1930 - 1987
Wanjuk Marika, the eldest son of Mawalan Marika, was motivated throughout his life by an interest in, and understanding towards others along with a determination to use this understanding to fight for and protect his land. The Yolngu people of North-East Arnhem Land had a centuries old tradition of mutually beneficial trade with their Maccasan neighbours who regularly visited from Indonesia. Foreign influence was incorporated into their world-view, as often articulated in their art and mythology. As a young man Wandjuk was one of the first to learn English amongst his Rirratjingu clan, acting as an interpreter between his people and visiting missionaries, anthropologists and explorers.
Arnhem Land had been proclaimed an Aboriginal Reserve in 1931, the year of Wandjuk’s birth, and was already studded with mission stations that were drawing Aboriginal people away from their traditional lands and encouraging them to live a sedentary existence. In the North East, the mission at Yirrkala was established in 1935 and within a year Rev. W.S. Chaseling began encouraging the local the Aborigines to create cultural material, including bark paintings, in exchange for tobacco and other trade goods. The mission authorities actively consulted in commissioning art and artefacts on behalf of visiting anthropologists and collectors, and dispatched these works to museums and marketing outlets in the southern states.
As Wandjuk grew up it seemed to him that the value Europeans attributed to his people’s art indicated that they were concerned for the Rirratjingu’s survival and wellbeing. As a young man he provided a great deal of artwork and knowledge that was to become the material for many influential publications. He took explorers out to remote areas of interest, including the red bauxite sands that later became the centre of the most potent and contentious land rights issue in the Australia’s North East. He thought he was ‘helping out’ but in actual fact, no one gave anything substantial to him or his community. On the contrary, the often exploitative motives of the white ‘Balanda’ soon resulted in very unsatisfactory outcomes for his people indeed.
'I was sort of the leading man‘ he said of these times, ‘because I knew how to operate about the Balanda and talk to them‘ (Isaacs, 1995: 72). Realising his lands were under threat however, Wandjuk turned to fight for them, playing a leading role against the mining giant Nabalco. His understanding of the powerful connection between art and advocacy, by now well developed, became the means of defending his people and striving to keep their culture intact. He played a leading role in the creation of the Bark Petition of 1963, which brought, for the first time in Australia’s history, sacred paintings and ceremonial objects as evidence before the courts to demonstrate ancient and vital connections to the land. During the long struggle for land rights Wandjuk was the main conduit of communication between the elders of the different clans, including his father Mawalan, and the Balanda world.
Destined for leadership of the Rirratjingu, art and ceremony were all-important elements of his life from an early age. His father Mawalan, senior custodian and tribal leader, passed on the sacred knowledge of their lands and religious ceremonies to Wandjuk. The important role of reaffirming cultural tradition and spiritual belief, as well as asserting his people’s fundamental connection to land increasingly under threat from European development, became his driving motivation.
Wandjuk Marika was the custodian of Yalan'bara, the sacred Arnhem Land beach at which the Djan'kawu (Creator Ancestors) first stepped ashore and gave birth to the first people. The Djan'kawu are a brother and two sisters, creators of all Yolngu life, from whom Wandjuk claimed direct lineal descent over many generations as the eldest son of the eldest son. All Yolngu are divided into two groups, Dhua and Yirritja, who intermarry. All Dhua clans throughout Eastern Arnhem Land are descended from the original procreative acts of the Djan'kawu. In his paintings Wandjuk placed figures that elaborated mythological themes amongst the lines and patterns that provided the structure and identified them with a particular place and clan. The Rirratjingu clan design depicts the sun's rays shimmering over the sea, as this is the origin of their ancestral forefathers, the Djankawu. They came by canoe with the rising sun, two sisters and a brother, landing on the beach at Yalangbarra where digging sticks plunged into the sand brought forth springs of freshwater. They traveled across the land creating and naming its features and inhabitants and the two women, already pregnant, gave birth to the original people. Wandjuk painted this story in detail, demonstrating his clan’s ownership of, and connections to, the land at Yelangbarra. Another major epic he painted was the Wagilak Sisters, a moral tale of behavior and its consequences, inscribed in the features of the landscape and the creatures that live there. These creation stories were central themes in his paintings along with those that linked the Munyuku and the Marrakulu clans with the Rirratjingu. Wandjuk had rights to paint certain aspects of Marrakulu imagery, including the use of the clan's design.
