happen to own a work and want to sell it. While his record price at auction was set in 2000 for Kurtal Lying Down at Muwa 1988 which achieved $36,800 at Sotheby’s against a presale estimate of $18,000-25,000 Lot 121), the large number works that have been passed in at auction indicates clearly that vendors need to be far more realistic in their expectations if they wish to find a buyer. There have been exceptions, but they are extremely rare.
Works featuring distinctly Christian imagery are more unique and less repetitious than paintings depicting Kurtal. Only three of these have been offered for sale at auction and all have sold. Whale Fish Vomiting Jonah 1993, measuring 112 x 137 cm fetched an impressive $14,950 in 1999, its desirability no doubt enhanced by the fact that it was being deaccessioned by the Holmes a Court collection and carried its code number. The two others were very small and sold for $4,800 and $3,600 when offered in Sotheby’s June 2004 sale (Lots 449 and 450). Lawson~Menzies sold a magnificent Ceremonial Shield c.1989 for $18 000 in May 2005 (Lot 8) some three times the estimated price. And in July 2006 Sotheby’s set the artist’s second highest price of $31,200 for a wonderful small work measuring just 91 x 61 cm that had been included in Niagara Galleries’ Blue Chip III collectors exhibition (Lot 91). These exceptions are, however, by and large deviations from the norm. Though good pieces can still receive significant sale prices, works in the medium range have moved little, and re-sales on the secondary market have proved unprofitable. Kurtal with Headdress of Radiating Wuring 1990 sold for $3,600 in 2004, just a fraction higher than its sale price of $3,450 in 1998, despite a significant jump in its estimate from $3,000-5,000 up to $6,000-9,000. This simply underlines the fact that attempts at raising the value on mid-range and high-end works as the years have progressed have been largely met with failure. Dance of Kurtal, which represents the artist's 5th and 6th highest results, depreciated in value by over $3,000 by the time of the second sale four years later, in 2007.
David Downs was a unique and important artist who created a significant body of visually striking works. The relatively poor performance of his works at auction during the boom years 2004-2007 should not put collectors off from expressing interest in his works and buying selected pieces after deliberation. Many good works will be offered at far more reasonable estimates during the next decade. He is not an easy artist to access visually and many seem to find it difficult to discern the magnificent from the mundane. His images are an anomaly, as were Jimmy Pike's, in a region more renowned for lack of figuration. If you have any doubts about your own artistic intuition, then perhaps you are better placing your faith in safer waters, for many other artists are far easier to read.