In 1975, Wandjuk became chairman of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council. Shocked by secret, sacred designs on tea towels and t-shirts, Wandjuk worked towards and brought in legal recognition of Aboriginal copyright. Regularly called upon to assist in seeking official protection of sacred sites, he was often moved to tears by the loss of acknowledgement and the silencing of ‘the voices’ belonging to the area. ‘The land is full of knowledge‘ he said, grieving that’s its power and story were being too easily forgotten (Isaacs 1995: 142-147). Wandjuk was awarded an OBE by the Australian government and travelled the world as a cultural ambassador, contributing and advising on many projects to do with Indigenous affairs. During his later years, his busy public life began to deplete his energy which he felt still derived power from his spiritual source at Yalangbarra. In 1982, the National Gallery purchased most of the works from an important solo show in Sydney that traced the sacred endowment of his homelands. The proceeds financed his family’s move away from the distracting influences of the township at Yirrkala and back to the sacred beaches of the Djankawu ancestors. Houses were built, freshwater bores were sunk and Wandjuk relished life in the bush once again. He felt there was much learning to pass on to his many children. Although European influence has brought many adaptations and developments to bark painting, the essential designs remain consistent and still serve to teach deeper levels of meaning to his family and people. Wandjuk took ill and died suddenly in 1987. True to his lifelong negotiating role, his works, that grace many galleries and collections all over the world, still speak of his envisioned dialogue between changing worlds.
It is difficult when compiling a list of the most important figures of all time to place those artists whose best works are locked up in institutions. Similarly many artists may have achieved great notoriety for their cultural influence beyond simply their art, or alternatively, may not produce the type of art that is easily bought and sold. Wandjuk is an artist who fits the description of the first two of these three categories. Only 19 of his works have appeared so far in the secondary market and the majority of these have been minor works, with seven of these failing to sell.
Although his barks were included in the first commercial exhibition of paintings by Arnhem Land artists at the David Jones Art Gallery in 1949 the majority were purchased for major collections and included, over the years, in important touring exhibitions both here, in Australia, and overseas. These exhibitions are simply too numerous to mention, as there has hardly been an important exhibition that has included bark paintings in the last 30 years with at least one of his works.
His two highest prices were set for bark paintings sold at Sotheby’s as long ago as 1997 while his fourth, sixth and seventh were set in 1997, 1996 and 1998 respectively. I cannot think of another artist that has a similar record in which the Aboriginal art boom between 2000 and 2007 seems to have completely passed them by. In fact, since 1998 only 12 works have appeared at auction of which no more than one work has sold in any one year other than 2004 when two paintings sold of three offered. However even these were minor works selling for a total value of as little as $2,760.
Wandjuk’s record holding work is Djan’kuwu at Yalan’bara c.1959 which sold for $27,600 at Sotheby’s against a presale estimate of $12,000-18,000. The painting, related to a series of works painted for Dr. Stuart Scougall in 1959, depicting the Djan’kawu with Bowata, the Plains Turkey, the birthing of the Yolngu and milk fish on shore. The decorative in-filled patterning included white dots and cross hatching representing life force, sea foam, and the changing of the tide.
His second highest priced work featured designs representing Rainmaking Snakes and totemic species associated with ‘pay back’. It also significantly exceeded its expectations when sold for $16,100 against an estimate of $7,000-10,000. All of his highest three records were painted between 1958 and 1960, long before the first Western Desert boards were created.
Only one work has been offered twice. A nicely executed untitled bark featuring sand goannas and birds enclosed in tight striated cross hatching and measuring 121 x 39 cm was first offered at Sotheby’s in July 2003 with an estimate of $3,000-5,000 (Lot 343) but failed to sell. It appeared again at Sotheby’s the following July estimated at $2,000-4,000 and although passed in on the night, sold by private treaty the day after the sale for $1,800.
Overall Wandjuk's works have enjoyed a reasonable clearance rate of 71% at an average price of $6,731. Yet he is a far more important figure in Aboriginal art than the mere sales total of $80,775 would imply. While it is unlikely that major works will appear all that often, watch out when they do. Should a really significant piece by this artist appear at any stage I would expect it to more than double his current record.